French Physician and Social Reformer
Louis-René Villermé was a physician who devoted his life to working for the relief of the suffering among impoverished workers. Early in his career, he decided to abandon private practice and devote himself to social and scientific research to benefit the working class. He was especially appalled by the horrors of child labor and worked to establish laws to prohibit the exploitation of children in factories and mines.
After attending a day school in Lardy, Villermé moved on to a college in Paris and decided to study medicine at the new School of Health. In 1803, during the war between France and Great Britain, many medical students were called to serve as military doctors. Villermé was appointed as surgeon and soon rose to the rank of surgeon-lieutenant. He served with distinction on battlefields in Germany, Poland, and Spain.
At the end of the war, Villermé returned to Paris to work on his doctoral thesis. While practicing medicine in Paris, he learned that a colleague had claimed credit for an operation that Villermé had invented. Although the Academy of Sciences later validated Villermé's priority claim, he was so distressed by the experience that he decided to abandon private practice and devote himself to social and scientific research.
Villermé's widely read book The Prisons, What They Are and What They Have to Be described the horrors of war and the dreadful treatment of prisoners. He also became concerned with the suffering of workers. His research involved the analysis of working conditions, mortality rates, and the relationship between diseases and particular occupations. These studies represented a new stage in the exploration of the relationship between human health and industrial conditions. Descriptive studies gave way to statistical tables of mortality rates in hospitals for various categories, such as sex and occupation. In general the results demonstrated that mortality rates decreased when the wages of workers increased.
Villermé's papers analyzed the relationships among mortality, health, and social classes, birth distributions in urban and rural areas, and the influence of income, occupation, and living conditions on health. His research examined the mortality rates of prisoners, the height and weight of French men, the health of agricultural workers, vaccination, moral hygiene, almshouses, hospital architecture, and the distribution of poverty and wealth in civilized nations. In 1832 he devoted his attention to the battle against the cholera epidemics that were terrifying Europe.
When the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences decided to provide a substantial grant for a study of the condition of the working classes, Villermé and Benoiston de Chateauneuf were asked to carry out the inquiry. Villermé studied industries and workers, interviewed judges, doctors, manufacturers, workers, and went into factories, workshops, and the homes of workers. He noted working conditions, temperature, lighting, vibrations, dust, dangerous postures, and the monotony of repetitious movements. He demonstrated differences between the conditions endured by industrial and service workers. His descriptions of the textile factories, which were then a major French industry, were especially detailed and precise. The harsh working conditions for women in many factories and the exploitation of very young children particularly disturbed him.
For each district, Villermé prepared detailed tables which summarized the wages for different kinds of work and the prices of necessities. These reports appeared as Statistical Studies of the Physical and Moral State of Workers in the Production of Cotton, Wool, and Silk. Villermé urged the government to impose "a law of humanity" to restrict child labor in factories and mines. The first French law to regulate child labor was quite inadequate; it permitted the employment of children as young as at eight years of age. In 1850 the legal age was raised to ten; in 1874 it was raised to twelve.
A paper entitled "Accidents produced in industrial work-shops by mechanical engines" demonstrates Villermé's skill as a safety engineer and mechanic. He wrote about the construction of "clean machines" that would not produce dusts, inquiries concerning accidents and injuries, protective fittings, grates, railings, cages, straps, safe ways of moving and using machines, the construction of well-lit work places, and the need for safety inspectors. Villermé's research was an important forerunner of modern epidemiology and occupational medicine.
LOIS N. MAGNER