Entre ici, Joséphine Baker

The best part of Emmanuel Macron’s discours at the Panthéon was the end:

Now, tonight, Joséphine Baker enters here, accompanied by all those artists who surrounded her, all those artists who loved jazz, dance, Cubism, music; all those who loved the liberty of those years.

She enters tonight with all those who, like her, saw France as a land where they could live, a place where they could stop dreaming of being somewhere else, a promise of emancipation.

She enters here, with all those who chose France, all those who loved her and love her, deep in their flesh; all those who saw her stumble and yet continued to love her, all those who saw her brought low and fought to raise her up.

French by the blood they shed, the battles they fought, the love they gave.

She enters here to remind us all, to force us to remind ourselves, we who sometimes doggedly try to forget , of the elusive beauty in our collective destiny: that we are a nation of combat, a fraternal nation, but that what we desire, what we deserve, is embodied only when it is rightly large and truly fearless.

Joséphine Baker, you enter our Pantheon and with you enters a breeze of fantasy and audacity. Yes; for the first time here, what also enters is a particular idea of freedom and celebration.

You enter our Pantheon because you loved France, because you pointed out her path, a path that was truly hers yet one she nevertheless doubted.

You enter into our Pantheon because, born American, no-one is more French than you.

At the end of your long career, adapting the lyrics of your greatest hit, you proclaimed: “My country is Paris”.

Tonight each of us echoes your refrain as a love song, saying “My France – it is Josephine”.

Long live the Republic. Long live France.


Many things bring foreigners to Paris. But, from the mid 18th through the mid-19th century, one of the draws was dead bodies. Parisians had what writer Louis Sébastien Mercier called “a passion for anatomy” – and they considered it part of a good education. All the Paris hospitals taught anatomy, as did the Jardin du Roi (the King’s botanical garden) and the royal Brotherhood of Barbers and Surgeons. Often, their dissections were open to the public and attracted several hundred viewers.

Nor were dissections confined to amphitheatres. Bodies were also opened up in students’ rooms, laboratories built for the well-to-do and those private courses doctors gave for fees. Paris was, to quote Pierre Huard, “the capital of corpses”.

Unsurprisingly, one result was much grave robbing. Reported Mercier, “Younger surgeons sally forth in groups of four, hire a carriage, and scale the cemetery walls. One takes care of that dog guarding the dead, the next descends into the grave with a ladder. Straddling the wall, the third throws over the corpse whilst the fourth stows it in the carriage.”

The stolen cadaver is transported to their garret where, “to conceal its dissected remains from their neighbours, the young anatomists burn the bones, then heat their garrets with fat from the dead.”

Anatomy tourists didn’t just come to attend dissections. They also gawked at scientific collections, cabinets of “curiosities” and institutions like the museum of the École Nationale Veterinaire (Veterinary School). At the latter they saw monstrosities in esprit du vin, exotic taxidermied beasts and the anatomist Honoré Fragonard’s écorchés.

Both human figures and animals, the écorchés are still eye-popping. They’re flayed, preserved corpses posed to show off veins and muscles. One, an homage to Dürer’s Horseman of the Apocalypse, was the centre of a tableau that included foetuses riding small animals.

Another favoured stop was the home of Marie-Marguerite Biheron (1719 – 1795). Mlle. Biheron gave private anatomy lessons; both Diderot and Benjamin Franklin were students. But the big attraction was her “artificial anatomies”. Viewable each Wednesday for almost three decades, these were wax models moulded using actual corpses. Biheron kept the source cadavers in her garden, housing them in a glass room she called “my petit boudoir“. One English visitor, Sir John Pringle, was astonished at their reality. “The only thing missing,” wrote the surgeon, “is the stench”.

In 1786, Queen Marie Antoinette purchased Biheron’s collection. She paid 6,000 livres which, today, would be around $80,000.

All these enquirers shared one question: what could actually prove a human being was dead? Even the Encyclopedia seemed perplexed, citing both “incomplete” and “absolute” death.

By mid-century, such insecurities swelled to a panic – thanks to the Jardin du Roi‘s head anatomist. He was the Danish-born Jacob-Bénigne Winslow, all of whose dissections were standing-room-only. Winslow penned his 1740 Quaestio medico-chirurgica … An mortis incertae, in academic Latin. But it was soon translated into French by an ophthalmologist, Jean-Jacques Bruhier d’Ablaincourt. Bruhier turned Winslow’s treatise into Dissertation regarding the uncertain signs of death and the abuse of precipitous embalming and interment.

Jacques-Bénigne Winslow’s 1745 dissection theatre has just been renovated

He also spiced it up. The “cases” Bruhier added include necrophiliac monks, wrongdoers trying to change identities via fake deaths and stories of ‘corpses’ who, when they wake up alive, claw their hands to bloody stumps and then devour them. He found inspirations for this input everywhere, from Gothic plays and novels to old urban legends.

