Astruc, Jean

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Astruc, Jean

(b. Sauve, Gard, France, 19 March 1684; d. Paris, France, 5 May 1766)


Astruc was the son of a Protestant clergyman who probably had Jewish ancestors who chose to renounce their religion rather than leave France. After receiving a doctorate in medicine at Montpellier in 1703, he temporarily occupied Pierre Chirac’s chair of medicine in 1706. He passed the competitive examination of the Faculty of Medicine of Toulouse in 1711, and then returned to Montpellier to occupy the chair of medicine of Jacques Chastelain from 1716 to 1728, at which time he became general physician to the duke of Orleans. In 1720 he received a pension from the king and in the following year was named inspector general of the mineral waters of Languedoc. In 1729 Astruc became the chief physician of Augustus II of Poland, and he was named municipal magistrate of Toulouse in 1730. In that same year he became the king’s counsellor and physician, and in 1751 he occupied E. F. Geofl’roy’s chair of pharmacy at the College Royal.

In 1743 Astruc was elected regent doctor of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris, the first time that this exceptional honor was awarded to a doctor from a provincial medical school—despite the fact that the statutes of the university forbade it. This honor was followed by a second one, that of having his bust placed in the amphitheater of the Faculty. These honors were a recompense for his constant fight against his two enemies, the surgeons and the variolisateurs (users of a primitive form of vaccination against variola), as well as for his assiduous attendance at meetings. He died after twenty-three years in Paris, years made painful by a tumor of the bladder that Georges de la Faye, a member of the Academic de Chirurgie, perforated with a metal probe in order to overcome chronic retention of urine.

Astruc was a born teacher, extremely methodical and clear in his instruction. In a series of courses lasting six years he covered all phases of medicine: anatomy, physiology, psychology, gerontology, pathology, therapy, venereology, gynecology, neurology, and pediatrics. Even in American libraries there are manuscript copies of these carefully prepared and highly appreciated courses; during Astruc’s lifetime some of them were used for editions printed without his knowledge in England, Switzerland, and Holland. His works were translated into English and German and were widely known in Europe. An iatrochemist and iatrophysicist, Astruc had no personal doctrine. His philosophy, influenced by Descartes and Malebranche, was only mildly opposed to the cold reason of Locke. His place in the history of medicine was somewhat behind Haller, Morgagni, and Boerhaave, rather than ahead of them.

Although a mediocre practitioner, Astruc was a scientist of note, a solitary and erudite scholar who often worked through the winter nights until three in the morning, without a fire in the library. Among his several thousand volumes were many works on theology, history, geography, and literature. He called this his “militant life.” Around 1730 Astruc began to frequent the mansion of Mme. de Tencin, who was a patient. The famous hostess was helpful in arranging the marriage of Astruc’s daughter to Daubin de Silhouette and also remembered him in her will. For some time Astruc, Bernard de Fontenelle, Pierre Marivaux, Jean de Mairan, the Marquis Victor de Mirabeau, Claude de Boze, and Charles Duclos were considered the seven sages of Mme. de Tencin’s salon.

In his Traité sur les maladies des femmes (1761) Astruc described septicemia caused by uterine infections and puerperal fever, ovarian cysts, tuba] pregnancies, abdominal pregnancies, and lithopedions, of which he reported four cases. He advised operating on extrauterine pregnancies, and the use of Caesarean sections only in emergencies.

In 1743 Astruc compared the transformation of an impression or sensation into a motor discharge to a ray of light reflected on a surface; he called it reflex. He thus had an intuition of reflex action, which was described in 1833 by Marshall Hall.

Astruc’s best-known work is his treatise on venereology, De morbis venereis, the fourth French edition of which (1773–1774) contains “Dissertation sur l’origine, la dénomination, la nature et la curation des maladies vénériennes à la Chine,” in which for the first time Chinese medical terminology was reproduced in an Occidental work in correctly printed Chinese characters.

His family background led Astruc to consider the exegesis of the Old Testament as one of the elements of his personal inner life. This work appeared as Conjectures sur la Genèse (1753), in which the different names of God (Elohim or Jehovah) gave him the key to dating various parts of the Bible. Both Catholic and Protestant theologians frowned on these discoveries, for they were incapable of appreciating Astruc’s quick mind, his constructive criticism, and his remarkable philological knowledge. Now, after more than two centuries of discussion of these ideas, often minute and often passionate, historical criticism always comes back to them. It still cannot be proved that the thesis is true, but Astruc’s conception is in line with our present knowledge and, according to Lods, gives the best account of the formation of Jewish historiography. Sir William Osler judged the Conjectures worthy of inclusion in his Bibliotheca prima as a remarkable example of scientific criticism.


