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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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?