Axel Munthe, wandering physician of Europe

AXEL MUNTHE WANDERING PHYSICIAN OF EUROPE (1857-1949)

André J. Fabre                        October 2012 

Axel Munthe, Physician and writer, had a unique privilege : he lived four successive lives in Sweden, France, England and Italy. As a whole, his works give a magnificent account of Europe in his time.

Axel came from Oskarshamn, in Sweden. His father, a rich pharmacist wanted to give him the very best of "European traditions" : in 1874 Axel started medical school in Uppsala, but, soon after, he decided to come to France, allegedly to find a better climate for his fragile health. He stayed several months in Montpellier then came to Paris where he obtained, in 1880, his medical degree with a thesis on gynecologic diseases, thus becoming the youngest medical graduate of his time.

In Paris hospital La Salpêtrière, Axel had an amazing experience with the greatest Neurologist of his time, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot. However, reproving his Master's tastes for exhibitions of hysteric patients (and, possibly, after a love affair with one of Charcot's female patients…), he gave up hospital medicine to start a private practice in one of the most exclusive districts of Paris, the Parc Monceau, meeting there some great names of cosmopolitan life : Henry James, Count Zeppelin, August Strindberg and Swedish painters as Carl Nordström and Carl Larsson.

At that time, Axel met a Swedish artist living in Paris, Ultima Hornberg. They married in 1880, went in honeymoon to Italy living there until they divorced in 1888.

In 1907, Axel, now aged 50, married once again, this time with a 25-years-old English beauty, coming from a very rich family, Hilda Pennington-Mellor. As wedding gift, the Munthe received a magnificent residence in Wimbledon, another in Herefordshire and, in Swedish Dalarna, a beautiful villa, the "House of Hilda". However, Axel appeared to be some kind of fickle husband and Hilda felt often lonely in her manor : all ended in 1919 with another divorce. Hilda retired, with her two children, in Italy, living in a medieval castle, the Castello di Lunghezza near Rome.

A crave for travels has always part of Axel Muthe's life : until the end, he kept endlessly roaming across Europe, from Sweden to England, from France to Algeria and from Germany to Egypt.

However, Italy was, all his life, Axel Munthe's great passion, since his first visit, when he came to Naples to fight the great 1883 cholera epidemic. In 1890, he opened a practice in Rome at Piazza di Spagna, in the "Casina Rossa", the final resting place of poet John Keats. Thus, Axel became familiar to the Anglo Saxon colony in Rome, although remaining constantly devoted to his slum patients of Trastevere.

In 1914, having obtained British nationality, and despite his age and disabilities, Axel served in the British Red Cross Forces in France. From that experience, he brought back a fascinating book : "Red Cross and Iron Cross".

Capri has been the longest love affair in Axel's life. The official version is that, on his first travel to Capri, at age 19, Axel had spotted a modest peasant cottage adjacent to a chapel atop a magnificent landscape. In fact, he had lived in Capri several months with his first wife and, once he had a practice in Rome, rebuilt the Villa, which he called "San Michele" in reference to a nearby church dedicated to Archangelo Michele.

Axel lived nearly 50 yrs in his residence dedicated to the Mediterranean world and its light. All year long, he received there his many friends and, among them, future King Gustav V of Sweden and his wife, Victoria of Baden. The queen had been ordered by her physicians to get a climatic cure in Capri and she often came to Villa San Michele. From 1892 until her death in 1930, Axel was her personal physician. They shared a common a passion for animals and the Queen helped Munthe to create a bird sanctuary in Mount Barbarossa. Much has been written about the relations between the Queen and Axel who had become, like so many physicians of world leaders in this time, something close to a Guru therapist.

Axel Munthe's Memoirs, published in 1929 as "The Story of San Michele", became at once a world best seller : 12 editions of the English version and 17 foreign editions. The book is a suite of 32 short overlapping vignettes each supposedly reporting an episode of Axel's life. Axel himself, gives a warning : "Some of the décors of this book stand on the tiny border separating the real from the unreal, on this dangerous area without guide, between dream and facts". However, still now, flocks of tourists are coming every day to visit the Villa San Michele…

Among Axel Munthe's other books  : "Memories and Vagaries" (1898), "Letters from a Mourning City" (1887) and 'Red Cross and Iron Cross" (1916)

In 1943, Axel now 86 yrs old and almost blind, had to leave Capri and return to his misty homeland. As official Court Physician he was permanent guest in Stockholm Royal Castle and there he died in 1949.. According to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in the Skagerrak, off the west coast of Sweden.

Axel Munthe had a life filled with contrasts and paradoxes : Physician and man of letters, Homme du Monde and world traveler, star hunter but also women chaser and social climber always at hand to the poor.

Anyway, a lot has to be forgiven to Axel Munthe : he had so much compassion for all living creatures, humans as well as animals…

 

                                                      a.fabre.fl@gmail.com      

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