Revolutionary Medicine and the Medical Revolution

The French Revolution is truly one of the most idealized and glorified events in French history, having transformed the then-archaic governmental structure into one that fit with more modern values. But Stevie Brandon ’11, advised by Professor of History Esther Kanipe and supported by an Emerson grant, is analyzing an oft-ignored hierarchy that the Revolution changed forever: the French medical system.

Like the French government at the time, the medical system was organized in an antiquated and inefficient manner before the French Revolution. The Académie de médecine was considered corrupt as it was more concerned with a student’s social class than his ability, and students at the Académie learned Latin and Greek instead of anatomy. Medical licenses were administered without regulation and the physicians were more focused on their social class than their art. “The country physician would bleed and purge his patients or dispense his concoctions. Their practice was based on their own theories rather than medical observation and experimentation,” Brandon noted.

The Legislative Assembly, one of the governing bodies during the Revolution, abolished the Academie de médecine in 1793. But the assembly made no agreement on how they should rebuild the medical system and it was left disorganized and ineffective for a number of years. That was until the French began fighting wars abroad, which began around the turn of the 19th century. “The enlightenment ideals and the Revolution inspired the French to destroy the old medical institutions, while the wars created the urgent necessity to rebuild them,” Brandon explained. The secular and nationalized clinic system that emerged in the early years of the 19th century reflected the Revolutionary ideals, stressing rationalism and empiricism. “The clinic created a new space where they could observe the patient and pay more attention to the body, and those observations were now precisely documented.”

About Stevie Brandon ’11

Major: Comparative Literature

Hometown: Baltimore, Md.

High School: Bryn Mawr School

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The modern system had other far-reaching effects. Patients became separated by type of disease in hospitals as the concept of contagious diseases was beginning to be understood, and doctors were no longer general physicians but rather specialized types of physicians or surgeons. “All of this contributed to a more systemized hospital and medical school system,” Brandon said. It was because of these changes in infrastructure, Brandon asserts, that technological advances were made and the modern medical system was able to develop.

Fresh from her semester in Paris, Brandon has many seemingly divergent interests. She has a major in comparative literature and a minor in French, but she is also pre-med. Having spent the past two summers immersed in medical research, her project allows her to broaden the scope of her medical interest and analyze medicine in a societal context. “[My project] is perfect because it takes three very disparate interests of mine: history, French, and medicine, and combines them into a single topic,” Brandon commented. Spending the summer in her hometown of Baltimore, Brandon has access to the amazing collections of the history of French medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

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