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Edme Bourdois de la Motte, Physician of Napoleon


A.J. Fabre                                                                            18 janvier 2011

in 1826 Joseph Caventou and Edme Bourdois Lamotte gave an interesting example of cooperation between pharmacists and physiiicians in the field of malaria 


Edme Bourdois de la Motte is one of the most fascinating personalities in the scientific world of the First Empire.

He was born in Joigny in the Yonne, in an aristocratic family. His father, a physician, was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, where he made several interesting communications.

Edme was sent to Auxerre College where he obtained his title of Master of Arts, equivalent to our Baccalauréat. He arrived in Paris in 1772 in order to undertake, like  his father had done , medical studies.

In Paris, Bourdois met  another medical student, Jean-Nicolas Corvisart future doctor of Napoleon, both living in the same narrow attic.

At the age of 24, Edme obtained his license to practice medicine. He had presented a thesis, based on two distinct parts: first the hygiene point of view  so much in vogue at the time, arriving, as expected,  to  the conclusion that "long exposure to the heat of a fire in the winter" The second part was devoted to smallpox and its vaccinations, field of peculiar interest for Bourdois.

Edme then gets a post despite recurrent bouts of hemoptysis a practice at the in Charity Hospital, (future Faculté de la rue des Saints Pères) and at the same time practiced in parish Saint-Sulpice as "doctor of the poor".

Everything will change when he gets the title of "Doctor regent", private physician of the Count of Provence, future Louis XVIII at the Palais du Luxembourg while he was appointed Intendant of the Cabinet of Physics and Natural History.

When arrives the "Terreur" in 1893, Edme, suspect from his aristocratic origins, was arrested but he managed to find freedom through the intervention of the future obstetrician of Empress Marie-Louise, Antoine Dubois.

After the fall of Robespierre, Bourdois will climb to the top : with the help of Antoine Dubois, he gets nomination of  chief medical officer of the army.

From the outset, Bourdois has to face an epidemic of typhus but he took at once the mot energetic measures : isolation of the patients in clean, ventilated areas and reation of a special ambulance team.

Back to Paris, Bourdois is once more arrested, this time by the Directoire but was saved by an intervention of Talleyrand.

At that moment came the encounter of Bourdois with Bonaparte. The two men felt in sympathy. The story says that, during a conversation in the countryside, Bonaparte, arriving near a stream exclaimed : "Here Caesar crossed the Rubicon! "

Relations between the two friends, however, declined as Bourdois refused to follow Bonaparte in his Egypt Expedition. Bonaparte had told: "You will join us,  I hope, and seeing hesitation in his friends eyes, just added "Forget it!"  but the days of frienship were over…

Bourdois however was appointed in 1805 chief physician of the Department of Seine,  with a decisive responsibility on  conscripts, inspection services  jails and all health epidemics"

In 1811, with the support of Corvisart, now personal physician of the Emperor, Bourdois has been appointed Advisor of the  University and, shortly after, personal physician of the king of Rome: "Sire, had advised Corvisart, you have to give the King of Rome, the best of the physicians!"

Napoleon received in audience Bourdois at the Tuileries, he said: "You are the doctor of my son I can not give you a greater mark of confidence forget the past as I do !". As consultant physician of the Emperor, Bourdois received the title of Baron.

When the Empire ends, Bourdois accompanied in their flight the Empress Marie-Louise and her son to Austria but did not accept to leave his country.

In 1816 Bourdois, who has always maintained a keen interest in trials of vaccination against smallpox, was admitted to the Society for the extinction of smallpox. When he became president of the Central Committee of vaccine, Bourdois got from Talleyrand, then ambassador in London, a few samples of the vaccine that France was sorely lacking.

Talleyrand had befriended Bourdois but he liked to tease him : "Here come to me two men : Cobenzl, the Austrian diplomat, who seems to be my physician and Bourdois who looks as one of my  ambassadors! "

After the fall of the Empire, Bourdois personal physician of  the new King Louis XVIII and then of Charles X.

At the end of his life, Bourdois was a member of all major scientific societies of his time living member of the Society of Medicine of Paris . He was one of the first Academicians of the Royal Academy of Medicine who had just been created and became president there in 1822, 1823 and 1829.

Since his Thesis,  Bourdois kept a high interest for Public Health. Among his publications : "Report on the" epidemic blindness inhabitants of the town of Asnières in 1805" and the same year," Survey Lead Poisoning in Poitou "and in 1808 a study on the properties antihemorrhagics rhatany."

His mot important contribution to Health sciences was his report on the use of chemical methods for differenciating tuberculosis from "simple sputum", done in cooperation with Caventou, the famed discoverer of quinin


Caventou is one of the most prestigious figures in the history of science of the nineteenth century, son of the pharmacist at the military hospital of St Omer, he was first apprenticed to his father before going to Paris to follow the same time courses of the School of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Science.

Appointed Internal pharmacy in 1816, he was assigned to St. Anthony Hospital. He then opened a pharmacy near Plais Royal Street in Gaillon

In 1817, he met Pelletier already professor at the School of Pharmacy of Paris, and this collaboration will be born of remarkable work on vegetable alkaloids, which, in 1820, the isolation of quinine.

In 1821, was elected in Caventou section pharmacy of the future Academy of Medicine (the Royal Academy of Medicine), which he eventually became president in 1845 to stay in the History of Science as one of the most prestigious figures the pharmacy of the nineteenth century

The joint work of Caventou and Bourdois was submitted in a sealed envelope to the Academy of Sciences : the aim of the study, was to provide physicians a process chemical investigation of sputum for differentiating tuberculous disease simple "bronchial catarrh"

In fact, the ideas of Bourdois did not match with the medical theories of his time and received little attention ...


This brief review of the history of medicine has no other purpose than to remind a long-standing chapter of cooperation between pharmacists and doctors who would later bring so many breakthroughs in the history of science


Coquillard I., Medical longevity Dr. Joachim Bourdois Edme de la Mothe (Website Napoleonic)

Fabiani P. Joseph Beloved Caventou (1795-1877), first holder during toxicology, history of pharmacy review, 1984, 72, 262, p. 327-329.

AJ Fabre Great unsung doctors (Ed Paris L'Harmattan, 2010)

Riaud X. Edme Joachim Bourdois La Motte (1754-1835), the first physician to the king of Rome and a friend of Bonaparte (Website Napoleonic)


Caventou and Bourdois de la Motte, a good example of cooperation between physicians and pharmacists and


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