Vicq D’azyr, Félix

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(b. Valognes, Manche, France, 28 April 1748; d. Paris, France, 20 June 1794), anatomy, epidemiology, medical education,

Vicq d’Azyr was a member of the Académie Française and the Académie des Sciences, as well as permanent secretary of the Société Royale de Médecine. He also was substitute professor at the Jardin du Roi and personal physician to Marie Antoinette.

After studying at Caen, Vicq d’Azyr went to Paris in 1765 and developed a market interest in anatomy and physiology. In 1773 he gave a private course in those subjects, which attracted a large audience. He became the student of Antoine Petit (1722-1794) and of Daubenton, professor at the Jardin du Roi, whose niece he married. In 1774 Vicq d’Azyr earned his medical degree and on 16 March was elected to the Académie des Sciences as adjoint anatomiste, replacing Portal.1 He soon demonstrated his considerable talents and in 1775 was sent by Turgot to stem a serious epizootic disease ravaging the Midi. The mission was successful, and in 1778 Vicq d’Azyr was named permanent secretary of the Société Royale de Médecine. On 12 December 1784 he was elected associé anatomiste of the Académie des Sciences, replacing Petit and became associé in anatomy on 23 April 1785. He recieved a double honor in 1788, with his election to membership of the Académie Française and his appointment physician to the queen, who called him “mon philosophe.”

During the Revolution, Vicq d’Azyr’s postion was ambiguous; although he continued to serve the queen, he remained a guiding spirit in the movement for medical reform, of which he had been a pioneer. Among his friends, Bailly and Lavoisier were guillotined; whereas others, such as Fourcroy, if not responsible for the executions, at least condoned them. Like his contemporary Pierre Desault, Vicq d’ Azyr was obsessed by the fear that he was under suspicion and would be taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal. After attending the festival of the Supreme Being he came down with a violent fever and died in a delirium-an external manifestation (it was said) of the inner tensions and obsessions that had made rest impossible for him.

Vicq’ Azyr was greatly interested in comparative anatomy. Before the changes that he and J. F. Blumenbach made in the study of the subject, it was customary to dissect animals of different species and juxtapose their various organs. The species were poorly delimited, and Vicq d’Azyr showed that, in any case, the object of the science was different. According to him, what was most important was to decide the significant characteristics (structures of limbs, of extremities, and of pectoral and pelvic girdles; mode of remaining at rest and of moving; dentition; and so forth), to study their variations systematically throughout the animal kingdom, and to develop a nomenclature based on that used by the chemists. Toward this end he began work on Systéme anatomique des vertébrés. continued by Hippolyte Cloquet (1787-1840).

Vicq d’Azyr devoted particular attention to neuroanatomy, studying the cervical plexus and especially the vertebrate brain. In his research he introduced quantitative data, comparing the weight of the brain with body weight. In morphology he followed the majority of contemporary anatomists in neglecting the ventricles, which in the older theories had been considered reservoirs of the “animal spirits.”

Like Steno before him, Vicq d’Azyr attached great importance to the structure of the fibers in the white matter of the brain. He wrote four memoirs on them, sometimes showing them in transverse and frontal sections and sometimes “scraping them without damaging the surface.” (The latter technique was later perfected by Gall and Spurzheim.) He also described the mammillothalamic bundle and Reil’s ribbon.

Rejecting the views of Malpighi and Vieussens, who attributed no functional importance to the cerebral cortex, Vicq d’Azyr attempted to systematize its complex morphology. In particular he isolated the convolution of the corpus callosum, the cuneus, and the sulcus separating the frontal lobe from the parietal, later described by Rolando (1829).2

Despite his enthusiasm for dissection, Vicq d’Azyr was not satisfied with the results obtained by this technique: “Seeing and describing are two things that everyone believes he is capable of doing; yet few people really can do them. The first requires great powers of concentration and insights in dealing with the type of object observed; the second requires method and knowledge of the terms necessary for conveying an exact idea of what one has seen” (Oeuvres, IV, 208). This statement probably alludes to the absence of a nomenclature for the cerebral convolutions, which at the time were no better described than those of the intestine. It also reflects a contradictory aspect of the author’s thought that has been stressed by G. Lanteri-Laura.3 Vicq d’Azyr was among those who continued to believe in a very simple neuroanatomical schema in which physiological considerations were predominant. This conception left little room for embryology, comparative anatomy, experimentation, or clinical findings, and led to some very controversial cerebral localizations. The scientists who held this view seem to have been unaware that it was rapidly being undermined by their own discoveries and methods. Paradoxically, while their research was making the complexity of brain structures increasingly evident, their theories helped to delay a thorough study of these structures.