Paris’ Hôpital Saint-Louis, built in 1611, has 4,807 wax dermatalogical “specimens” © Paris APHP

Winslow insisted that “Death is certain and it is not. It is not since it is sometimes uncertain that someone is dead”. But Bruhier lacked his co-author’s eminence; his own medical writing dealt with subjects like magic wands, aphrodisiacs and “the effects of wine”. Yet, thanks to Bruhier’s tweaks, Winslow’s tract caused a sensation. Its trepidations lasted into the 19th century.

The French Revolution totally changed Paris medicine. But it brought dissections an even bigger public – with a concomitant need for yet more corpses. Since they were now citizens rather than subjects, the Paris poor received state care if they were ill.

French veterinary students in their crowded dissection room © J. David/E.Vallois

This came via the newly public hospitals, which were longer controlled by the King and Church. But indigent patients had their own obligation; their ailing bodies also served the state. As long as they lived, their illnesses were followed and studied. Then, if they died, their cadavers were used for study. Each year, this provided 2,500 corpses.

From bedside to lecture, dissection table to theatre, whether you were French or foreign, medical study was also free. Like that network of institutions which supported it, this facet of Paris medicine was unique. Aspiring doctors flocked to the City of Light, not just from Europe but from around the world. Between 1815 and the 1850s, they included more than a thousand Americans.

From dissection table to theatre, whether you were French or foreign, medical study was also free. Like that network of institutions which supported it, this facet of Paris medicine was unique. Aspiring doctors flocked to the City of Light, not just from Europe but from around the world. Between 1815 and the 1850s, they included more than a thousand Americans.

Most of the landmarks these students knew endure. The Jardin de Roi‘s dissection theatre stands today. (The Jardin de Roi is now the Jardin des Plantes.) That 1694 theatre built for Barbers and Surgeons also remains in situ at 5, rue de l’École de Medicine. It’s now a part of the Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Winslow’s own amphitheatre has just been renovated and you can see it at 15, rue de la Bûcherie. Anyone can also visit the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médicine – or see the écorchés at the Musée Fragonard. Both museums should re-open on 2 September.

A corner of the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine today © Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine

But, if you’re not in Paris, don’t worry! You can still tune in to Bedside Rounds. This is a podcast centred on quirky medical history –  with a soft spot for the role Paris has played. I stumbled across the little gem by accident and became hooked on the spot. Not only is it unique, funny and intelligent. It’s also free of advertising (and NPR pretensions). Bedside Rounds is created by its presenter Adam Rodman, a Boston doctor who also teaches at Harvard Med.

If you need to know more about the search for the Nile, what relates the colour mauve to bacteria, or how anyone can have a heart the size of a peppercorn, you need Bedside Rounds! There are numerous tempting shows – on syphilis, Dr. Livingstone and the birth of the stethoscope. But… why not start with premature burial?

Some French “céroplasticiens” (sculptors in wax) also alluded to mortality © Wellcome Collection


The animals she painted were as famous to her peers as Disney is to us. They made creator Rosa  Bonheur (1822-1899) into an art celebrity – one immortalized by look-alike dolls. The Emperor put her in charge of the Imperial drawing school. His wife presented her with the Legion d’Honneur, something she was the first female artist to receive. Yet this cross-dressing talent was hardly conventional.

Once fame gave her the funds, Bonheur bought herself a large estate outside Paris. There she constructed a personalized atelier, complete with free-range aviary and zoo. The premises were shared with her girlfriend, painter Nathalie Micas, and Micas’ mother.

Her own mother died – exhausted by trying to feed the family. But Bonheur leveraged her talents into commercial success. Despite her modest origins, she made a very good living from her art.

In contrast to all her austere, official portraits, she was also entertaining. Bonheur loved nothing more than a good artistic game. Working with her artist friends, she produced both caricatures and visual puzzles. Until 27 January 2020, some of these are on show at the Musée d’Orsay. Included are pages from a comic – one she drew in May of 1870.

Of course it features cute animals. But its subject is Rosa’s “freedom” once her girlfriend and mother-in-law depart. In cahoots with a painter pal named Paul Chardin, she shows herself “Free at last”. Changing into trousers, she enjoys a smoke with Chardin. Then, the pair take an eventful hike in the course of which Bonheur is (thanks to her hat) mistaken for a priest.

It’s light, funny, frank stuff. But the pages are also sad. They were drawn only months before the Franco-Prussian War… during which Bonheur tried in vain to join the Army. This was denied. But the artist emerged unscathed, as did her menagerie. After Micas’ death, Bonheur even found a second partner – American portrait painter Anna Klumpke. It was Klumpke, who grew up playing with a Bonheur doll, that left Rosa’s little comic to the nation.

A selection of Rosa Bonheur’s drawings including pages from “A Truthful Tale of the Strange Adventures of the Mistress of Château de By and her Page on the Evening of Tuesday May 3 Annum 1870” can be seen in rooms 17 and 21 at the Musée d’Orsay through 27 January 2020