Riolan, Jean, Jr.

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(b. Paris, France, 15 February 1580; d. Paris, 19 February 1657)

anatomy, medicine.

Jean Riolan, Sr. (1539–1606), came from Amiens and was a leading member of the Paris Medical Faculty, serving as dean in 1585–1586. He published a series of commentaries on the works of; Fernel as well as many other medical and philosophical works. His wife was of the Piètre family, which was very prominent in Parisian medicine during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; its members included several deans of the faculty.

After studying chiefly under his uncle Simon Piètre, Jean, Jr., took his M.D. in 1604. He was soon named to a new chair of anatomy and botany at the University of Paris and also to a chair of medicine at the Collège Royal. From 1640 until his death he was dean of the college; and although he never held the formal position of dean of the faculty, in his later years he was called its doyen in an honorific sense. He enjoyed the close friendship of his younger colleague Guy Patin, although the latter’s correspondence depicts the elderly Riolan as a harsh, embittered, and unforgiving personality. His unhappy marriage produced three sons and two daughters.

Riolan was born into a very conservative medical establishment, among the chief concerns of which were the suppression of new currents in medicine that threatened to undermine the classical tradition and (closely related to this) the protection of its privileges against rival practitioners. Riolan participated vigorously in these activities of the faculty. From 1603 to 1606 he took part in a pamphlet war that his father had begun against Duchesne and other Paracelsians, and he later published attacks on Parisian surgeons and on graduates of the rival faculty of Montpellier who were practicing in Paris.

But almost alone among his colleagues in the faculty, Riolan stood for more than just a smug defense of the past. From his youth he was a dedicated student of anatomy, and through his efforts he restored to Paris its eminence, lost after the middle of the sixteenth century, as a center of teaching and research in that field. He had an abiding respect for Galen as the surest guide to anatomy; but in determining matters of structural detail, he placed ultimate reliance on his own thorough and critical experience in dissection, which commanded the sincere respect even of less conservative contemporaries. He established his reputation through a series of textbooks, the most important being the second edition of Anthropographia (1626); these works reveal a mastery not only of original anatomical observation and of the classical and modern anatomical literature but also of classical learning in general. In his later Encheiridium (1648) he included a systematic presentation of both morbid and normal anatomy. He regarded himself, and to some extent was regarded by others, as an international arbiter in anatomical matters; and many of his other publications were concerned with assessing and criticizing the work of contemporaries.

Riolan’s anatomical studies were interrupted when, in 1633, he became the principal physician of the queen mother, Marie de Médicis. He accompanied her on the foreign travels that were enforced upon her because of her political machinations. Thus he was with her in England from 1638 to 1641, and he attended her final illness at Cologne in 1642. Upon his permanent return to Paris, he resumed his anatomical pursuits to the extent that his advancing age and declining health would permit, producing a spate of new publications beginning in 1648. The harshly polemical character of many of these later works, however, reflects the profound change that had occurred in anatomy and physiology in the interval. Earlier, Riolan had assumed that new discoveries in anatomy could only enhance and confirm the ancient medical doctrines; but now he was confronted with a number of discoveries that (as he saw perhaps more clearly than the proponents of such discoveries) threatened the very foundations of traditional medical practice. Riolan felt that the value of these practices, and hence of the theories on which they were based, had been established beyond question by the experience of countless physicians, and that this evidence must be taken into account along with anatomical and vivisectional evidence in judging new physiological theories. He therefore tried to accept the new discoveries without undermining established practices and to show that, to the extent that the innovations were incompatible with tradition, they were not based on sound observation.

Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood was the most important threat that Riolan sought to disarm. He had met Harvey during his stay in London; and although his initial reaction to the circulation was favorable, he eventually concluded that the idea would subvert much of humoral medicine. He therefore developed his own concept of circulation, according to which the blood circulates very slowly (perhaps once or twice a day), and only through the larger arteries and veins of the body, which he claimed were connected directly by anastomoses. In the smaller vessels the blood moves gradually outward as it is assimilated by the parts of the body, so that local variations in the humors can develop. Above all, the blood does not circulate through the mesenteric vessels, where the incoming nutriment must remain until it has been properly concocted and purified by the liver, the central role of which in determining the overall humoral balance of the body is thus preserved.

