Descourtilz, Michel Étienne

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Descourtilz, Michel Étienne

(b. Boiste, near Pithiviers, France, 25 November 1775; d. Paris, France, 1836)

medicine, natural history.

Descourtilz was first trained as a surgeon. Following his marriage to the daughter of Rossignol-Desdunes, who had plantations in Artibonite, he went to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1798, on the way visiting Charleston, South Carolina, and Santiago de Cuba. Descourtilz became involved in the Negro revolution and, in spite of the protection of Toussaint L’Ouverture, was nearly executed by Dessalines. He was forced to join the medical service of the Negro army, but in 1803 he escaped and sailed to Cádiz. After reaching Paris, Descourtilz became a doctor of medicine in 1814; he practiced in Orléans; was for a while physician at the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaumonten-Gâtinais; and retired to Paris, where he was a member of the Société. de Médecine Pratique and became president of the Société Linnéenne. Most of his original drawings and manuscripts, as well as his herbarium, were burned in Haiti; and in writing his books he had to rely on the works of Plumier, Joseph Surian, Alexandre Poiteau, and Turpin. His zoological contributions, particularly those on the caiman, were highly praised.


In Voyages d’un naturaliste (Paris, 1809) Descourtilz narrates his adventures during the Haitian revolution and, at the end, deals with the natural history of the isle. Next to be published was Code du safranier (Paris, 1810). Pinel presided over his thesis, Propositions sur l’anaphrodisie... (Paris, 1814), later expanded into a larger volume, De l’impuissance et de la stérilité... (Paris, 1831). One of his most popular books was Guide sanitaire des voyageurs aux colonies (Paris, 1816). Manuel indicateur des plantes usuelles aux Antilles (Paris, 1821) appeared as he began, with one of his eight sons, Jean Théodore, to publish his major work, Flore pittoresque des Antilles, 8 vols. (Paris, 1821–1829), arranging the material according to medicinal properties.Anatomie comparée du grand crocodile... (Paris, 1825) was followed by Des champignons comestibles (Paris, 1827) and Cours d’électricité médicale (Paris, 1832).

Descourtilz is mentioned in Rulx Léon, Notes bio-bibliographiques. Médecins et naturalistes de l’ancienne colonie française de Saint-Domingue (Port-au-Prince, 1933).

Francisco Guerra

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Descourtilz, Michel Étienne

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