Views And Reviews

2000 years of medical history in Paris

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6953.546 (Published 20 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:546
  1. A Dorozynski

    Three museums in Paris are offering what may well be the widest panorama of the history of medicine to be seen in a single city. They have been, or are being, renovated, and their success is already reflected in increased attendance not only by doctors participating in medical meetings in the French capital but by the general public.

    The Museum of the History of Medicine, located in the 18th century building of the College of Surgery, was severely demaged by fire two years ago. It has now been restored, and its spectacular gallery contains collections of instruments, paintings, furniture, and other medical paraphernalia dating back to ancient Egypt. There are scalpels, scrapers, and embalming knives used by pharaonic physicians; a Gallo-Roman ophthalmological prescription; a 17th century circumcision kit of silver and agate, pincers for vascular surgery designed by Amboise Pare in the 1700s; the first endoscope of Jean-Antoinin Desormeaux (who also introduced the term); the electric machine made by Duchenne de Boulogne to activate facial muscles and study their action; the paper stethoscope invented by Laennec; and the homoeopathic medicine case used by Dr Gachet when treating his friend Vincent Van Gogh. An exceptional piece is the anatomical mannikin made from 3000 carved blocks of poplar wood on the order of General Bonaparte during his Italian campaign.

    The museum has a chequered history. During the revolution it became a saltpetre factory, was squatted in by revolutionaries, then turned into a school of public health. The idea of a museum was advanced in 1890, but objects assembled for that purpose remained in their crates until 1955.

    The Paris Public Health Museum, housed in a handsome 17th century building on the Seine's left bank opposite Notre Dame Cathedral, is dedicated to the history of Parisian hospitals managed by the Assistance Publique de Paris, created in 1849. The Assistance Publique is one of the world's largest social and health administrations, with a staff of over 75 000 managing health services and participating in medical education. The museum was opened in 1934 but was recently renovated, and illustrates the transition from the charitable, church operated public hospital to the “health factory” of today. It includes reconstructions of 18th century hospital rooms, a hospital pharmacy, and the plush waiting room of a famous and respected physician. An interesting object - the use of which was encouraged by Napoleon to build up his armies - is a revolving wicket gate made of polychrome wood and designed for unmarried mothers to abandon their children at public hospices without being seen. Some restoration work is still under way but the museum is open to the public.

    A third museum is located in a 17th century abbey and cloister at the Val-de-Grace military hospital. The Museum of the Army's Health Services in its large vaulted galleries is being refurbished and will not be opened to the public before 1996, but special arrangements have been made for small groups to visit it. Some 10 000 objects are still being sorted out, restored, refurbished, and installed to show the evolution of military medicine and its contributions to medical practice, notably in prostheses, resuscitation, traumatology, and transportation.

    All three museums are in the same neighbourhood, and discussions are under way to organise circular tours to link the three very different but complementary paths into the history of medicine.

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