Bichat, Marie-François-Xavier

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Bichat, Marie-François-Xavier

(b. Thoirette, Jura, France, 14 November 1771; d. Paris, France, 22 July 1802)

surgery, anatomy, physiology.

The son of Jean-Baptiste Bichat, a physician and graduate of the Faculté de Médecine of Montpellier, who was then practicing in Poncin-en-Bugey, and of Jeanne-Rose Bichat, a cousin of her husband, Bichat studied humanities at the Collège de Nantua, completed the course in rhetoric, and was then sent to the Séminaire Saint-Irénée at Lyons to study philosophy. In 1791 he became the pupil of Marc-Antoine Petit at the Hôtel-Dieu in Lyons, in order to study surgery and anatomy. Three years later he went to Paris, where he was the favorite student and collaborator of Pierre Desault (1738–1795), who had created the surgical clinic at the Hôtel-Dieu, then called Grand Hospice d’Humanité by the Revolutionary powers. Desault was very skillful in the treatment of fractures and was particularly interested in vascular surgery. His death temporarily interrupted the publication of his Journal de chirurgie, but Bichat, encouraged by Corvisart, published as its fourth volume observations of Desault that he himself had written up. On 23 June 1796 Bichat founded, with Henri Husson and Guillaume Dupuytren, the Société Médicale d’Émulation, which Cabanis, Corvisart, and Pinel then joined.

At this time Bichat also started a private course in anatomy in a house on the Petite Rue de Grès (today the Rue Cujas). This course was transferred, in 1798, to the Rue des Carmes. It was then that Bichat added demonstrations in physiology using animal vivisections to his teaching of anatomy and of medical operations. Simultaneously he worked on the Oeuvres chirurgicales de Desault (1798–1799); wrote up, for the Société Médicale d’Émulation, several reports on surgery; and composed the memoirs Sur les membranes et leurs rapports généraux d’organisation (1798) which led to the Traité des membranes and Anatomie générale, and Sur les rapports qui existet entre les organes à forme symériqueet ceux à forme irréguliére (1798), which ushered in Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort. In 1801 he was made médecin expectant (supernumerary) at the Grand Hospice d’Humanité.

Sensing that his life would not be long, Bichat published, between 1799 and 1801, the three works that made him famous: the Traité des membranes, the Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort, and the Anatomie générale. The Anatomie descriptive was left unfinished at his death. Bichat’s funeral services were held at Notre-Dame de Paris.

Bichat’s most important contribution to modern anatomy consists in the generalization of a theory set forth by Pinel in his Nosographie philosophique (1798). Pathology must be based not upon the topographical situations of organs, but upon the structure of the membranes (i.e., of the tissues making up the organs), regardless of the location of the latter in the organism. Bichat recognized his debt to Pinel in the Traité des membranes (art. 1, sec. iv), but Magendie, in the preface to its new edition (1827), says that Bichat, by his extension of Pinel’s idea, showed “that he was of such a stature as to owe the idea only to himself.”

Bichat’s best statement on his own method as an anatomist is in the sixth and seventh paragraphs of “Considérations générales,” a preface to the Anatomie générale. Just as chemistry is the science of elementary bodies, says Bichat, anatomy is the science of elementary tissues, which differ from each other in the composition and the arrangement of their fibers, the combination of which forms organs. General anatomy is the study of the simple organic elements and of the similarly elementary structures. Bichat distinguished twenty-one organized elements, characterized by their textures and their properties. Since it differs from others in its vital properties, each tissue also differs in its diseases because diseases are nothing more than alterations of its vital properties. As a background to the diversity of symptoms and the uneven duration of illnesses, the physician must consider the diversity of the tissues. Therefore, general anatomy should set up a new pathological anatomy, substituting for the descriptive order, generally accepted since Morgagni, a systematic order of the diseases common to each elementary structure, to each tissue.

Bichat distinguished the properties of tissues according to their texture, properties that are retained after death: extensibility, contractility, and the vital properties—organic contractility and sensibility (“insensible” or subliminal) on the one hand, and animal contractility and sensibility (“sensible” or conscious) on the other. Vital properties were, in his eyes, irreducible to physical laws. Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort begins with the famous sentence “Life is the ensemble of functions that resist death.” Without completely admitting Barthezr’s vital principle, Bichat was hostile to the traditional medicine of Boerhaave and praised the doctors of the Montpellier school for having “more or less followed the impetus given by Stahl” (animism).

Bichat’s ideas had a profound influence not only in medicine but also in philosophy. General anatomy and the pathology of tissues were both transformed and confirmed in the nineteenth century by the development of histology, cytology, and cellular pathology. Claude Bernard, while recognizing that in his time the morphological analysis of organized bodies had decentralized the seat of life “beyond the term fixed by Bichat,”—beyond tissue and down to the cell—wrote, “Modern opinions concerning vital phenomena are based on histology and really have their origin in Bichat’s ideas” (Leçons sur les phénoménes de la vie, II, 452). No less hostile than Claude Bernard toward all metaphysical vitalism, Auguste Comte expressed his admiration for Bichat insofar as the latter had helped to establish the specificity of a general science of life, at the very time when Lamarck and Treviranus simultaneously invented the term “biology” (1802) in order to denote it. The German philosopher Schopenhauer insisted upon calling himself a disciple of Bichat, as did Cabanis.


I. Original Works. Bichat’s writings include Oeuvres chirurgicales de Desault, 3 vols. (Paris, 1798–1799; new ed., rev. and enl., 1801–1803); Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Paris, 1800; new ed., with notes by M. Magendie, 1822), translated by F. Gold as Physiological Researches on Life and Death (London, 1815); Traité des membranes en général et de diverses membranes en particulier (Paris, 1800; new ed., rev. and enl., with notes by M. Magendie, 1827), new ed. with a notice on Bichat’s life and works by M. Husson; Anatomie générale, appliquée à la physiologie et à la médecine, 4 vols. (Paris, 1801), supplemented by P.-A. Beclard, Additions à l’Anatomie générale de X. Bichat (1821), prefaced by a historical note on Bichat by Scipion Pinel; and Traité d’anatomie descriptive, 5 vols. (Paris, 1801–1803)—Bichat wrote the first three volumes, Mathieu François Buisson wrote the fourth, and Philibert-Joseph Roux wrote the fifth.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bichat are Bulletin de la Société française d’histoire de la médecine. 1 (1902; repr. 1967), which contains a series of articles and documents relating to Bichat and was published on the centenary of his death—see especially the articles by R. Blanchard and Émile Gley; J. Coquerelle, Xavier Bichat (Paris, 1902); “Bichat,” in Dezeimeris, Ollivier, and Raige-Delorme, Dictionnaire historique de la médecine ancienne et moderne, I (Paris, 1928), 385–396; Michel Foucault, Naissance de la clinique (Paris, 1963), ch. 8; Geneviève Genty, “Bichat, médecin du Grand Hospice d’Humanité,” thesis (Paris, 1943); Maurice Genty, “Bichat,” in Biographies médicales, II (Paris, 1929–1931), 35–36, and “Bichat,” et son temps,” in Médecine internationale (1934), nos. 7–12 and (1935), nos. 1–10; M. Laignel-Lavastine, “Sources, principes, sillage et critique de l’oeuvre de Bichat,” in Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 46 (1952), 1; and Entralgo P. Lain, “Sensualism and Vitalism in Bichat’s Anatomie générale,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 3 (1948), 47–64.

Georges Canguilhem