Vicq d’Azyr was an eminent veterinarian. In the eighteenth century, animal medicine was economically important for French farmers and aristocrats. It was no less important ideologically for the two major “philosophical” groups in France: the Physiocrats, who were concerned primarily with agronomic and social questions, and the Encyclopedists, who did not neglect nature but were less interested than the former group in the practical consequences of their teaching. Fortunately, Turgot and Exupère Bertin convinced the government that responsibility for dealing with epizootic diseases could not be entrusted to self-taught farriers. As a result the government founded specialized veterinary schools at Lyons (1762) and at Alfort (1765). In these schools, the term maréchalerie was replaced by that of art vétérinaire starting in 1767.

Veterinary teaching was then influenced by two contending opinions. The Physiocrats held that veterinary medicine should be allied with agriculture, while the Encyclopedists thought it more properly belonged with human medicine. The latter view, which was shared by Buffon and a number of physicians who dealt with both humans and animals (notably Nicolas Chambon de Montaux, Daubenton, and Vicq d’Azyr at Paris, and Vitet and Jacques Petetin at Lyons), temporarily triumphed following the death of Claude Bourgelat (1779) and the retirement of Bertin (1780). At this time Vicq d’Azyr taught at Alfort and wrote a number of works on comparative anatomy, since the material necessary for studying the subject was readily available. He also conceived a project for reorganizing medical studies, one aspect of which involved combining in a single overall curriculum the teaching of animal medicine (represented by the school at Alfort) and of human medicine (represented by the Faculty of Medicine, the schools of surgery, the Collège Royal, the Jardin du Roi, and the Jardin des Apothicaires).

Vicq d’Azyr was no mere theorist of veterinary medicine. He showed his ability in practice and played a particularly important part in the fight against epizootic diseases started by Turgot in 1775-1776. His Instruction sur la manière de désinfecter une paroisse (1775) is particularly interesting in this regard. Taking a realistic view of what was possible, the work delegates more responsibility to the government and the army than to the veterinarians. It recommends an operation encompassing diagnosis of the disease, isolation of the suspected area by a cordon of troops, quarantine, treatment, and in some cases destruction of the animals, followed by repopulation. The basic weapon in this struggle was the disinfection of hides and stables with chemicals (sulfuric acid, sulfur, gunpowder), which were substituted for the traditional perfumes with aromatic plants. This technique proved so effective that the French decrees of 1881 and 1898, which are still in effect, essentially reproduced the recommendations that Vicq d’ Azyr made in 1776.

Vicq d’ Azyr’s publications on human medicine are of little importance. A number of them appeared under “Médecine” in the Encyclopédie Méthodique of which he was an editor. On the other hand, he was a pioneer in public health and medical education. As permanent secretary of the Société Royal de Médecine, Vicq d’ Azyr maintained a network for exchanging information and conducting studies on a national scale for fifteen years. In this effort he was assisted by practicing physicians, medical schools, and provincial academies. The inquiries he initiated into topographie médicale et salubrité encouraged many provincial doctors to take a more modern and nationally oriented view of health problems and helped foster the idea that public health is one of the responsibilities of the medical profession.4 Furthermore, while acting as medical expert for the Constituent Assembly, Vicq d’Azyr created and guided the activities of its Comité de Salubrité. He called upon the physicians who had been elected deputies to support adoption of a project for the reform of French medicine that he had completed in 1790. The project, approved by the Constituent Assembly, was adopted without major changes by the National Convention in 1794, following Fourcroy’s report on it.


1. The archives of the Académie des Sciences contain a letter from the duke of La Vrillière, dated 13 Mar. 1774, on the election of Vicq d’ Azyr and of Toussaint Bordenave to the Academy.

2. See P. Broca, “Note sur la topographie cérébrale et sur quelques points de l’historie des circonvolutions.”

3. See G. Lanteri-Laura. L’homme et son cerveau selon Gall. Histoire et signification de la phrénologie.

4. See D. Weiner, “Le droit de I’homme à la santé.”


I. Original Works. There is no comprehensive bibliography of the works of Vicq d’Azyr. Many of his papers are in boxes of material from the Société Royale de Médecine, now in the library of Académie Nationale de Médecine; the catalog of these cartons has not yet been published. They contain letters and autograph memoirs of Vicq d’ Azyr from the Société Royale de Médecine (fols. 159, 160; MS 33 [33]). The library of the Muséum National d’ Historie Naturelle has various notes and annotated extracts from the minute books of the Société Royale de Médecine for 1779 and 1780 (MSS 1452-1459), in 8 vols. At the Archives Nationales (ser. AF I23) there are the original versions of the procés verbaux of the meetings of the Comité de Salubrité of the Constituent Assembly; cartons F17 1236-1239, F17 1245-1246, and F17 1094 contain reports by and correspondence from Vicq d’ Azyr on various matters. The dossier on vicq d’Azyrat at the Académie des Sciences contains a dictated letter of 12 Oct. 1777 to a colleague; an autograph of June 1780, “Examens d’enfants atteints d’anomalies osseuses et de déformations”; an undated letter to a M. Perrier concerning the examination of the water of the Seine by means of a special pump (only the postscript is autograph); a letter concerning the anatomical observation of a mandrill, a callithrix, and a macaque, which was published in the Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences for 1780; an other undated autograph; an autograph memoir on the anastomoses of Delafosse (undated); and an autograph memoir on the anatomical observation of a thirty-six-year-old woman suffering from pains in the uterus, followed by death.

