Account on unknown doctors
during the Empire who later
became famous (1st part)

by Xavier Riaud(*), FINS, medal of honor from INS


Numerous doctors lived through the Empire. In the course of it, those men started medical studies and acquired fame but for most of them, they became famous much later as they remained too often in their masters’ shadow. Laënnec, Dupuytren and Bichat were no exceptions. Laënnec was Corvisart’s student and the inventor of the stethoscope. Dupuytren was Pelletan’s and Beguin’s student who only started surgery in his late years and who was present during the modified and weakened Great Army’s last campaigns. As for Bichat, he was the archetypal example. He died in 1802 when he was 30 years old. By then, he was already a legend in the medical world and he remained so posthumously. His work might have influenced the medical reform which followed his death via the precepts he had given out. Other doctors, who were recognized for their merit, had more subordinate roles.

Thus, to be complete in my study of napoleonic medicine, I decided to devote those doctors brief biographical notes which are not exhaustive. Given their respective works, it would be improper for me not to quote them. Even though the napoleonic era was not theirs, it still saw them gaining first-hand experience and sometimes, moments of fame.

Le Caducée




In 1775, Jean Louis Baudelocque (1745-1810) published a book entitled Principes sur l’art d’accoucher (Principles on the art of delivery) which is a fundamental book for pregnant women. Then, he was appointed member of the Royal Academy of Surgery in 1775. In 1776, he became master surgeon. He helped Marie-Antoinette to give birth to her second and third children. In 1781, he published his second reference book that he entitled Art des accouchements (Art of deliveries). He advocated the use of forceps, pubiotomy, symphyseotomy and caesarean section. He became the second chairman of obstetrics, a position created in 1798 at the Ecole de Santé in Paris. He was also appointed professor in surgery in La Maternité. He held the same position in the maternity ward that he founded in Port-Royal. His lectures were very popular because they were conscientious and clear. The reputation of his skills as obstetrician led his hospital to welcome a lot of patients who came from very far to be treated by him. In 1802, the Midwifery School which had just opened its doors applied his educational program. In 1804, he was accused of infanticide and was tried. He won the trial. In 1806, Napoleon appointed him chairman of the obstetrics, the first chair of medical specialty in France. He was considered the greatest obstetrician of his time. He helped the Queens of Spain, Holland, Naples to give birth as well as the major part of the ladies of the court. As he was succesfully performing the difficult exercise of caesarean sections, he was asked to help the Empress Marie-Louise to give birth to her child but as he was suffering from a stroke, he could not attend the King of Rome’s birth. Baudelocque’s pelvimeter measuring the diameter of the bedpan and Baudelocque’s forceps became famous as far as the USA. He died in 1810 and after numerous peregrinations, he was finally burried in Père-Lachaise cemetary. Thanks to him, obstetrics became a scientific discipline in its own right (Dupont, 1999 ; Gourdol (a), 2010).



Upon his death, Corvisart said to Bonaparte : "Bichat just died when he was 30 years old; he came upon a battlefield which required bravery and which made a lot of victims. He expanded the field of medical science; no-one at his age had done so many things and so well (Lemaire, 2003)."

Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) began his medical studies in Lyon, under the wing of Antoine Petit, a famous doctor. In 1793, he ended his studies in Paris. As he attracted a lot of attention, he became professor in 1797 and was appointed doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu in 1800. He undertook significant researches on anatomy which led him to publish major works, but which also wore him out. In 1802, he fell down some stairs which immediately killed him. He is considered as the founding father of modern histology and as one of the reformers of medicine under the Empire even though he died before this was officially declared. He left behind him four fundamental works: Traité des membranes (1800) (Treaty on membranes), Recherches sur la vie et la mort (1800) (Researches on life and death), Anatomie générale appliquée à la physiologie et à l’anatomie (1801) (General anatomy applied to physiology and anatomy) and Anatomie descriptive (Descriptive anatomy)in 5 volumes (1801-1803) (Thiébaud, 1974).



Louis Jacques Bégin (1793-1859) was born in Belgium. In 1808, he began his medical studies following an old doctor’s wise advice who was immediately challenged by the young man’s observation and skills. On March 1812, Bégin was appointed "chirurgien-sous-aide" in the Elbe’s first corpse of observation. He was involved in the Russian campaign (1812) where he put his practical and surgical knowledge to the soldiers’ disposition. He was attached to the Imperial Guard’s ambulances. Larrey hesitated a long time to enlist him in his service because he rode a scrawny horse. Finally, Dominique Larrey accepted him and Bégin was present in Lutzen, Dresde and Leipzick. Moreover, he was involved in the French campaign and treated wounded soldiers in Waterloo. After that terrible battle, he was dismissed. Later on, he was reintegrated and transfered to the instruction hospital of Strasbourg where two years in a row, he received the first prize of surgery for his works. There he successively took the chair of surgery and surgical medicine. After the Empire, he received many diplomas and titles. On February 1823, he became doctor of medicine. Then, he was appointed surgeon-major in 1832, member of the health council of the armies in 1842, chairman of the Academy of medicine in 1847. At the end of his career, he received the great honor of being Napoleon III’s surgical advisor in 1853 (Cren, 2009).



