Le Cat, Claude-Nicolas

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Le Cat, Claude-Nicolas

(b. Blérancourt, Picardy, France, 6 September 1700;d. Rouen, France, 21 August 1768)

surgery, anatomy, physiology, biomechanics.

Le Cat was the son of Claude Le Cat, a surgeon, and Anne-Marie Méresse, the daughter of a surgeon. Despite this family tradition, he himself was committed to and ecclesiastical career before taking up the study of surgery with his father. Following this early training he took courses under Winslow at the Écoles de Médecine in Paris and attended the lectures of Boudou at the Hôtel-Dieu, Le Dran at La Charité, and Duvernay at the Jardin Royal. In 1729 Le Cat was appointed physician and surgeon to the archbishop of Rouen, where he settle permanently, becoming chief surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu there in 1731. On 29 January 1733 he received the M.D. at Rheims and then took the master’s degree in surgery.

From the beginning of his surgical practice Le Cat devoted himself enthusiastically to operating for vesicular stones. He invented or perfected several instruments for lithotomy, one of which, a combined gorget and cystotome, he defended in a vigorous polemic with Jean Baseilhac, celebrated as a lithotomist under his name in religion, Frére Côme. Always open to technical innovation, he also operated on lachrimal fistula through the nasal passage and employed the method of reduction and Daviel’s new method of extraction to treat cataracts. One of his procedures foreshadowed the modern method of diaphysectomy.

In 1736 Le Cat established a school for anatomy and surgery in Rouen. He was and early advocate of the union of medicine and surgery and adopted and anatomico-clinical method whereby his students participated in his researches, including animal vivisections. In 1737 he was appointed royal demonstrator in surgery, and gave courses in experimental physics as well as therapeutics, anatomy, and physiology.

Le Cat’s medical investigations led him to a theory whereby malignant fevers represent the internalization of external diseases of a herpetic nature, while disease itself is directly attributable to a qualitative or quantitative loss of nervous fluid. Le Cat never fully formulated this hypothesis; like his theories on the cause of menstruation, prolonged pregnancy, and “spontaneous combustion”in human beings (and, indeed, like the works of many of his contemporaries), his theory of disease lacked coherence. More clearly realized was his biomechanic notion of the analogy as a hydraulic machine, wherein he drew and analogy between the animal economy and a system of pipes and tubes. Such a view brought Le Cat into conflict with Haller, especially in respect to the latter’s ideas of irritability and sensibility, both of which Le Cat thought to be purely mechanical effects.

The Traité des sens, Le Cat’s most important work, grew as much out his researches in physics as in physiology. In it Le Cat presented a theory of the propagation of light contrary to that of Newtonian attraction. He further reported on the pigmented choroid coat of the eye and assigned it a common embryonic origin with the pigment of the skin. Other of his writing further demonstrate the breadth of his interests, which encompassed geophysics, astronomy, conchology, geology, embryology and teratology, electricity, literature, the fine arts, and archaeology. But in and age shaped by Descartes, Borelli, and Bellini, Le Cat must be remembered primarily, with Vaucanson and Quesnay, as one of the first adherents of a mechanistic approach to physiology.

Le Cat was a man of his times. Philosophically, he was a neo-Cartesian and believed in the union of the soul and the body. A devout Catholic throughout his life, he was a friend of the Abbé Nollet, Fontenelle, and Voltaire; he strongly opposed the ideas of Rousseau. He was a founding member of the Rouen Académie des Sciences, and a member of a number of other learned societies, both in France and elsewhere. Louis XV granted him titles of nobility and the rank ofécuyer in recognition of his services.

In 1742, when he was forty-two years old, Le Cat married Marie-Marguerite Champossin, a girl of thirteen. Their only daughter, Charlotte-Bonne, married the surgeon Jean-Pierre David, who succeeded Le Cat in all his offices.


