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Hazardous Journeys

Medicine in Egypt at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 18 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1461
  1. Thomas G Russell (, senior house officer1,
  2. Terence M Russell, reader2
  1. 1Department of Anaesthetics, Ipswich Hospital, Ipswich IP4 5PD
  2. 2School of Arts, Culture and Environment, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH1 1JZ
  1. 1Correspondence to: T M Russell

    The scientists and doctors who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt in 1798 undertook a survey that is one of the great intellectual achievements of the 19th century. It left a record of the health and wellbeing of the people, especialy in Cairo

    In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt with an army of 55 000 men. With his army was a party of 300 men of science and letters whose objective was to record the culture of Egypt. The result was an extensive series of writings and engravings known as the Description de L'Égypte.1 Part of this great work was devoted to recording the health and wellbeing of the people of Egypt, as observed by Bonaparte's surgeons and physicians. In this article we draw attention to some of their achievements.2

    French men of medical science

    Fig 1

    Claude Louis Berthollet, the distinguished surgeon and chemist who was responsible for recruiting the men of science who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his Egyptian campaign. The decoration in his lapel is that of a Grand Officer of the Order of the Legion d'Honneur

    The scientists were selected by Claude Louis Berthollet, who studied medicine and served on scientific committees during the French Revolution (fig 1). He placed in charge of the army's medical core Dr René-Nicolas Desgenettes, who was the expedition's chief medical officer. In Egypt, Desgenettes busied himself with the welfare of the French army and the wellbeing of the Egyptian people. He also read papers to the French Institute at Cairo on the causes of ophthalmia and infant mortality. Remarkably, he inoculated himself with pus from a suppurating bubo to fortify himself against bubonic plague. Desgenettes outlined ideas for a new hospital, a pharmacy, and a school of medicine at Cairo.

    The celebrated French naturalist and anatomist Georges Léopold Cuvier was invited to participate. He declined because …

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