Jean Nicolas Corvisart was born on 15 February, 1755, in Dricourt, in the Ardennes. Early on, he joined his uncle, a priest, near Boulogne-sur-mer, who instructed him in French and Latin. At the age of twelve, he began his schooling at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, where his intelligence, thoughtful manner and athletic abilities saw him distinguish himself from his fellow pupils. It was at this school that he met Antoine Petit, the well-known anatomist, a meeting that was to prove telling. In 1777 and contrary to his father’s wishes – who wanted him to become a lawyer – he moved on to study medicine at the Ecole de médecine in Paris.
Corvisart was close to his tutors, and would often prepare the cadavers for them which they would then dissect. It was during one of these dissections that he injured his left hand, an event that would have probably cost him his arm had one of his professors, a certain Desault, had not been present. Dismissed from the school in 1782, he persisted, retook his exams and qualified as docteur régent of the Faculté de Paris that same year.
Joining the new Ecole de Santé de Paris in 1794 (all schools, academic societies and teaching faculties having been closed down by the Convention the previous year), Corvisart went on to perfect his method of examination based on the study of symptoms. During his time there (he remained in his post until 1807), his reputation grew and students from all over the world flocked to listen to his lectures.
In 1801, he was introduced by Josephine de Beauharnais to the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. The latter, appreciating Corvisart’s character and the conviction with which he offered his diagnoses, made him his principal physician. Bonaparte also went further, naming Corvisart physician to the government and making him responsible for the organisation and maintenance of the health service attached to the imperial household. These new functions allowed Corvisart to bring deep and meaningful reform to medicine, such as the creation of an organisation to police the medical and pharmaceutical professions, and the requirement that all practitioners be certified.
On 14 July, 1804, he was made Officier of the Légion d’honneur and on 19 July, he became principal physician to the emperor. Over the course of ten years, he remained at the side of his imperial patient, accompanying him to Italy (1805) and Austria (1809). In 1808, he was made a baron d’empire, with an endowment of 10,000 francs.
It was Corvisart who diagnosed Josephine’s sterility and endeavoured to treat it. Her continual request for more pills and treatments led to him prescribing her a placebo, made from bread crumb. In 1806, he published his reference work entitled Essai sur les maladies et les lésions organiques du coeur et des gros vaisseaux, the idea for which originally came from Napoleon. In 1808, he translated the Austrian physician Leopold Auenbrugger’s work on percussion, and in 1809 he was the emissary who confirmed to Napoleon that Marie Walewska was pregnant.
In 1811, he was given a seat on the Académie des sciences, and in 1820 was elected to the Académie de médecine.
After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, he accompanied Marie-Louise from Blois to Vienna. He took his leave of her on 20 May and retired to the country. It was also at this point that he suffered his first apoplectic fit. Napoleon, impressed by the doctor’s dignified and reserved behaviour following the fall of the empire, informed him prior to setting off for Elba that: “I have observed with pleasure the manner in which you have conducted yourself recently, at a time when so many others have proved lacking [in decorum]. For that I am grateful to you; it affirms the opinion I had formed regarding your character. Continue to keep me informed of news of Marie-Louise and do not question my respect for you.”
During the Cent-Jours, he returned to the emperor’s side and once again served as the emperor’s physician. No longer a young man, he took responsibility for the choice of doctor that would accompany Napoleon into exile on St Helena. He was one of the last to say goodbye to the deposed French emperor before the latter’s departure for Rochefort. Napoleon later described him as “a clever and honest man”. In 1816, he was struck down with hemiplegia, leading to his abandoning all medical activities. His health gradually declined, and suffering from repeated apoplectic fits, he died on 18 September, 1821, in Courbevoie. He is buried in the Cimetière d’Athis-Mons, in the Essonne département. Both a metro station and a street in Paris are named after him.
(Xavier Riaud (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)