I. Original Works. Among Le Cat’s principal works That were published separately are his dissertation, Sur le balancement d’un areboutant de l’église Saint-Nicaise (Rheims, 1724); Dissertation sur le dissolvant de la pierre, et en particulier sur celui de Melle Stephens (Rouen, 1739);Traité de sens en particulier (Rouen, 1740; repr. Amsterdam, 1744); Remarques sur les mémoires de l’académie de chirurgie, “Lettres d’un chirurgien de Paris á un chirurgien de province, son élève” (Amsterdam, 1745); Réfutatuion du discours du citoyen de Genè ve qui a remporé le prix de l’Acadé de Dijon, en l’année 1750 sous le nom d’un académicien de la même ville (London, 1751); Éloge de M.de Fontenelle (Rouen, 1759); Nouveau systéme sur la cause de l’Eévacuation périodique du sexe (Amsterdam, 1765); Traité de l’existence, de la nature et des propriétés du fluide des nerfs et principalement de son action dans le mouvement musculaire suivi dès dissertations sur la sensibilité des méninges, des tendons… (Berlin,1765); Traité de la couleur de la peau humaine en général, de celle des négres en particulier et de la métamorphose d’une de ces couleurs en l’autre, soit de naissance, soit accidentellement (Amsterdam, 1765);Parallèle de la taille latérale de M.Le Cat avec celle du lithotome caché suivi de deux dissertations:I. Sur l’adhérence des pierres dans la vessie; II. Sur quelques nouveaux moyens de briser la pierre (Amsterdam 1766); Lettre de M. Le Cat à M. Maitre ès arts et en chirurgie de Paris sur les avantages de la réunion du titre de Dr. en médecine avec celui de maitre en chirurgie et sur quelquies abus dans l’un et l’autre art, 11 juin 1762 (Amsterdam, 1766); Traité des sensations et des passions en général et des sens en particulier (La Chapelle, 1767); La théorie de l’ouie (La Chapelle, 1768); Cours abrégé d’ostéologie (Rouen, 1768); and Mémoire posthume sur les incendies spontanés de l’économie animale (Paris, 1813).

The three-volume collected Oeuvres physiologiques (Paris, 1767-1768) comprise Traité des sensations et des passions en général, Traité des sens, and La théorie de l’ouie; and early work, Description d’un homme automate dans lequel on verra exécuter les principales fonctions de l’économie animale, la circulation, la circulation, la respiration, les sécrétions, & au moyen desquels on peut déterminer les effects méchaniques de la saignée,& soumettre au joug de l’expérience plusieurs phénomènes interessants qui n’en paroissent pas susceptibles, presented to the Académie de Rouen in 1744, appears to have been lost.

In addition to the above, Le Cat published a number of articles and memoirs in both French and foreign journals. His manuscripts may be found in the Bibliothèque Municipale, Caen, Académie des Sciences, Belles-lettres, et Arts de Rouen, Rouen; Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Médecine, Paris; collection of Dr. Jean, Rouen; Archives de l’Académie Royale de Chirurgie, Bibliothèque de l’Académie Nationale de Médecine, Paris; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; and Bibliothèque Municipale, Bordeaux.

II. Secondary Literature. On Le Cat and his work see the anonymous “Précis de la vie & des travaux de M. Le Cat, écuyer, docteur en médecine, & chirurgien en chef de l’hôtel-dieu de Rouen…,”in Journal des beauxarts et des sciences,4 (1768), 312-340; and “Éloge de Monsieur Le Cat,”in Mercure de France (2 Apr. 1769), 151-170; Louis Antoine, “Éloge de Monsieur le Cat,”in E. Dubois, ed., Éloges lus dans les séances publiques de l’Académie royale de chirurgie, de 1750 à 1792 (Paris, 1889), pp. 129-159; Ballière-Delaisment, Éloge de Monsieur Le Cat (Rouen, 1769); L. Boucher, “Notice sur les débutes de Claude-Nicolas Le Cat,”in Précis analytique des travaux de l’Académie des sciences, belles-lettres, et arts de Rouen (1901); Valentin, Éloge de Monsieur le Cat (Rouen, 1769); A. Doyon and L. Liaigre, “Méthodologie comparée du biomécanisme et da la mécanique comparée,”in Dialectica,10 (1956), 292-335; André Girodie, “Le chirurgien Claude Nicolas Le Cat de Blérancourt. Amateur d’art et chevalier de l’Arc,”in Bulletin de la Société d’histoire de Haute Picardie,6 (1928), 51-67; Merry Delabost, “Souvenirs épars. À propos de portraits de deux amis chirurgiens de l’Hôtel-Dieu, membres de l’Académie de Rouen,”in Précis analytique des travaux de l’Académie des science, belles-lettres, et arts de Rouen (1909-1910), 247-256; Gustave Pawlowski, “Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, célèbre chirurgien, ses lettres d’annoblissement et sa descendance,” in Revue d’histoire nobiliaire,1 (1882), 109-128 ;and Théodore Vetter, Claude-Nicolas Le Cat (1700-1768). Chirurgien de province au siècle des lunnières.

ThÉodore Vetter