Rostan, Léon Louis

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(b. St.-Maximin, Var, France, 16 March 1790; d. Paris, France, 4 October 1866)


The son of a wealthy bourgeois family, Rostan received a good education in Marseilles and at boarding schools in Paris. In 1809 he became an interne des hôpitaux at La Salpêtrière in Paris, serving under the surgeon A. M. Lallement and then under Philippe Pinel. He received his medical degree on 13 May 1812 with the dissertation Essai sur le charlatanisme, dealing with the sociology and ethics of medicine. His thesis defense was presided over by Pine, whose influence remained paramount in Rostan’s thought.

Named an inspector in the Service de Santé at La Salpêtriére, Rostan performed outstanding service during the epidemic of exanthematic typhus in 1814. (He himself suffered a severe attack of the disease.) Appointed médecin-adjoint at La Salpêtrière in 1818, he organized courses in clinical medicine. These lectures, held at the bedside, were presented in a straightforward manner but with great erudition and a highly developed clinical sense. They were immensely popular and influenced auditors as celebrated as J. M. Charcot and K. R. Wunderlich.

During this period Rostan conducted original research on encephalomalacia, myocardial hypertrophy, and cardiac asthma. His scientific publications were notable for the precision of their clinical observations and for the clarity of their anatomico-pathological explanations. Following his appointment in 1883 as professor of clinical medicine at the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, Rostan’s teaching became more dogmatic. An opponent of vitalism and of the medical system of Broussais, he developed and defended a doctrine that was termed “organicism” by his adversary, FrédéricJoseph Bérard of Montpellier. Rostan married late in life and subsequently divided his time between work at the hospital and increasingly longer stays at his country house in Vauxcelles, Provence. He died after a long illness, rendered hemiplegic by cerebral apoplexy.

Rostan was a typical representative of the anatomicoclinical school of Paris. Confident of its sensualist and positivist approach and able to draw on the rich material for observation furnished by the great urban hospitals, this school constituted a bridge between Hippocratic and modern experimental medicine. In all of his scientific work, Rostan pursued the same goal: to explain clinical symptoms by specific organic lesions. His studies of the vascular disorders of the central nervous system and his definition of ramollissement cérébral (encephalomalacia) (1820-1823) were fundamental advances in the knowledge and interpretation of apoplexy. He also demonstrated that asthme des vieillards is not a functional disorder of the bronchia or lungs but is the clinical manifestation of an organic lesion, most often of cardiac origin. Rostan’s “organicism” was a materialist-oriented medical theory, according to which life was defined as an ensemble of functions arising entirely from a specific structure. The so-called vital qualities are determined by the arrangement of the organs, and diseases are malfunctions resulting from material organic modifications.


I. Original Works. Rostan’s principal books are Recherches sur le ramollissement du cerveau (Paris, 1820; 2nd ed., rev., Paris, 1823); Cours élémentaire d’hygiène, 2 vols. (Paris, 1822; 2nd ed., 1828); Traité élémentaire de diagnostic, de pronostic, d’indications thérapeutiques, ou cours de médecine clinique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1826; 2nd ed., 1830); and Exposition des principes de l’organicisme (Paris, 1831; 2nd ed., 1846; 3rd ed., 1864). His most important article is “Mémoire sur cette question: l’asthme des vieillards est-il une affection nerveuse?” in Nouveau journal de medecine, chirurgie, pharmacie, 3 (1818), 3–30; there is an English t rans. by S. Jarcho in American Journal of Cardiology, 23 (1969), 584–587.

II. Secondary Literature. On Rostan’s life, see J. Béclard, Notices et portraits (Paris, 1878), 137–166; and M. Genty, “Rostan,” in Les biographies médicales, 9 (1935), fasc. 3, 81–96. On his work in clinical neurology, see A. Rousseau, “L’analyse diagnostique de l’apoplexie par les médecins de l’école de Paris au début du XIXe siècle,” in Castalia, 21 (1965), 11–24. His work in cardiology is analyzed in M. D. Grmek and A. Rousseau, “L’oeuvre cardiologique de Léon Rostan,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 19 (1966), 29–52. For a brief account of “organicism,” see T. S. Hall, Ideas of Life and Matter (Chicago, 1969), II, 251–254.

M. D. Grmek