Vicq d’Azyr published many articles in Journal des sciences et des beaux-arts, Mercure de France, Clef du cabinet des souverains, and Journal des savants. His most important articles were published in the Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences (from 1772 to 1785) and in the Mémoires of the Société Royale de Médecine de Paris (from 1775 to 1788). A fairly complete listing of these works is in J. D. Reuss, ed., Repertorium commentationum, 16 vols. (Göttingen, 1801-1821; repr. New York, 1962)- see the indexes to vols. II, III, VI, VIII, X, XV, and XVI. The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 152, lists two papers published in Bulletin des sciences de la Sociéaé philomathique de Paris, to which should be added “Observations sur un bruit singulier dans la région du coeur d’un particulier” (July 1791), 22.

A collected ed. of Vicq d’ Azyr’s works, with annotations and a discussion of his life and writings by J. L. Moreau, was published as Oeuvres de Vicq-d’ Azyr, 6 vols. (Paris, 1805).

Space does not permit the listing of the many separately published works that appeared during Vicq d’Azyr’s lifetime; they include translations, dissertations for which he served as chairman, and éloges which are included in his Oeuvres (see above). Many of these works are listed in Bibliothèque Nationale Catalogue général des livres imprimés CCVIII (Paris, 1970), cols. 311-322. The following bibliography (listed in alphabetical order), although incomplete, is representative of Vicq d’Azyr’s scientific publications: Avis aux habitants des campagnes où règne la contagion (Condom, 1774); Avis important relativement aux bestiaux atteints de la maladie épizootique (Condom, 1775); Consulation surle traitment qui convient aux bestiaux attaqués de l’eápizootie (Bordeaux, 1775); De I’influence des maraissur la santé… (Paris, 1790); Dictionnaire de médecine de l’Encyclopédie méthodique, 14 vols. (Paris, 1787-1830)—Vicq d’ Azyr contributed many articles to the first six cols,; Discours sur l’anatomie comparée (Paris, n.d.); Exposé des moyens curatifs et préservatifs qui peuvent être employés contre les maladies pestilentielles des bêtes á cornes (Paris, 1776); Instruction relative á l’épizootie (pour les soldats (Rouen, 1775); Instruction relative á l’épizootie (pour les syndics) (Rouen, 1775); Instruction sur la manière de désinfecter les cuirs des bestiaux morts de i’épizootie… (Paris, 1775); Instruction sur la maniére de désinfecter les étables de bestiaux attaqués de l’è’pizootie (Paris, 1776); Instruction sur la manière de désinfecter les villages (Paris, 1775); Instruction sur la manière de désinfecter une paroisse(Paris, 1775); Instruction sur la maniére d’inventories et de conserver… tous les objets qui peuvent servir aux arts… (Paris, 1794), attributed to Vicq d’ Azyr; La médecine des bêtes á cornes 2 vols. (Paris, 1781); Nouveau plan de conduite pour détruire entiérement la maladie épizootique (Lille, n.d.); Observations sur les moyens que l’on peut employer pour preéserver les animaux sanins de la contagion… (Bordaeux, 1774); Précaution pour la purification des étables (n.p.., n.d.); Recueil d’ observations…sur différentes méthodes…pour guérir la maladie épidémique qui attaque les bêtes à conrnes…(Paris, 1775); Systéme anatomique, Quadrupèdes (Paris, 1792); Traité d’ anatomie et de physiologie (Paris, 1786); Traité de l’ anatomie du cerveau (Paris, 1813); and Table pour servir á l’histoire anatomique et naturelle des corps vivants (n.p.,n.d. [Paris, 1774]).

II. Secondary Literature. Articles on Vicq d’Azyr are in Michaud, Biographie universelle, XLVIII, 374–378; Encyclopédie méthodique, XIII(Paris, 1830), 446–455; Dezeimeris’s Dictionnaire historique de la médecine ancienne et moderne, IV (Paris, 1839), 330–334; Bayle and Thillaye’s Biographie médicale, II (Paris, 1855), 718–720; and Biographisches Lexicon, V (Berlin—Vienna, 1934), 747–749.