François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772-1838) undertook a short surgical apprenticeship in 1791. In 1792, he enlisted in the 1st company of grenadiers from the Northern Coasts. In 1793, offended by the violent acts committed in Vendée, he demanded to work as a surgeon. After a dysentery episode, he undertook an apprenticeship in the hospitals of Saint-Malo and Brest. He took on board many warships before getting a position of 3rd class medical auxiliary and surgeon-major on that of Robert Surcouf. In 1799, his name was crossed off the list of the Navy’s executive officers. Hence, he went to Paris to finish his medical studies. He became Pinel’s and Corvisart’s student who taught him anatomy and surgery. He defended his Phd thesis in 1802. His independent practice being a failure, he once again enlisted in the army upon Desgenettes’s recommandations. Thus, he was part of all the campaigns and Larry who really appreciated his behaviour had him appointed as chief doctor of the Spanish army. In 1814, as he came back from his Spanish journey, Desgenettes allowed him to become assistant professor in the military hospital of the Val-de-Grâce and inspector of military medicine. There, his nickame was "the Val-de-Grâce’s Napoleon" or "the Mirabeau of medicine". It was in this hospital that he postulated that fever was not a disease but a symptom of inflammation. In 1820, as Desgenettes was leaving his occupation, Broussais was promoted to chief doctor of the Val-de-Grâce. On that same year, he joined the Academy of Medicine. In 1831, Broussais was appointed professor of general pathology and treatment in the former Faculté de médecine de Paris. In 1832, he was elected as member of the Academy of Sciences. When cholera occured in 1832, his incompetence was proved. He also was editor-in-chief of Annales de la médecine physiologique (Annals of physiological medicine), a medical field of which he wanted to be the forerunner. He was a prolific author and after having met Gall, Phrenology’s staunch advocate, Broussais founded the Phrenological Society. He died of rectal cancer in 1838. As he was a faithful supporter of Republican ideas and of the Empire, his accomplices organized him a spectacular burial.

And yet, many complained about Broussais’s temper. It was said that his violent hatred and dictatorial behaviour had always forced him to think he was right even though his ideas were sometimes unscrupulous. He often upheld reactionary precepts since he advocated the return of leeches in medicine, poultices, lints used without any asepsis and hygiene which resulted to the death of thousands of people with suppurating wounds. All this added to his narcissism devoid of any basic modesty and his emphatic prose led D’Aremberg to say: "Napoleon decimated France, Broussais bled it dry. " Under his impetus, medicine had become a scourge as dreadful as war (Dupont, 1999 ; Gourdol (b), 2010). 



François Chaussier (1746-1828) went to Paris to study medicine and attended the Collège royal de Chirurgie between 1765 and 1767. In 1768, he became master in surgery and settled in Dijon. In 1774, following the decision of the States of Burgundy, he was appointed as Guyton-Morveau’s assistant at the chair of chemistry. In 1786, he was appointed second professor of chemistry. During the public session of April 10 1777, he received a gold medal from the Academy of Surgery for his valuable communications. At the same time, he defended his Phd thesis in medicine in Besançon on January 14 1780. In 1784, he became the correspondent of the Société Royale de Médecine (Royal Society of Medicine) and was admitted to Dijon’s Academy of Sciences, Arts and belles-lettres. In 1790, he proposed a project which aimed at reforming medicine but it was not followed up. In 1793, he was appointed doctor in the Hospices of Dijon, then surgeon of prisons. In 1794, Fourcroy was given the responsibility of refounding medicine and its instruction by the National Convention. He joined the Committee of public instruction. Chaussier wrote and read his report that he presented to the National Convention on November 27, 1794. He notably proposed the creation of a unique Central School of Health which was built in Paris. With Fourcroy’s help, other similar schools in Montpellier and Strasbourg were eventually created. The decree was effective on December 4. Upon his arrival in Dijon, he was immediately convened in Paris to take the chair of anatomy and physiology at the Ecole de Santé. When the Ecole polytechnique was created, he joined Berthollet to assist him during his lectures. On May 9 1804, he officially became a chief obstetrician at the Maternité in Paris. He also presided over medical panels of judges for the examination of health officers, apothecaries and midwives at the Paris Faculty of Medicine.