Riolan admitted that some vivisectional evidence seems to support the general, rapid Harveian circulation; but he maintained that under normal physiological conditions the movements of the blood are much more tranquil than those observed in vivisection. Riolan’s publication of these ideas in his Encheiridium (1648) occasioned Harvey’s first and only formal reply to his critics (1649). Riolan developed his own concept of circulation and his criticisms of Harvey in a further series of tracts, in one of which (1652) he added a second “Hippocratic circulation” involving only the arms and legs.

The discovery of the thoracic duct by Pecquet (1651) and of the lymphatic vessels by Thomas Bartholin (1653) provoked another series of responses by Riolan (1652, 1653). He accepted the purely anatomical aspects of this work but bitterly opposed the interpretations of Pecquet and Bartholin, who reduced the liver to insignificance in the overall economy of the body. While his position was chiefly motivated by his concern with protecting Galenic medicine, he defended it with concrete evidence regarding the importance of the liver that the innovators had chosen to ignore.


I. Original Works. Riolan’s first anatomical work was Schola anatomica novis et raris observationibus illustrata. Cui adiuncta est accurata foetus humani historia (Paris, 1608). A revised and enlarged version was published as Anatome and appended to his edition of his father’s Opera omnia, tam hactenus edita quam, postuma … (Paris, 1610). Anthropographia ex propriis et novis observationibus collecta (Paris, 1618) was a further expansion of this text, while Anthropographia et osteologia (Paris, 1626) also incorporated other earlier works: Osteologia, ex veterum et recentium praeceptis descripta (Paris, 1614), and Anatomica humani foetus historia. Adjectae sunt viventis animalis observationes anatomicae (Paris, 1618). A final revised ed. of Anthropographia was included in Opera anatomica vetera, recognita, & auctiora, quam-plurima nova (Paris, 1649). Encheiridium anatomicum, et pathologicum (Paris, 1648) was a shorter compendium.

Riolan’s numerous tracts on the circulation and lymphatics were published in four main collections: Opuscula anatomica nova (London, 1649), also included in the Opera anatomica (1649); Opuscula anatomica, varia, & nova (Paris, 1652); Opuscula nova anatomica (Paris, 1653); and Responsiones duae, prima ad experimenta nova Pecqueti, altera ad Pecquetianos (Paris, 1655). Most of his many other controversial tracts are listed in the Catalogue général des livres imprimés de la Bibliothèque national. Auteurs, CLII (Paris, 1938), cols. 348–352.

II. Secondary Literature. No full biographical study exists. R. Tabuteau, Deux anatomistes français: Les Riolan (Paris, 1929), is short but useful. Additional biographical details are provided by T. Vetter, “Jean Riolan, second du nom, qui ne fut pas doyen des écoles de Paris,” in Presse médicale,73 (1965), 3269–3274; and G. Whitteridge, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood (London-New York, 1971), 175–200. For general background, including some discussion of Riolan, see J. Lévy-Valensi, La médecine et les médecins français au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1933); and J. Roger, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIIIe siècle, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1971), 7–48.

The best general assessment of Riolan’s work is N. Mani, “Jean Riolan II (1580–1657) and Medical Research,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 42 (1968), 121–144. For his views on the heart and circulation, see Whitteridge, op. cit.; W. Pagel, William Harvey’s Biological Ideas (Basel-New York, 1967), 74–76, 216–218; and K. Rothschuh, “Jean Riolan jun. (1580–1657) im Streit mit Paul Marquart Schlegel (1605–1653) um die Blutbewegungslehre Harveys,” in Gesnerus, 21 (1964), 72–82.

Jerome J. Bylebyl