Ferrein, Antoine

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Ferrein, Antoine

(b. Frespech, near Agen, Lot-et-Garonne, France, 25 October 1693; d. Paris, France, 28 February 1769)


Ferrein was the son of Antoine Ferrein and Françoise d’Elprat, both members of old Agenois families. At his father’s wish he began legal studies and did so at Cahors, although he was much more interested in mathematics and the natural sciences. After reading a work by Borelli, in which physiological propositions were purportedly derived from anatomical information by means of mathematical procedures, Ferrein decided to devote himself entirely to medical and anatomical research. Certain ideas of iatromechanics deeply influenced his thinking throughout his life. He followed the idea of an anatomie subtile which would seek out in the petites machines of the body the explanation of most physiological and pathological phenomena.

In 1714 Ferrein left Cahors to go to Montpėllier, where he studied medicine under Raymond Vieussens and Antoine Deidier. In 1716 he received his bachelor’s degree, but family obligations forced him to interrupt his studies and move to Marseilles, where he gave private classes in anatomy, physiology, and surgery. He later returned to Montpellier, and on 27 September 1728 he received the title of Doctor of Medicine. He then taught in the Montpellier Faculty of Medicine as suppléant to Astruc. After his applications for the chairs of medicine and chemistry were refused (1731–1732), however, he left Montpellier for Paris.

Since he had no right to practice medicine in Paris, Ferrein gave public instruction in anatomy there. Later he became the chief medical officer of the French army in Italy (1733–1735). During this period he sought to combat several epidemics of miliary fever. He finally met the requirements of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, and although he was fully accredited by Montpellier, he requested and obtained another bachelor’s degree in 1736 and that of Doctor of Medicine in 1738. From then on, Ferrein, an ambitious, tireless worker and brilliant speaker, made an extraordinary career for himself. On 22 February 1741 he was elected to the Academy of Sciences as assistant anatomist; in 1742 he became associate; and on 21 May 1750, pensioner.

The decade 1740–1750 was the most fruitful of Ferrein’s life. He published a series of memoirs on the structure and function of several organs. In 1742 he was named professor of medicine at the Collège Royal and also became professor of surgery at the Faculty of Medicine. He was awarded the chair of pharmacy in 1745. Ferrein’s courses became famous, but more for the clarity and order of his exposition than for the originality of his ideas. In 1751, in addition to all his teaching duties and an exhausting medical practice, Ferrein replaced Winslow as professor of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi. He died following a stroke.

In 1731, while he was competing for the chair of medicine at Montpellier, Ferrein propounded a theory on the shape of the heart during systole that was the origin of a long dispute within several learned societies. Against his rival Antoine Fizès and an opinion then generally prevalent, Ferrein maintained that the heart shrank during systole and that its tip curled over and forward. This was a new and accurate explanation of the heart’s beating against the thoracic wall. In 1733 Ferrein published the results of his microscopic research on the parenchymatous and vascular structure of the liver. He was the first to glimpse certain anatomical peculiarities of the hepatobiliary system, but unfortunately he drew erroneous physiological conclusions. Ferrein’s researches on lymph ducts, hepatic inflammation, and the movements of the jaw were little valued by subsequent generations.

In 1741 Ferrein reviewed and modified Dodart’s theory of phonation. According to Ferrein, the lips of the glottis form two true “vocal cords”; sounds arise solely from the vibration of these cords, which is produced by the stream of exhaled air. Thus the air performs the same function as a violin bow. In this hypothesis the larynx is considered to be a combination of wind and string instrument. Apart from Leonardo da Vinci’s experiments, Ferrein was the first to study phonation experimentally by forcing air through the detached larynxes of various animals.

According to his histological researches (1749), the kidney is not composed of glomerules, as Malpighi believed, nor are the blood vessels coiled, as was taught by Ruysch; rather, it is made up of a collection of “white tubes.” Ferrein described the “pyramids” and the tubular structure of the kidneys, but he misconstrued their function.

It was also Ferrein who formulated the rules for examination of the abdominal organs by palpation. He also denied the existence of true hermaphroditism.


I. Original Works. Almost all Ferrein’s scientific studies were published in the Mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences; of particular interest are “De la formation de la voix de l’homme” (1741), p. 50; and “Sur la structure des viscères nommés glanduleux, et particulièrement sur celle des reins et du foie” (1749), pp. 489–530. The most famous of his competition theses is Quaestiones medicae duodecim (Montpellier, 1732). The great success of his courses led some of his students to publish them directly from the original MSS or their class notes—these publications include Cours de médecine pratique rédigé d’après les principes de M. Ferrein par M. Arnault de Nobleville (Paris, 1769); Matière médicale, published by Andry (Paris, 1770); and Éléments de chirurgie pratique, published from Ferrein’s MSS by H. Gauthier (Paris, 1771). Some of the original MSS are in the library of the Paris Faculty of Medicine.

II. Secondary Literature. The biography by Grandjean de Fouchy, “Éloge de M. Ferrein,” in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences pour l’année 1768 (1772), pp. 151–162, is the basic secondary source. Biographical information is also in N. F. J. Eloy, “Ferrein,” in Dictionnaire historique de la médecine, II (Mons, 1778), 223–224; J. R. Marboutin, “Antoine Ferrein,” in Revue de l’Agenais, 61 (1934), 309–311; and A. Portal, Histoire de l’anatomie et de la chirurgie, V (Paris, 1770). A concise appraisal of Ferrein’s publications is in J.-E. Dezeimeris, Dictionnaire historique de la médecine, II (Paris, 1834), 297–300. His researches on the kidney are analyzed in F. Grondona, “La struttura dei reni da F. Ruysch à W. Bowman,” in Physis, 7 (1965), 281–316.

M. D. Grmek