Which Broussais?

One of the books I catalogued in Charles Knowlton’s estate inventory is a volume listed simply as “Brousair” or “Brousais.”  Looking at the medical texts available at the time, I supposed this might refer to François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772-1838), who wrote several books on inflammation between 1808 and 1828.  But I noted in my inventory, it might also be a work on family planning by an unrelated (as far as I know) Alphonse Broussais, published in the late 1830s or early 1840s.

I’m finally getting back to writing my Knowlton biography, after my move and starting the farm, so today I was looking at a book called
An Introduction to the History of Medicine, by Fielding Hudson Garrison (1917).  Garrison doesn’t mention Alphonse, but he has some pointed things to say about François.  He begins by charging that Broussais “did away with metaphysical conceptions of disease only to substitute something worse.” (426)

According to Garrison, Broussais was the son of a French physician who joined the republican army in 1792 and later served as a surgeon in Napoleon’s campaigns.  As a result, Garrison says, “his methods were Napoleonic and his therapeutics sanguinary.”  The underpinning of Broussais’s regime was a belief that life depends on irritation (friction, heat), and that gastro-enteritis was the basis of all disease.  In this belief, he was a step ahead of the older generation and their “fevers,” says Garrison.  But only a small step.  Ironically, this emphasis on heat and digestion is not all that unlike the focus of Samuel Thomson’s herbalist alternative medicine, which was widely regarded by professional physicians as quackery.

Broussais’s treatment program called on the doctor to “deprive the patient of his proper food and leech him all over his body.  As many as 10 to 50 leeches were applied at once.”  As a result, Garrison says “in the year 1833 alone 41,500,000 leeches were imported into France…Yet in 1824-25 two or three million were sufficient to supply all demands.”  Witnessing these “torrents of blood, students began gradually to edge away from him, until his theories were finally exploded by…good sense and temperate judgment” (427). This doesn’t seem like the sort of physician or regime that would appeal to Charles Knowlton, especially in light of the difficulties he had as a young man searching for a cure for his own maladies.

Luckily, searching the web today, I was able to find out a little more about the other Broussais.  Alphonse apparently published a sex manual which was translated and published in New York in 1843 as Self-Preservation: or Sexual Physiology Revealed.  The editor was “A Physician of Philadelphia,” and the book was “Sold by all periodical agents.” I got this not from standard historical sources, but from an auction advertisement for a copy of the old book.

This book seems a much more likely fit for Charles Knowlton, whose own sex manual,
The Fruits of Philosophy, was being illicitly reprinted in Philadelphia at about the same time.  I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Self-Preservation, to see if any of the text or ideas are lifted from Knowlton or from his friend, Robert Dale Owen, rather than coming from this untraceable Frenchman, Alphonse Broussais. Also, the value listed in the inventory for this volume was $ .12, which seems more appropriate for a 128-page sex manual you could carry in your pocket than for a medical treatise, even an out-of-date, discredited one. 

Of course, there’s no definitive proof that Self-Preservation was the book in Charles Knowlton’s library.  Just a preponderance of circumstantial evidence and educated guesswork.  But how much of history, I wonder, is just that in the end?