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Xavier Bichat (1771-1802)

The son of a physician, Xavier Bichat commenced his own medical studies in Lyon before moving to Paris. His mentor while in the capital, Pierre Joseph Desault, was a famed surgeon and anatomist. Desault introduced clinical instruction at the Hotel Dieu in the 1780s against the opposition of the nuns. In 1795, Bichat commenced his own private anatomy courses. In 1799, he too became a physician at the Hotel Dieu.

During the next year, his first work appeared, a treatise on membranes, which divided organs into membranes and tissues. Inspired by Pinel, this work was the result of detailed anatomical descriptions. It opened the way for more specific diagnoses, replacing vague notions, such as 'brain inflammation', with more specific diagnoses, in this case meningitis or encephalitis. Interestingly, despite the meticulous nature of his research, Bichat refused to use the microscope.

Over the next two years his experimental work only increased. He is said to have dissected 600 corpses in the winter of 1801-02. He famously suggested that pathological anatomy could clarify the origins of disease, a notion best summarised in his advice to students of medicine: 'Open up a few corpses.'

Bichat died of an acute illness, probably tuberculosis meningitis, aged 30. On learning of the young physician’s death, Napoleon ordered the erection of a monument, dedicated to the memories of Bichat and his instructor, Desault, in the hall of the Hotel Dieu.

 

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Bibliography

E Haigh, Xavier Bichat and the Medical Theory of the Eighteenth Century (London: Wellcome Trust, 1984)

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