Corvisart, Jean-Nicolas

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Corvisart, Jean-Nicolas

(b. Dricourt, France, 15 February 1755; d. Paris, France, 18 September 1821),


Corvisart was one of the first French physicians to advocate the replacement of the empirical methods of diagnosis (passive observation, cursory examination, brief questioning) with a method of through and systematic examination and analytical interpretation of physical symptoms established during the examination. He thus should be considered the true promoter of clinical medicine in France.

Corvisart was born in a modest village in the Ardennes, where his father, an attorney at the parlement of Paris, had retired following Louis XV’s exile of that unmanageable body. Soon thereafter royal clemency allowed the family to return to the capital, and Jean-Nicolas was enrolled in the College Sainte-Barbe. Upon completion of his sometimes tumultuous studies, he received the master of arts degree at the age of eighteen.

His father, wanting his son to follow in his footsteps, urged Corvisart to study law; but the son refused to submit to his father’s will and decided to study medicine. Corvisart took courses at the Faculté de Medecine of Paris, where he distinguished himself both by his diligence and by his irreverent nature. On 14 November 1782, after having passed many examinations, he obtained the title of docteur-regent.

Wishing to earn a living, Corvisart applied for a position as physician at the Hôpital des Paroisses. Its founder. Mme. Necker, the wife of the minister of finance, rejected his candidacy on the pretext that the applicant refused to wear a wig. He therefore had to resign himself to accepting the position of physician to the poor in Saint-Sulpice, receiving annual fees of 300 francs.

At the same time he continued visiting the Hôpital de la Charite, where he occupied the post of médecin-expectant, working with the famous Desbois de Rochefort. In 1788 he became médecin-en-second. Even then his talents as a meticulous observer and clever teacher attracted many students, who came from everywhere to accompany him on his rounds. In 1794, when the legislators decided to enact a thorough reform of the teaching of medicine, Corvisart was unanimously appointed to the professorship of internal clinical medicine at La Charité, a position specially created for him.

Corvisart became a professor at the École de Médecine and shortly afterward at the Collège de France. In the morning he taught and during the afternoon he held consultations. He also managed the Journal de médecine, chirurgie et pharmacie. He published a translation of Maximilian Stoll’s work on fevers and one of Leopold Auenbrugger’s on chest percussion, and commentaries on Boerhaave’s Aphorisms. A long and remarkable study on diseases of the heart constituted his magnum opus and can legitimately be considered the first treatise on cardiology.

Of all honors accorded Corvisart’s, the highest of all was that conferred upon him in 1801, when Napoleon himself, then first consul of the republic, became his patient. Corvisart’s common sense, the simplicity of his diagnostics, and the logic of his reasoning triumphed over the skepticism of his new patient, who, after the first interview, declared: “I do not believe in medicine, but I do believe in Corvisart.”

Soon Corvisart was appointed surgeon general, and he assumed the duties of first physician of the court when Napoleon became emperor. A few years later he was made a baron and entered the Académie desSciences. For ten years, until Naploleons’s fall, Corvisart remained with the man who had placed such confidence in him. Even though the emperor enjoyed rather good health, he liked to see Corvisart several times a week, to chat or to question him on medical problems. Corvisart enjoyed these conversations but never stooped to obsequiousness. Occasionally, however, he did take advantage of these moments of relaxation to request pay increases, ask for favors, or suggest promotions.

In order to give better service to the court, Corvisart had abandoned all of his hospital and professorial duties. He was, in fact, not only the emperor’s physician, but physician to the two empresses and Napoleons’s son, the king of Rome. At the time of Napoleon’s divorce and remarriage to Archduchess Marie-Louise, he was even summoned to provide advice on the emperor’s chances of becoming a father (Napoleon was then forty-one).

After the Bourbons returned to power, Corvisart voluntarily abstained from all political activity. He refused, with dignity, the advances of the new regime, choosing instead to remain loyal to Napoleon. Moreover, his health had become poor. He withdrew from the world, abandoned his profession, and took refuge in silence and solitude. One of Corvisart’s last joys was being invited, in 1820, to sit in the Academie Royale de Médecine, the majority of whose members had been his student.


1.Original Works. Corvisart’s works include Éloge de Desbois de Rochefort (Paris, 1789); Aphorismes sur la connaissance et le caractére des fiéver (Paris, an V [1797]), his trans. of Stoll’s work on fevers; Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbus chronicis, his tran. of Boerhaave’s aphorisms (Paris, 1802); Essais sur les maladies organiques ducocur et des gros vaisseaux (Paris, 1806);and Nouvelle methode pour reconnaître les maladies internes de la poitrine par la percussion de cette cavité, his trans. of Auenbrugger’s work, with commentary (Paris, 1808).

II. Secondary Literature. On Corvisart or his work, see Isidore Bourdon. Illustres médecins et naturalistes des temps modernes (Paris, 1843) Bourguignon. Corvisart, premier médecin de l’empereur (Lyons, 1937); Busquet, Aphorismes de médecine clinique par le baron Corvisart, collectd By P. V. Marat (Paris, 1939); Cabanès, Au chevet de l’empereur (Paris, 1924); Thérèse Chemin, Corvisart et la elinique (Paris, 1928); Dupuytren, Discours prononcé à la mémoire de Corvisart à la séance publique de la Faculté de médecine de Paris (Paris, 1921); Ferrus, Notice historique sur Corvisart (Paris, 1921); Paul Ganiére, Corvisart, médecin de Napoleon (Paris, 1951); Louis Hechemann, Corvisart et la percussion (Paris,1906); Lassus, Corvisart et la cardiologie (Paris, 1927); Leroux des Tillets, Discours prononcé sur le cerceuil de corvisart (Paris, 1821); Pariset, Histoire des membres de l’Académie royale de médecine (Paris, 1845); and Potain Corvisart et son temps (Paris, 1894).

III. Documents. Documentary materials are in Bibliothe que Nationale, manuscrits français: Archives Nationales, files AA I, AA IV, CC 242, F 7, F 15, 02 170, 02 174, 02 186, 02 815, 02 816: Archives de l’Académie des sciences, Corvisart file: Archives de l’Académie de Médecine, Corvisart file; Bibliothèque Thiers, Fonds, Frédéric Masson: Archieves Départmentales des Ardennes, Corvisart file; and Archieves Départementales de la Seine, Corvisart file.

Paul GaniÈre