Breschet, Gilbert

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Breschet, Gilbert

(b. Clermont–Ferrand, France, 7 July 1783; d. Paris, France, 10 May 1845)


Breschet became a nonresident mediacal student in the Paris hospitals in 1808, a resident student in 1809, and a doctor in 1812. Seven years later he was appointed surgeon and head of anatomical studies at the Hôtel Dieu, and he was agrégé in 1825. In 1832 he was elected to the Académie de Médicine, and in 1835 to the Académie des Sciences; the next year he became professor of anatomy at the Faculty of Medicine. Breschet attained this chair after a three month competitive examination (14 April–9 July 1836) that was decided by a jury composed of professors from the Faculty and members of the Institute and was passionately followed by hundreds of students. He was elected on the third ballot, defeating Pierre–Paul Broc, a mere professor at the École Pratique who was far less learned than he but was an idol of the students. Infuriated by the outcome, the students attempted to sack the Faculty of Medicine. The damage was estimated at 5,000 francs, and the disturbance ended in court, where the journalist Fabre, a supporter of Broc, was fined 500 francs. (Fabre was fined for having published a newspaper, between 1835 and 1836, without having put up the security demanded by law and for having moved the paper’s printing plant without having informed the authorities.) He took his revenge by writing Orfilaïade, a verse pamphlet illustrated by Daumier that was directed against Mathéo Orfila, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine.

Although Breschet studied under the renowned surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren, whose chair he filled at the Faculty of Medicine, he was never a first–rate surgeon and left no special mark on the history of that discipline. His great and methodical capacity for work was particularly applied to the study of human anatomy, comparative anatomy, and the natural sciences. This work was carried on in collaboration with an excellent team: Milne–Edwards, Vavasseur, Villermé Roussel de Vauzème, Rayer, Bogros, and Raspail. Breschet was the only doctor–naturalist at the Faculty of Medicine, which was essentially oriented to clinical and practical medicine and to human anatomy. Because of this, at the time of Breschet’s death, the Faculty rejected an offer made by the minister of education to create a chair of comparative anatomy.

Breschet became known through his work on the veins of the spine and the human skull, his contributions to knowledge of the auditory system in vertebrates, and his knowledge of the arterial plexuses of the Cetacea, showing their adaptation for diving. With Roussel de Vauzème he discovered the sweat glands, and in 1818 he coined the word phlebitis to designate an inflammation that soon dominated medico–surgical pathology. Breschet also studied the human ovum and that of other vertebrates.

Having a genuine gift for languages and being keenly aware of what was being done in foreign countries, Breschet translated into French the classic works of Meckel, Heusinger, Hodgson, Kaltenbrunner, Gimbernait, von Baer. Gottfried Treviranus, Rathke, Pander, Jacobson, and Joseph Arnold. His fame was much greater elsewhere in Europe than in France. At the Stuttgart Congress, for instance, the whole assembly gave him a standing ovation. Breschet was a member of the Académie des Curieux de la Nature, as well as academies and learned societies throughout Europe.

The death of his parents (1842, 1845) deeply grieved Breschet and brought on a slight stroke whose effects progressively became to severe that he died.


I. Original Works. A complete bibloiography of Breschet’s works is in Huard (see below). His principal works are “Recherches sur les hydropisies actives en général et sur l’hydropisie du tissu cellulaire en particulier,” Thèse de Paris, no. 173 (1812); Essai sur les veines du rachis (Paris, 1819); Recherches historiques et expérimentales sur la formation du cal (Paris, 1819); Traité des maladies des artères et des veines par J. Hogdon, which Breschet translated, adding notes, 2 vols, (Paris, 1819), the work in which he uses phlébite for the first time; Mémoire sur une nouvelle espèce de grossesse extra–utérine (Paris, 1826); Recherches anatomiques, physiologiques et pathologiques sur le système veineux, 30 parts (Paris, 1828); four papers on the structure of the hearing organ in fish, read to the Académie Royale des Sciences, 13 August 1832; “De la structure de l’organe de l’ouïe et particulièrement de celle du labyrinthe chez I’homme et les mammifères,” presented to the Acadèmie Royale des Sciences in 1832; Traitè des maladies des enfants, 2 vols. (Paris, 1832); and Études anatomiques, physiologiques et pathologiques de l’oeuf dans l’espèce humaine et dans quelques unes des principales familles des animaux vertébrés (Paris, 1833).

II. Secondary Literature. Breschet was the subject of a eulogy by Royer–Collard: “Éloge du 3 novembre 1845 à la Faculté de médecine de Paris,” in Moniteur universel (14–15 May 1845). Other memorial notices are in Archives générales de médecine, 2 (1845), 257–342; Bulletin de l’Acadèmie de médecine, 10 (1844–1845), 680–685; Gazette médicale de Paris, 2 (1845), 301–316; and Journal des connaissances médicales pratiques et de pharmacologie, 12 (1844–1845), 305–306.

See also P. Balme and G. Dastugeu, “Gilbert Breschet,” in Clermont médical, no. 44 (1961), 89 –115; A . Corlieu, Centenaire de la Facultè de médecine de Paris, 1794–1894 (Paris, 1896), pp. 250–256; L. Delhoume, Dupuytren (Paris, 1935), pp. 243–260; P. Huard, “Gilbert Breschet,” in Comptes rendus du congrès des Sociètès savantes Clermont–Ferrand, 3 (1963), 117–128, which contains Breschet’s complete bibliography; and A. Thierry, “Gilbert Breschet,” in Le temps (6 Dec. 1928).

Pierre Huard

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