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Medical Knowledge and
Publication Strategies in
European Perspective (1500-1800)

Dr. Karel Černý and Daniel Droixhe

Daniel Droixhe took part in the conference “Medical Knowledge and Publication Strategies in European Perspective, 1500-1800” (Prague, 10-11 November 2016). The Seminar was organized by the Institute for History of Medicine and Foreign Languages of the Charles University in Prague, in collaboration with the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University (organizers: Dr. Karel Černý and Dr. Jeroen Salman. D. Droixhe submitted a paper on “The Discourse of Accreditation in the Quacks French Leaflets of  the 18th Century (especially about cancer)”. It was discussed by K. Černý, J. Salman and S. Horn (Medical University of Vienna).

Room of the conference during a break


The French charlatans of the Enlightenment used various devices to convince their public that their medical “secrets” were wonderful. We shall consider here the leaflets, or prospectus, distributed by a street-performers travelling in Brittany, the quack Alagron…

In those documents, kept in the Archives of the Société royale de Médecine, the first sign that is supposed to deliver a message of medical relia-bility and truthfulness is iconographic.

A simple emblem with the crown and the fleur-de-lis is on top of a double reference to the King and to the Parliament of Brittany in two leaflets supposedly distributed in Saint-Malo in June 1779 and in Brest in November (ill. 1-2). Let us stress Algaron’s social status: he calls himself “Seigneur de la Beviere”, but we do not find his name associated with any seigneury of “La Bevière”, to the North of Lyon. We also suspect him of taking fraudulently the titles of “Professeur Royal en Botanique” or “son of the first physician of the Emperor of the Romans” - Francis the First.

Algaron’s remedy is a “Depurant of the blood” (Dépuratif du sang) that he recommended for a lot of diseases “those of the loins and of the bladder, the flesh-hardnesses (carnosités), the cankers and cancers, the scrofula”, etc. The success of the remedy is by a whole a range or scale of proofs. The royal accreditation develops into a device of “letters of patent”, “judgements” and “certificates” that goes back up, from his father to his grand-father, to the first half of the century – in the darkness of time.

The leaflets mentioned above are of 1779. They refer to a traditional administrative practice used before 1778. The rule was that somebody who wished to sell a medicine of his own, according to some “secret”, had to get the patent from a Royal Commission presided by the first physician of the King, more or less dependent on the Academic authorities and of the Universities. But in 1778 was created the Royal Society of Medicine, directed by the famous Vicq d’Azyr, which was entrusted with the issue of medical patents, on the basis of a real examination of the drug by a commission of specialists.

A new wind of modernity was blowing on the medical world and Algaron seems to have integrated it. In June 1784, he distributes in Chaillot, suburb of Paris, this leaflet, which is sent by Vicq d’Azyr to Lenoir, famous police lieutenant, to denounce the quack. Now “Chymiste et Physicien”, Algaron is announcing a “secret method” which does not use “in any way magnetism, electric machines or magnet”. I have just time to remind you that in August 1784, the Commissions appointed by the king to evaluate Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” declared that the salutary effect of the magnetism was illusory. Algaron, having heard about the condemnation of magnetism may have taken his distance with the latter. With regard to the “electric machines”, they were no more a novelty, since the Swiss Jalabert had cured by electricity a paralysis, in the middle of the XVIIIth century. Algaron by rejecting those machines tried perhaps to avoid encroaching on Lassone’s territory, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society and who had organized, at the Hôtel des Invalides. some experiments of electric healing with his colleagues Morand and the abbé Nollet

Anyway, Algaron demonstrates here some good level of medical information, which was not enough to get him the patent that he was implicitly putting forward in his Chaillot Leaflet. So  – one week after his problems with the Parisian police – he tried to meet more strictly the requirements of the Royal Society. The 16 June 1784, he requests from the Society a patent for “tablets” that cures venereal diseases, the scurvy and another disease which is denoted by “pian” or “pierre” (ill. 03). The French pian is jaws in English. It could seem strange that a French quack would claim he could cure a tropical disease which affected especially the Black slaves of America. Algaron’s letter to the Society was accompanied by a document entitled Composition de l’antidote, which carefully lists the ingredients of the latter (ill. 04). Two of the ingredients were traditionally used in the popular pharmacopeia to cure venereal diseases: the esquine or squine – the radix chinae –  and the salsepareille - greenbrier or sarsaparilla. Here is a page of the Pharmacopée de Lyon of 1778 which does not need any comment (ill. 5). The other ingredients of Algaron’s tablets were:  “extract of polypode of oak”, a “sort of fern”, “mucilage of glue-fish”, a sort of gum, an antimony powder and the “polypode of oak”. This sort of fern was widely used traditionally, especially in the catholicon as it is illustrated by Lémery’s Pharmacopée universelle de 1697, quoted by Mathew Ramsey in his article “Medical pluralism in Early Modern France”( 2013). We notice that polypode of oak was employed in drugs healing the scurvy, as in the Grande and Petite confection Hamec des Pharmaciens de Paris, Sydenham’s Purgative beer, and so on.

In Algaron’s request for a patent concerning his tablets, one detail must be stressed. He encourages the member of the Commission of the Royal Society to “solicit an amount of distinguished persons” (quantité de persone de marque) who could inform the Society).

Let us also remind that Algaron was presenting himself as the “Seigneur de la Beviere”. Those facts suggest to refer to Steven Shapin’s great book on A social history of truth. which linked to nobility “the cultural foundations of the reliability”. But Algaron’s audience was not necessarily convinced by the display of aristocratic or academic backings. As it is written in his leaflets: “Nolite credere verbis et scriptis, sed operibus et factis assensum praestare non dubitetis”. Grassy, another quack working in Brittany, mentions some of his successful treatments in a leaflet in a small village of Brittany, Lamballe (ill. 6):

Olivier Baudro, living  place de Brancas, has recovered within a month from a cancer which was covering his face for ten years (…) Marguerite Dubois, of Ancenis, who suffered from a cancer and was exposed to beg, has been cured in a month and a half; (…) The widow Marie Rado, living near to Paimboeuf, suffering from a cancer that ate her a third of the bottom lip, ready to spread saliva, was  been cured within less that a month and a half.

We would like to know more similar testimonies in other countries like the Netherlands or Italy.

In 1791, the doctor Chifoliau, who practiced in Saint-Malo, wrote to Vicq d’Azyr.

Today, in our city, one of those public leeches has arrived: the named Fleury, so-called surgeon of the Brest Marine, came in with a gorgeous procession, with two musicians on horseback, richly dressed, in front of him. More magnificently harnessed, our Esculape covered with various crosses is in a splendid cart hitched up by two beautiful steeds. A big and large coachman, an elegant lackey, two pages in livery are on the wagon and distribute to the peoples the announcements…

The show of the theatrical sale of drugs was probably as accreditive as the “announcements” given par the quack and his company. We can imagine that by a painting of the Wallon artist – and not Flemish – Léonard Defrance (ill. 7).

Ill. 1

Ill. 2

Ill. 3

Ill. 4

Ill. 5. - Pharmacopée de lyon

Ill. 6

Ill. 7



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