Theodor Tronchin, Physician of souls


André J. Fabre          Juin 2013-07-16 

Theodor Tronchin [1], deserves a special place among the "Great unknown doctors " his name is certainly familiar, but what do we know of this fascinating physician of the XVIIIth century ? 


 The ancestors of Theodor came from Arles; allied to the highest families of Provence. One of the first Tronchin was a Protestant officer of Henri IV. After the St. Barthelemy Protestants slaughter, Tronchin Gamily had to find refuge in Geneva. Between 1760 and 1767, a direct ascendant, Jean-Robert Tronchin was elected at the  Board of Geneva.

Théodore's mother died very early, and the father, once remarried, decided to settle in Cologny, near Lake Geneva. He wanted his son to be a priest and gave him an education marked by a stern austerity which did not fit well with the tastes of young Theodor who used to run at nights in all dancing parties around.


 Everything changed in 1720 with the collapse of the so-called "John Law System" and  the bankruptcy of its investors Young Theodore had to take refuge in  England. There, he was host to the family of Lord Bolingbroke , famed philosopher of his time. An Dutch  book in the Bolingbroke library :  "First Elements of Chemistry" opens for the young Theodor the gates of sciences and he decides to lead his further studies in Leiden. There he will attend the lessons of such celebrities as Hermann Boerhaave [2] His vocation is now clear : be physician.


Student in the best medical school of England, in Cambridge, Theodor will meet some of the most prestigious physicians of London, among them, , Richard Mead, the Royal court physician.


After England, Tronchin felt that he should come back to the Netherlands. There, he obtains his doctorate in 1730, with a thesis on gynecology.

Tronchin is now practitioner in Amsterdam with great success. In 1748 he becomes Health Inspector and shortly after  president of the College of Medicine Amsterdam.

Such a  brilliant career could only match a "nice" wedding and, in 1740, Theodor marries Helen Witt, a descendant of Grand statesman of Netherlands, Johan de Witt.


 Despite these successes, Tronchin did not want  to live any longer in the Netherlands: he  was attracted by his Homeland, Switzerland, and accepted gladly in 1750, the chair of Professor of Medicine in Geneva.

He fills his new functions with a very innovative mind, focusing on struggling against the old prejudices of his time. Thus, he stood as ardent propagator of the smallpox vaccination and Diderot had his name in good place in his Encyclopedia, at chapter  "inoculation".



Now, Trochin's  fame was such that patients flocked from all sides and, among them, celebrities as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Voltaire came from Ferney to get a consultation but he became soon friend, exchanging with Tronchin a long and regular correspondence. As quoted from a cynical observer of this time: "Voltaire need a physician, but even more high relations."

For his part, Rousseau, although he claimed to not be a "believer in medicine," sought the friendship of his comptriot Tronchin more than he asked his care.


However, in 1766, Tronchin  left Switzerland when the Duke Louis Philippe d'Orléans, father of the future Philippe Egalité, brought him to Paris as personal physician.

His career Tronchin gets at the top when it receives the charge in 1756 to inoculate the "vaccine" of the two children of his patron. The suites were so favorable that Louis XV gave the doctor to Geneva the honor of a private audience where he was booked a very warm welcome.

All the greatest minds of his time trying to become friends Tronchin and Grimm, Madame d'Epinay and Madame Necker, mother of the future Madame de Stael ..

Tronchin became a member of the principal Academies of Europe starting with the Academy of Surgery of Paris but also the Academy of Sciences of Berlin, Edinburgh, Stockholm and London, and finally, the Royal Academy of Surgery

Despite success as bright, Tronchin had few enemies: "He was, says, Antoine Thomas his contemporary, always helpful, always calm, indifferent to admiration as well  as jealousy, revealing his genius only from his generosity "

Theodore died at age 78, in the Palace of the Duke Orleans, and Condorcet himself delivered his eulogy at the Academy of Sciences.


 True precursor in hygiene, Tronchin all along  his career, struggled to get the rules of a simple and natural life accepted everywhere.

As summed up by a contemporary: " remaining on  long hours promotes blockages and bowel irritation recommends the use of an office where we write up and walk it rebelled against the sedentary life. sleep too long, wearing wigs while proclaiming the virtues of work and the benefits of visits to the country. "

Tronchin struggled at all times  to remove the rule of that time to keep patients confined in their  room. His recommendations,  instead, were to "let the air get in the room."

He was specially attentive to the problems of feminine health "treating, reports  a contemporary [3] disease vapors, then in fashion, the outdoors, exercise and occupation it frees other as much as possible, ligatures which distorted their size and destroying their health. "

Patients Tronchin were advised to exercise in the morning, do not stay long in bed, walk walk, wear flat shoes and abandon their corsets. The verb "tronchiner" became fashionable while he was appointed Tronchine a short dress and light range without cart.

As for pregnant women, Tronchin advised them to do, in the interest of their child, as much exercise every day that theirs was possible.

Regarding children, Tronchin called a "natural" food and was an ardent supporter of breastfeeding. He also advised not changing infants too closely to avoid "malformer hips."

Innovative ideas Tronchin were to condemn many admisese all practices and unreservedly at the time, such as bleeding and purging.

Thus, we could read in the Courrier de Paris in January 1767.. "Mr. Tronchin always noisily His method with women is all new and contrary to what is observed in such cases This doctor does not want any time he does, light a fire in their fireplaces, he even open the windows from time to time to renewthe era. they must not swaddled children. Sieur Rousseau, his compatriot in this respect the same view "


 To an observer of our time, the most fascinating in Tronchin is the attention he gave to understand the personality of his patients and what we would call, now their psychological problems. Voltaire said of him: "He knows the soul, it is a great doctor."

Indeed, many female patients expected from the "Genevan doctor " a cure for their "vapors" , vague but clearly neurotic symptoms. Indeed,  the "physician of souls" was a true specialist in this field…

Date de dernière mise à jour : 30/07/2013

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