In 1815, after the collapse of the Empire, he left his position as doctor of the Ecole polytechnique but remained permanent chairman of the Faculty of Medicine until November 21 1822, when the restructuring of the Faculty of Medicine took place during the Restauration. Henceforth, his chair was confiscated and he acquired the rank of honorary professor. An apoplectic fit paralyzed him on one side. Despite everything, he kept his prerogatives at the Maternité. On May 6 1823, he was elected as a member of the Académie des sciences (Dubois, 1850 ; Dupont, 1999).



Paul Gabriel Lepreux (1739-1816) was chief doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu. He held this position until his death. From 1806, he was mentioned in the imperial almanacs and was the Emperor’s consultant doctor. He was Corvisart’s great friend and chaired the first competitive examination for the internship of the hospitals in Paris (Lemaire, 1992 & 2003).


Leroux des Tillets

Jean-Jacques Leroux des Tillets (1749-1832) became regent doctor of the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1776. He did not hesistate to show his wish to reform medical studies. In 1790, he was the administrator of public institutions. In 1789, he was city councilman of Paris. In that capacity, he negotiated with the rioters whereas he had just imposed the martial law. On August 10, he provided his services to the royal family which allowed the family to get back to the Assembly, safe and sound. For that matter, he was sentenced to death. He fled with a friend and only returned to the capital after the Reign of Terror. There, as a staunch advocate of medical examination and auscultation which were the ideas of Corvisart whom he was very close to, he was appointed Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Ecole de Santé and Corvisart’s assistant in the Charité. In 1823, he was given the title of Honorary professor. In 1805, he was appointed clinical professor.

In 1810, he became the dean of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and remained so until 1822. Upon that date, he was dismissed for his ideas which were thought to be too liberal. He was reinstated in 1830.
In 1814, a few days before Napoleon’s abdication, he asked his students to take up arms to push back the invader. They refused. Faithful to his ideas of preventive medicine, he undertook to fight against typhus that the retired French troops brought back with them. It was a great success since only 200 people died of this disease in the capital.

He died of cholera in 1832 (Lemaire, 1992 & 2003 ; Dupont, 1999).



Alphonse Leroy (1742-1816) ended his medical studies in Paris. He graduated as regent doctor in 1768. In the maternity ward of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, Sigault and him carried out their first symphysiotomy on a parturient who was going through her fifth pregnancy. To thank them, the Paris Faculty of Medicine had a medal striken in their honor and appointed them professors of delivery. In 1798, he received one of the two chairs of obstetrics which had just been created, the second was given to one of his major rivals, Baudelocque. A prolific author, he published many works on motherhood and pregnancy. He was murdered by a servant whom he had fired a few days earlier (Kottek, 1996 ; Dupont, 1999).



Cren Maurice, Louis Jacques Bégin, carabin de l'Empire [Louis Jacques Bégin, a medical student of the Empire], Glyphe (ed.), Paris, 2009.

Dubois E. F., Histoire des membres de l'Académie de médecine [Historical account on the members of the Académie de médecine], Paris, 1850, pp. 45-102.

Gourdol Jean-Yves (a), « Jean-Louis Baudelocque (1745-1810), médecin accoucheur » [Jean-Louis Baudelocque (1745-1810), obstetrician], in, 2010, pp. 1-3.

Gourdol Jean-Yves (b), « François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772-1838), médecin militaire français » [François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772-1838), a French military doctor], in, 2010, pp. 1-3.

Lemaire Jean-François, Napoléon et la médecine [Napoleon and medicine], François Bourin (ed.), Paris, 1992.

Lemaire Jean-François, La médecine napoléonienne [Napoleonic medicine], Nouveau Monde/Fondation Napoléon (ed.), Paris, 2003.

Dupont Michel, Dictionnaire historique des Médecins dans et hors de la Médecine[Historical dictionary of the Doctors inside and outside Medicine], Larousse (ed.), Paris, 1999.

Kottek S., « A. LeRoy et la protopédiatrie du début du 19e siècle » [A. LeRoy and "proto-pediatrics" at the beginning of the 19th century], in Vesalius, 1996 ; II (1) : 26-33.

Percy Pierre-François, Éloge historique de M. Sabatier, (...) suivi du Rapport des travaux de la Faculté de médecine de Paris pendant le cours de l'année 1811 [Mr Sabatier’s historical praises, (…) followed by a Report on the works of the Paris Faculty of Medicine during 1811],Imprimerie de Didot jeune, Paris, 1812, public session of the Paris Faculty of Medicine on November 27 1811.

Thiébaud Jean-Marie, Vie et Oeuvre de Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) [Marie François Xavier Bichat’s life and work (1771-1802)], Doctor of Medicine thesis, U.F.R. Médecine Besançon, 1974.




(*) Dental Surgeon, Doctor in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and national associate member of the National Academy of Dental Surgery.