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Portal, Antoine


(b. Gaillac, France, 5 January 1742; d. Paris, France, 23 July 1832)

medicine, history of medicine.

Portal was the eldest son of Antoine Portal, an apothecary, and Marianne Journès. After attending the Jesuit college in Albi, he went to Montpellier, where he studied medicine from 1762 to 1765. Then, with letters of recommendation to Sénac, Lieutaud, and Buffon, he traveled to Paris, where he remained until his death. In 1774 he married Anne Barafort; they had two daughters.

In 1766 Portal was appointed anatomy teacher to the twelve-year-old dauphin (the future Louis XVI). In Paris, as in Montpellier, he organized private courses in anatomy for students who were dissatisfied with the antiquated instruction given at the Faculté de Médecine. He also established a medical practice and rapidly built up a large clientele. Because of his knowledge of anatomy and medicine Portal was one of the most respected physicians in Paris, especially for the diagnosis, through physical examination, of abdominal disorders; to win such repute, however, he employed methods bordering on charlatanism.

Portal was elected an adjunct member of the Académie des Sciences in 1769, an associate member in 1774, and a pensioner in 1784. He served as professor of anatomy at the Collège de France from 1769; and in 1778, with Buffon’s support, he was assigned the chair of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi that Vicq d’Azyr had hoped to win. Portal’s lectures, which were very popular at both institutions, were supplemented by experiments in physiology and experimental pathology. No important anatomical discovery, however, can be attributed to Portal; and on certain points he was even unaware of contemporary knowledge: he mistakenly viewed the urachus as the suspensory ligament of the bladder rather than the remains of an embryonal canal; and he believed that anencephaly was caused by a difficult childbirth.

The French Revolution had little effect on Portal’s career; he continued to treat a distinguished clientele and to teach at the College de France and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (formerly the Jardin du Roi). He was named to the Institut de France when that body was created in 1795 in place of the old academies.

Portal’s works appeared between 1764 and 1827, when he published Observations sur la nature et le traitement de l’épilepsie at the age of eighty-five. Although he demonstrated, even in his earliest works, an interest in pathological anatomy, Portal is known chiefly for his Historie de l’anatomie et de la chirurgie, in which he recounted (in the form of a biobibliographical dictionary) the evolution of anatomy and its surgical applications from “the Flood and the Trojan War” to 1755. Although the notices on contemporary authors led to several polemics, the work is still a valuable reference. Portal also published new editions of his patrons’ works: for Lieutaud, Historia anatomica medica (1767) and Anatomie historique et pratique (1776), and for Sénac, Traité de la structure du coeur (1774).

Portal published several Instructions, commissioned by the government and addressed to physicians and the public concerning problems of public health (including asphyxiation in “mephitic vapors” and measures of first aid for the drowning and for persons bitten by rabid animals). In an Instruction published in 1775 he advocated the method of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Portal’s Observations sur la nature et sur le traitement de la phthisie pulmonaire (1792), which was translated into Italian (1801) and German (1802), was a synthesis of currently accepted knowledge, in which he affirmed the noncontagiousness of phthisis. In his work on liver ailments Portal cited the hepatic congestion that accompanies deficient cardiac action, the cardiac cirrhosis that can result from it, and the types of hepatitis induced by overexertion.

In 1818, an old man still attired in the style of the Ancien Régime, he was named first physician to the king, Louis XVIII, an honor of which he had dreamed all his life. He retained this office under Charles X, who named him a baron. In 1820, after repeated requests from Portal, the Académie Royal de Médecine was created, and Portal was named its permanent honorary president.


I. Original Works. Portal’s major works are Histoire de l’anatomie et de la chirurgie, 7 vols. (Paris, 1770–1773); Instruction sur les traitemens des asphixiés par le méphitisme, des noyés, . . . (Paris, 1795–1796); Mémoires sur la nature et le traitement de plusieurs maladies, 5 vols. (Paris, 1800–1825); Cours d’anatomie médicale ou élémens de l’anatomie de l’homme, 5 vols. (Paris, 1803–1804); and Observations sur la nature et le traitement des maladies du foie (Paris, 1813).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no complete biography of Portal. See Paul Busquet, “Antoine Portal,” in Biographies médicales, 1 (1928), no. 17, 261–272; no. 18, 277–288; François Granel, “La prestigieuse carrière d’Antoine Portal,” in Monspeliensis Hippocrates, no. 2 (1961), 9–21; and Étienne Pariset, ““Discourse aux obsèques du baron Portal,” in Revue médicale française et étrangère,3 (1832), 152–155.

Pierre Chabbert

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