Broussais, François Joseph Victor

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Broussais, François Joseph Victor

(b. near St. Malo, France, 17 December 1772; d. Paris, France, 18 November 1838)


Broussais began his medical studies at the Hôtel Dieu of St.-Malo and later attended the École de Chirurgie Navale at Brest. After twice shipping out as a naval surgeon, he had earned the amount of money needed to finish his medical studies in Paris, where he received his doctor’s degree in 1802. He then entered the Service de Santé Militaire, where he showed himself to be a conscientious doctor, continuously observing, writing, and teaching. His Traité des phlegmasies was written in Spain, from which he returned in 1814 to become a professor at the Val de Grâce. Broussais gave a course in practical medicine that attracted large, enthusiastic classes. His success lasted until his physiological doctrine—based in large part on therapeutic bleeding—was rejected by his students. It was also proved wrong by the 1832 outbreak of cholera, which Broussais treated, with catastrophic results, as acute gastroenteritis.

In 1834 the last number of the Annales de la médecine physiologique (which he had founded in 1822) was published, and in a last effort to regain his popularity, Broussais exploited the phrenology that Gall had made fashionable some twenty years earlier. In 1836, however, he began a type of teaching that questioned the immortality of the soul and the existence of God; it led to such violent scenes that the police were called in to restore order, and Broussais decided to leave the Val de Grâce. He became ill soon thereafter and died two years later of cancer.

The 1830 revolution had been a great boon to Broussais. Through government influence he had been exempted from the usual requirements and had won a chair at the Faculty of Medicine, a seat in the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, the rank of inspector general in the Service de Santé Militaire, and had been made a commander of the Legion of Honor.

Broussais lived at a time when a monistic system of pathology was still possible. His was a kind of “Brownism” in reverse, in which the phenomena of illness are different from those of health only in intensity. Laennec and Bretonneau opposed a doctrine inspired by old theories of deep pathological states that did not admit individual illnesses, and desperately fought the idea of specificity, localization, or contagion. Everything came under the heading of gastroenteritis, and consequently was treated by repeated bleedings and debilitating diets. These had disastrous effects on patients who were hemorrhaging or who suffered from cancer, malaria, or syphilis. Some have wished to see Broussais’s ideas on the nonspecific states of inflammation as making him a precursor in this field.

Nevertheless, by rejecting Pinel’s concept of essential fevers and by affirming that fevers are only reactions to certain given inflammations, Broussais eliminated the ontological notion of illness, which considered pathological and physiological phenomena to be entirely different and saw diseases as real entities, independent of the organism. But even if there had been an idea in his system, one would look in vain for a method.


I. Original Works. Broussais’s writings include “Recherches sur la fièvre hectique considérée comme dépendante d’une lésion d’action des différents systèmes, sans vice organique” (Paris, 1804), his thesis; Histoire des phlegmasies ou inflammations chroniques (Paris, 1808, 1816, 1822, 1826, 1828, 1838), also translated into Spanish by Suárez Pantigo (Madrid, 1828) and English by Isaac Hays and R. Eglesfeld Griffith (Philadelphia, 1831); Examen de la doctrine médicale généralement adoptée et des systèmes modernes de nosologie, 4 vols. (Paris, 1816–1834), also translated into Spanish by G. Lanuza (Madrid, 1822) and German by Reulin (Bern, 1820); articles in Annales de la mèdecine physiologique (1822–1834); Traité de physiologie appliqué à la pathologie (Paris, 1822); Catéchisme de la médecine physiologique (Paris, 1824), also translated into Spanish and into English by I. Hays and R. E. Griffith (Philadelphia, 1832); Commentair des propositions de pathologie consignées dans l’examen des doctrines médicales (Paris, 1824); De l’irritation et de la folie (Paris, 1828); Du cholera-morbus epidémique observé et traité (Paris, 1832); Mémoire sur la physiologie de la médecine (Paris, 1832); Mémoire sur l’influence que les travaux des médecins physiologistes ont exercé sur l’état de la médecine en France (Paris, 1832); Course de pathologie et de thérapeutiques générales, 4 vols. (Paris, 1833–1835); Mémoire sur I’association du physique et du moral (Paris, 1834); and cours de phrénologie fait à la Faculté de médecine de Paris (Paris, 1836). Forty-five pages of Broussais’s autograph letters are at the Faculty of Medicine, Paris, MS 402.

II. Secondary Literature. Writings on Broussais are E. Ackerknecht, “La médecine à Paris entre 1800 et 1850,” in Conférences du Palais de la Découverte (Paris, 1958), pp. 9–13, 17–18, 20, and Medicine at the Paris Hospitals, 1794–1848 (Baltimore, 1967), pp. 10, 26, 28, 58, 61–79, 96, 212; J.–Z. Amussat, “Relation de la dernière maladie de Broussais,” in Gazetta médicale de Paris, 4 , no. 49 (7 Dec. 1838), 769–774; L. Babonneix, “Le centenaire de la mort de Broussais,” in Gazette des hôpitaux, 111 (24 Sept. 1938), 1221–1228; E. Beaugrand, “Broussais,” in Dictionnaire Dechambre, XI (1878), 160–163; L. J. Begin, Application de la doctrine physiologique à la chirurgie (Paris, 1823), pp. viii, 17–18, 61, 87, 93, 96; Michel Bert, “Essai sur Broussais” (Paris, 1957), thesis; P. Busquet, “Broussais,” in Les biographies médicales, I (Paris, 1927–1928), 53–65, 69–80, with an important bibliography; Georges Canguilhem, “Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique” (Strasbourg, 1943), thesis; J. des Cilleuls, “À propos du centenaire de la mort de Broussais,” in Revue du Service de santé militaire, 110 no. 4 (1939), 645–655; Cornilleau, “À propos de Broussais,” in Progrès médical (26 Nov. 1938), 1604–1609, 1610; F. Dubois, “Éloge de Broussais,” in Mémoires de l’Académie de médecine de Paris, 14 (1849), 1–28; L. Duplais, Histoire compleète de Broussais (Paris, 1891); H. Folet, “Broussais et le broussaisisme,” in France médicale, 54 (1907), 137–157, 217–237, also in Bulletin de la Société française d’histoire de la médecine de Paris, 52 (1806), 239–314; M. Foucault, Naissance de la clinique (Paris, 1966), 175, 179, 186–187, 189–191, 194–196; Pierre Huard, “Broussais et nous,” in Ouest médical, no. 15 (1959), 463–466; Jeanne Huet, “Broussais et son oeuvre” (thesis, Paris, 1938); René Laennec, Traité de l’auscultation médiate… (Paris, 1826), pp. xx–xxxii; P.-C. Louis, Recherches sur les effets de la saignée dans quelques maladies inflammatoires… (Paris, 1835); J. L. H. P. Peisse, Les médecins contemporains (Paris, 1827), pp. 1–56; J. Rochard, Histoire de la chirurgie française au XIXème siècle (Paris, 1875), pp. 114–123, 251–252; and R. Villey, Réflexions sur la médecine d’hier et de demain (Paris, 1966), pp. 53, 55, 56.

Pierre Huard

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Broussais, François Joseph Victor

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