Other works are L. Barbillion, “Vicq d’Azyr,” in Paris médical, 62 (1926), 309–311 (appendix); F. G.Boisseu and C. Cavenne, “Vicq d’Azyr,” in Dictionaire des sciences médicales. Biographie médicale, VII (Paris, 1825), 429–432; Paul Broca, “Note sur la topographie cérébrale et sur quelques points de l’histoire des circonvolutions,” in Bulletin de l’Académie de médicine, 2nd ser., 5 (1876), 824–834; P. J. G.Cabanis, “Éloge de Vicq d’Azyr,” in his Oeuvres complètes, V (Paris, 1825), 177–216; G. Cuvier, Histoire des sciences naturelles depuis leur origine jusqu’a nos jours, 5 vols, (Paris, 1841-1845), IV, 297–305; V, 45, 379; J. Dobson, Anatomical Eponyms (Edinburgh—London, 1962); Michel Dronne, Bertin et l’élevage français au XVIII siècle (Alfort, 1965), 145–212; F. Dubois, “Recherches historiques sur les dernières années de Louis et de Vicq d’Azyr, secrétaires perpétuels de la Société royale de médecine et de la Société royale de chirurgie. L’histoire de la guillotine,” in Journal des connaissances médicales pratiques et de pharmacologie, 34 (1867), 17–19, 33–37, 49–51; A. J. L. M. Dufresne, Notes sur la vie et les oeuvres de Vicq d’ Azyr (1748-1794). Histoire de la fondation de l’Académie de médecine (Bordeaux, 1906), diss. for the M.D. (no. 65); and the anonymous “Bibliographical Sketch on Vicq d’Azyr,” in Edthourgh Medical and surgical Journal, 3 (1807), 180–185.

See also R. L. M. Faull, D. M. Taylor, and J. B. Carman, “Soemmering and the Substantia Nigra,” in Medical History, 12 (1968), 297–299; M. Genty, “Vicq d’Azyr commissaire pour l’extraction du salpêtre,” in Progrès médical, supp. ill. no.2 (1936), 9–16; C. A. deGerville, “Vicq d’ Azyr,” in his Études géographiques et historiques sur le départment de la Manche, XL (Cherbourg, 1854), 284; Lucien Hahn, “Vicq d’Azyr,” in Dictionnaire encyclopéduque des sciences médicales, 5th ser., III (Paris, 1889), 452–453; H.Hours, La lutte contre les épizooties et l’école vétérinaire de Lyon au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1957), 90–92; P. Huard, “L’enseignement médico-chirurgical,” in R. Taton, ed., Enseignement et diffusion des sciences en France au XVIIIéme siècle (Paris, 1964), 170–236; Kaime, “Une anecdote de la vie de Vicq d’Azyr,” in Revue de thérapeutique médico-chirurgicale (1859), 249; Claude Lafisse, Éloge de Vicq d’Azyr… (Paris, 1797), also in Recuiel périodique de la Société de médecine de Paris, III (Paris, 1798), 201–226; G. Lanteri-Laura, L’homme et son cerveau selon Gall. Histoire et signification de laphré phrénologie (Paris, 1970); and P. E. Lemontey, Éloge historique de Vicq d’Azyr, prononcé… 23 aoút 1825 (Paris, n.d.).

Futher works are L .F .A. Maury, Les académies d’autrefois. L’ancienne Académie des sciences (Paris, 1864); L. Merle, “La vie et l’ oeuvre du Dr. Jean Gabriel Gallot (1744-1794),” in Mémoires de la Société des antiquaires de l’Ouest (Poitiers), 4th ser., 5 (1962); J. L. Moreau, Éloge de Vicq d’Azyr suivi d’un précis des travaux anatomiques et physiologiques de ce célèbre médecin (Paris, 1798); J. Noir, “Un savant, un innovateur et un réalisateur. Félix Vicq d’Azyr,” in Concours médical (6 Apr. 1927), 927–929; Félix Pascalis Ouvrière, An Exposition of the Dangers of Interment in Cities (New York, 1824); J. Roger, Les médecins normands, II (Paris, 1895), 169–181; C. A. Sainte Beuve, “Notice sur Vicq d’Azyr,” in Union médicale, 8 (1854), 355–356, 359–361, 371–372; A.C.Saucerotte, “Vicq d’Azyr,” in Nouvelle biographie générale, XLV (Paris, 1866), 89–91; J. A. Sharp, “Alex Monro Secundus and the Interventricular Foramen,” in Medical History, 5 (Jan, 1961), 83–89; W. A. Smeaton, Fourcroy, Chemist and Revolutionary (Cambridge, 1962), passim; and Dora Weiner, “Le droit de I’homme à la santé. Une belle idée devant l’Assemblée constituante, 1790–91,” in Clio medica, 5 (1970), 209–223.

P. Huard
M. J. Imbault-Huart