Orfila, Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure

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Orfila, Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure


Mathieu Orfila helped initiate the study of toxicology . His massive treatise on poisons appeared in three languages in the second decade of the nineteenth century and immediately propelled the medical, biological, chemical, physiological, and legal sciences in new directions.

Born as Mateu José Bonaventura Orfila i Rotger Maó, Minorca, Spain, he eschewed his family's traditional career of merchant seafaring when he was fifteen in order to study medicine . From 1804 to 1807, he attended courses in medicine at the University of Valencia and chemistry at the University of Barcelona. He won a scholarship to the University of Madrid to study chemistry and mineralogy, but went instead to Paris in June 1807 to study medicine and pharmacy. There Orfila became the protégé of pharmacist and chemist Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin and chemist Louis-Jacques Thénard. As hostilities brewed that led to the 18081814 Peninsular War, Napoleonic France threatened Orfila with expulsion, but Vauquelin interceded on his behalf and Orfila was allowed to remain in Paris.

Orfila continued working with Vauquelin and Thénard after receiving his medical degree from the Faculté de Médecine de Paris in 1811. He married Anne Gabrielle Lesueur in 1815, succeeded Thénard as professor of chemistry at L'Athénée in 1817, became a naturalized French citizen in 1818, was named professor of legal medicine at the Faculté de Médecine in 1819, and succeeded Vauquelin there as professor of medical chemistry in 1823. He became dean of the Faculté de Médecine in 1831 and in 1834, was created Knight of the Legion of Honor.

All this success was due to Orfila's first book, his masterpiece, Traité des poisons, tirés des reégnes minéral végétal et animal; ou toxicologie générale, considérée sous les rapports de la physiologie, de la pathologie et de la médecine légale, which was published in two volumes in Paris in 18141815. Three translations soon appeared: A General System of Toxicology, or, a Treatise on Poisons, Drawn from the Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal Kingdoms, Considered as to their Relations with Physiology, Pathology and Medical Jurisprudence, translated by John Augustine Waller in London in 18161817; Joseph Nancrede's abridged translation, A General System of Toxicology, or, a Treatise on Poisons Found in the Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Kingdoms, Considered in their Relations with Physiology, Pathology and Medical Jurisprudence, in Philadelphia in 1817; and Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt's German translation in Berlin in 18181819. All were received with enthusiasm in the scientific community.

One of Orfila's other major works includes Elémens de chimie medicale, published in two volumes in 1817 and translated as Elements of Medical Chemistry in 1818. Another is Secours a donner aux personnes empoisonées ou asphyxiées, suivis des moyens propres a reconnaître les poisons et les vins frelateś, et a distinguer la mortéelle de la mort apparente, published in 1818 and translated twice the same year, once by William Price as A Popular Treatise on the Remedies to be Employed in Cases of Poisoning and Apparent Death, Including the Means of Detecting Poisons, of Distinguishing Real from Apparent Death, andof Ascertaining the Adulteration of Wines, and once by R. Harrison Black as Directions for the Treatment of Persons who have Taken Poison, and Those in a State of Apparent Death, Together with the Means of Detecting Poisons and Adulterations in Wine, also of Distinguishing Real from Apparent Death. He also wrote Leçons de médécine legale [Lessons in Legal Medicine], which appeared in three volumes from 1821 to 1823, and Traité des exhumations juridiques [Treatise on Juridical Exhumations], published in 1831, as well as several later works specifically about arsenic, the poison most commonly preferred by murderers of that era.

Orfila was the founding editor of two important medical journals, Journal de chimie médicale, de pharmacie et de toxicology in 1824 and Annales d'hygène publique et de médecine ĺgale in 1829. He also founded the Society of Medical Chemistry in 1824, the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, known as the Musée Dupuytren, in 1835, and the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, now called the Musée Orfila, in 1845.

Serving as an expert witness in several famous legal proceedings further enhanced his reputation. Using his own improvements on the arsenic detection methods of James Marsh , Orfila helped to uncover the truth about the murders of Nicolas Mercier in 1838 and Charles LaFarge in 1840. However, because he wished to avoid controversy, he refused to participate as an expert witness after 1843.

Like many European scientists of the early nineteenth century, Orfila fell victim to political intrigue. He was honored during both the Bourbon Restoration and the reign of Louis Philippe, but quickly fell out of favor in the 1848 revolutions. Although his medical deanship was abruptly terminated on February 28, 1848, he was still able to serve as president of the Académie de Médecine from 1850 to 1852. It is said that the stress he suffered during the Second Republic hastened his physical decline and led to his death.

see also Physiology; Poison and antidote actions; Toxicology.