I. Original Works. The complete bibliography of Astruc’s works has been drawn up by Janet Doe (see below). The principal items are De motus fermentativi causa (Montpellier, 1702); Responsio critica animadversionibus F. R. Vieussens in traciaturn de causa motus fermentativi (Montpellier, 1702); Dissertatio physico medica de motu musculari (Montpellier, 1710); Mémoire sur la cause de la digestion des aliments (Montpellier, 1711); Traité de la cause de la digestion... (Toulouse, 1714); Epistolae Joannès Astruc quibus respondetur epistolari dissertationi Thomae Boerü, de concoctione (Toulouse, 1715); Dissertatio de ani fistula (Montpellier, 1718); De sensatione (Montpellier, 1719); Dissertatio medica de hydrophobia (Montpellier, 1720); Quaestio medica de naturali et praeternaturali judicii exercitio (Montpellier, 1720); De phantasia et imaginatione (Montpellier, 1723); Cinq lettres contre les chirurgiens (Paris, ca. 1731); De morbis venereis libri sex (Paris, 1736, 1738, 1740), translated into French by Augustin Jault with notes by Antoine Louis (Paris, 1743; 4th ed., 1773–1774); Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle de la province du Languedoc (Paris, 1737); An sympathia partium a certa nervorum posilura in interno sensorio (Paris, 1743); Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux... de la Genèse (Paris, 1753); Traité sur l’immatérialité et l’immortalité de l’âme (Paris, 1755); Doutes sur l’inoculation de la petite vérole, proposés à la Faculté de Médecine de Paris (Paris, 1756); Traité des tumeurs et des ulcères (Paris, 1759); Traité sur les maladies des femmes (Paris, 1761; 1765); L’art d’accoucher (Paris, 1766, 1771); and Mémoire pour servir ici l’histoire de la Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier (Paris, 1767).

II. Secondary Literature. Writings on Astruc are P. Astruc, “Une bibliothèque médicale au XVIIIèmesiècle,” in Progrès médicale, 2 (1934), 94–95; Louis Barbillion, “Un ancien syphiligraphe,” in Paris médical, 52 (1924), 196–198; C. S. Butler, “Hero Worship and the Propagation of Fallacies,” in Annals of Internal Medicine, 5 (1932), 1033–1038; Georges Canguilhem, La formation du concept de réflexe au XVIIème et XVIIIème siècles (Paris, 1955), which includes Hall’s description; F. Chaussier and N. P. Adelon, “Astruc,” in Biographic universelle ancienne et moderne (Paris, 1811), pp. 486–487; A. Chéreau, “Astruc,” in Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences médicales, VII (Paris, 1867), 31–34; Paul Delauney, Le monde médical parisien au XVIIIème siècle (Paris, 1935), passim; J. E. Dézeimeris, Claude Ollivier, and J. Raige-Delorme, Dictionnaire historique de la médecine ancienne et moderne, I (Paris, 1828), 200–203; Janet Doe, “Jean Astruc (1684–1766), a Biographical and Bibliographical Study,” in Journal of theHistory of Medicine, 20 (Apr. 1960), 184–197; Charles Fiessinger, “La thérapeutique de Jean Astruc,” in Thérapeutique des vieux maîtres (Paris, 1897), pp. 226–232; Fischer, De senio eiusque gradibus (Erfurt, 1754); Pierre Huard and Ming Wong. “Montpellier et la médecine chinoise.” in Montpelliensis Hippocrates, no. 2 (Dec. 1958), pp. 13–20; “Antonio Nunes Ribeiro Sanchès.” in Société Française de l’Histoire de la Médecine, spec. no. 4 (13 Jan. 1962) pp. 96–103; and “J. Astruc Scholar and Biblical Critic,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 92 (1965), 249 ff.; A. M. Lautour, “Astruc,” in Dictionnaire de biographic française (Paris, 1939); A. C. Lorry. “Éloge de J. Astruc,” in Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier (Paris, 1767), pp. xxxiii-li; A. Lods, Jean Astruc et la critique biblique au XVIIIème siècle (Strasbourg-Paris, 1924); P. M. Masson, Madame de Tencin (Paris, 1909); R. O. Moreau, “L’oeuvre d’Astruc dans son traité de maladies des femmes,” thesis (Univ. of Paris, 1930); Sir William Osler, “Jean Astruc and the Higher Criticism,” in Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2 (1912), 151–152; E. Ritter, “Jean Astruc, auteur des Conjectures sur la Genèse,” in Bulletin de l’histoire du protestantisme français, 15 (1916), 274–287; John Ruhrah, “J. Astruc the Pediatrician,” in American Journal of Diseases of Children, 39 (1930), 403–408; F. M. Scapin. “L’inchiesta di Giovanni Astruc sulla sifilide cinese,” in Acta medicae historiae Patavina, 3 (1956), 57–61; Sir A. Simpson, “Jean Astruc and his Conjectures,” in Edinburgh Medical Journal, 14 (1915), 461–475. and Proceedings of the Royal, Society of Medicine, no. 8 (1914/15), 59–71; and F. D. Zeman, “Jean Astruc on Old Age,” in Journal of the Historv of Medicine, 20 (1965), 52–57.

Pierre Huard

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Astruc, Jean

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