Barthez, Paul-Joseph

views updated

Barthez, Paul-Joseph

(b. Montpellier, France, 11 December 1734; d. Paris, France, 15 October 1806)


Barthez was an extraordinarily influential French physician who helped to popularize vitalistic doctrines at a time when the most unsophisticated forms of mechanism still held sway in biology and medicine. Succeeding generations have regarded Barthez’s theories as hopelessly naïve, but the general point of view that he advocated was adopted by many important biologists of the early nineteenth century.

The son of Guillaume Barthez de Marmorières, chief engineer of Languedoc, Barthez received his early schooling in Narbonne and Toulouse and entered the medical school at Montepellier at the age of sixteen. Completing his degree in three years, he went to Paris, where he became a protégé of Falconnet, physician to Louis XV. He frequented the intellectual circles of the capital and became particularly intimate with d’Alembert. From 1755 to 1757 he served as a physician with the French army. Upon returning to Paris, he was employed first as a royal censor and then as an editor of the Journal des savants. During this time he also contributed to the Encyclopédie edited by his friend d’Alembert.

Barthez returned to Montpellier about 1760 as professor of medicine and remained there for twenty years, becoming chancellor of the medical school in 1773. During this period he developed his vitalistic doctrines, expounding them in three books: De principio vitali hominis (1773), Nova doctrina de fonctionibus naturae humanae (1774), and his most important work, Nouveaux éléments de la science de l’homme (1778).

Barthez’s vitalism is based on the distinction between three different types of phenomena—matter (la matière), life (la vie), and soul (l’âme). He argued that even if like effects follow from like causes, we cannot assume that the laws which govern one type of phenomenon will be meaningful when applied to another; life cannot be subsumed under the laws that govern matter, and it cannot be described in the same manner as the behavior of the soul. Barthez denied both the mechanistic doctrines of Borelli and Boerhaave and the vitalism of Stahl and van Helmont. He thought that their approaches to physiology were illogical and—even worse—totally useless, since they yielded results that were either obviously wrong or incapable of being tested. In his view, life was a valid subject for investigation, but it needed its own distinctive science with unique principles and techniques.

One important aspect of this new science was the development of clinical teaching and research. Barthez thought that physicians should return to the inductive method of Hippocrates, learning the principles of physiology as they manifest themselves in the whole, living body. Although such clinical research later became the basis for the superiority of French medical science in the nineteenth century, the idea was opposed by Barthez’s colleagues, and the controversy that it aroused caused him to resign his position at Montpellier in 1781.

Once again Barthez returned to the literary and intellectual life of Paris. He was awarded many honors, among them membership in the Académie des Sciences and the Société Royale de Médecine. The Revolution stripped him of these honors and sent him into retirement in southern France, where he spent the last two decades of his life studying and writing. In 1798 he published Nouvelle méchanique des mouvements de l’homme et des animaux, in which he demonstrated, through very intricate anatomical analysis, that the simple hydraulic explanations offered by the iatromechanists (particularly Borelli) would never explain the delicate balance and control of muscles that are needed for such motions as walking and swimming. During these years Barthez also published several practical medical handbooks and revised his Nouveaux éléments, which had been very popular in its earlier version.

With the coming of the Directorate, Barthez regained some of his former prominence. At the time of his death in 1806 he was personal physician to Napoleon and honorary professor of medicine at Montpellier. He had been appointed to the Légion d’Honneur and the Institut National, and had served with Corvisart as a medical member of Napoleon’s consular government.

Unfortunately, Barthez did not really practice what he had preached on the subject of clinical research. His works are almost wholly theoretical, and he was particularly adept at producing the teleological explanations which were anathema to later generations of physiologists. Despite these failings his influence was widely felt; and his attitude toward physiology is mirrored in the work of Xavier Bichat and Johannes Müller, and even in that of the antivitalists François Magendie and Claude Bernard.


I. Original Works. The two most important works for an understanding of Barthez’s physiological doctrines are Nouveau éléments de la science de l’homme (Montpellier, 1778; 2nd ed., Paris, 1806) and Nouvelle méchanique des mouvements de l’homme et des animaux (Carcassonne, 1798). Other works include De principio vitali hominis (Montpellier, 1773); Nova doctrina de fonctionibus naturae humanae (Montpellier, 1774).

II. Secondary Literature. For reliable discussions of Barthez’s life and theories see Jacques Lordat, Exposition de la doctrine medical de Barthez et mémoire sur la vie de Barthez (Paris, 1818); A. C. E. Barthez, Sur la vitalisme de Barthez (Paris, 1864).

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

About this article

Barthez, Paul-Joseph

Updated About content Print Article