Senac, Jean-Baptiste

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(b, near Lombez, Gascony, France, ca, 1963; d. Paris, France, 20 December 1770)

anatomy, ophysiology, medicine, chemistry (?).

Nothing definite is known either of Senac’s family or of his early life; nor is it certain where he received the M.D.—although Montpellier and Reims are possibilities. He was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1723 as an anatomist and in 1741 was made associé vétéran, a sign that he was no longer an active member. He served as a doctor with the army and became personal physician to the Maréchal de Saxe. In 1752 he succeeded François Chicoyneau as chief physician to Louis XV and was appointed a councillor of state.

In 1724 Senac published anonymously L’ anatomie d’ Heister, a detailed account of human anatomy and physiology in which he advocated mechanical rather than chemical explanations of bodily functions. Between 1724 and 1729 he wrote several anatomical memoirs, principally on the respiratory organs; and he established that, contrary to popular belief, little water enters the lungs and stomach of the drowned. After twenty years of research on the structure, action, and diseases of the heart, he published in 1749 his most important work, Traite de la structure du coeur...He made important new observations on both healthy and diseased hearts, and the book remained authoritative for many years.

Two anonymous medical books have been attributed to Senac. Traité la peste (1744) includes observations made by Chicoyneau and others during the Marseilles plague of 1720; but a treatise on fevers, De recondita febrium (1759), is clearly based on the author’s personal experience as a physician.

Senac has also been suspected of writing Nouveau cours de chymie, suivant les principles de Newton et de Sthall [sic] (1723), a book consisting partly of extracts from the writings of John Friend. It introduced early Newtonian chemical ideas to French readers—although with little immediate impact—and helped to spread knowledge of the phlogiston theory.


I. Original Works. There are four publications by Senac in Histoirie et Mémories de l’Académie Royale des Sciences; “Sur les organes de la respiration,” in Mémories for 1724 (1726), 159–175; “Sur les noyés,” in Hostorie for 1725 (1727), 12–15; “Sur les mouvements des levres,” in Histoirie for 1727 (1729), 13–15 and “Sur le diaphragme,” in Mémoires for 1729 (1731), 118–134.

The only book with Senac’s name on the title page is Traité de la structure du coeur, de son action, et de ses maladies, 2 vols. (Paris, 1749; 2nd ed., corrected and enlarged by Senac, with additions by Antoine Protal 2 vols, Paris, 1774) Eds. dated 1777 and 1783 have also been recorded.

It is certain that Senac wrote L’anatomie d’Heister, avec des essais de physique sur l’usage de parties du corps humain, &, sur te méchanisme de leurs mouvements (Paris, 1724; 2nd ed., 1735; 3rd ed., 1753). When discussing drowning (2nd ed., p. 168). the author cites his own publication in the memoirs of the Académie for 1725, and this can refer only to Senac’s “Sur les noyès (see above). In the preface (2nd ed., pp. xii-xiii) Senac stated that the book was based on lessons that he had given to foreign students recommended to him by Friend: he had used Heister’s Compendium anatomicum (Altdorf, 1717) as a text, but had added much new material, some of which contradicted Heister.

The Nouveau cours de chymie suivant les principes de Newton et de Sthall [sic] was attributed to Senac in the sale catalog of E. F. Geoffroy’s library (Catalogus librorum...Stephani-Francisci Geoffroy [Paris, 1731], 94, item 1363). P. J. Macquer described it as “a work of Senac’s youth which he has never acknowledged” (Macquer to T. O. Bergman, 22 February 1768, in G. Carlid and J. Nordström, eds., Torbern Bergman’s Foreign Correspondence, I [Stockholm, 1965], p. 230). It may be significant that Nouveau cours and L’anatomie d’Heister had the same publisher, Jacques Vincent, and appeared about the same time, and also that Senac was evidently in touch with Freind (see above), whose writings were utilized by the author of Nouveau cours. But in 1778 Eloy (see below) denied that Senac was the author, as did de la Porte and Renauldin (see below), and the attribution cannot be regarded as certain. There is an Italian trans., Nuovo corso di chimica secondo i principe di Newton e di Sthall, only the 2nd ed. of which (Venice, 1750) has been located (Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine Library, London); the censorship license is dated 29 September 1737 and the date of registration is 9 April 1738 (p. 483), so the 1st ed. probably appeared in 1738.

According to Eloy, Senac wrote the anonymous Traité des causes, des accidens, et de la cure de la peste... (Paris, 1744). He also attributed to Senac De recondita febrium intermittentium, tum remittentium natura, et de earum curatione... (Amsterdam, 1759; enl. ed., Geneva, 1769); the Amsterdam ed. was translated into English, with a few notes, by Charles Caldwell: A Treatise on the Hidden Nature, and the Treatment of Intermitting and Remitting Jean Senac (Philadelphia, 1805)

II. Secondary Literature. A short account of Senac is in N. F. J. Eloy, Dictionnaire historique de la mèdecine, ancienne et moderne, IV (Mons, 1778), 245–247; further information is given by H. de la Porte and L. J. Renauldin in Michaud’s Biographie universelle, XLII (Paris, 1825), 1–2, and by G. Degris, Etude sur Senac, premier mèdecin de Louis XV (Paris, 1901).

Senac’s work on the heart and its diseases is placed in its historical context by D. Guthrie, “The Evolution of Cardiology,” in E. A. Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine and History, Essays in Honour of Charles Singer, II (London, 1953), 508–517, esp. 511; and by J. O. Leibowitz, The History of Coronary Heart Disease (London, 1970), 75–76. The contents of the Nouveau cours de chymie...are discussed by J. R. Partington, History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 58–59; and its importance in the development of Newtonian chemistry is assessed by A. Thackray, Atoms and Powers (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), 94–95.

W. A. Smeaton