• Flora Tours in Paris

The Evolution of Medicine in the Latin Quarter of Paris 5th arrd

Updated: Oct 2

The history of medicine always fascinates us. We look back in horror at the practices of the past, and we think about how much things have changed. We also mark the good ideas and breakthroughs that led to the high quality of medical care we enjoy today.


Paris is a near perfect city to trace this history. As a major Medieval centre as well as a leading capital of the scientific revolution, it gives you all kinds of artefacts and insights into the evolution of medicine. No era goes unmarked in these streets!


Looking at the unique buildings, anecdotes, and stories from this city, we can see the strange story of European medicine come to life. (And if it really interests you, let me show you in person!)



The Hôtel-Dieu


Our journey through Parisian medical history has to begin at the Hôtel-Dieu. Though this hospital was first established in 651 CE by Saint Landry, it has been ravaged by fire and rebuilt many times. Today, it stands again in the same place it always has — on the Île de la Cité, the same island Notre-Dame calls home.

Flora a tour guide in Pairs walking in the streets of Paris Ile Saint Louise
Flora from Tours in Paris in Ile Saint Louis next to Ile de La Cité in Paris


The Hôtel-Dieu is the oldest still-operating hospital in the world. When it began, medicine in Paris was far different than in the 21st century. The entire official medical establishment in France believed in the four humors — based on the work of ancient Greek philosopher and father of medicine Hippocrates.


According to this Hippocratic medicine, the four humors were liquids in the body (yellow bile, phlegm, black bile, and blood). Each of these represented one of the four elements (fire, water, earth, and air). The art of medicine, then, was to balance the elemental forces to bring the body back into alignment.


Notre Dame after the Fire, next to Hotel Dieu in Paris

Balancing the humors would most often result in removing an excess of one to return balance to the whole. The most graphic and memorable of these practices is bloodletting, which was thought to reduce the air element in the body.


Physicians might also look at the climate of the patient’s home, their astrological charts, and their diet. This could provide insight into what exactly the humor imbalance was and what could be done to stop it. Some herbs, foods, activities, and exercises could be prescribed or banned, according to what the patient needed.


It might sound odd, but this is how the medical treatment was conceived of at Hôtel-Dieu during the first several centuries of its existence.


Café next to Hotel Dieu in Paris

The enterprise began as a charity hospital, meaning it also provided the poorest Parisians food and shelter as well as medical care. It would keep this dual purpose until the 17th century, when hospitals and so-called poorhouses were split.


Over the next two centuries, parts of the building had to be rebuilt multiple times, the last time between 1867 and 1878 as part of a Haussmann renovation.


Each time, the institution moved closer to the modern approach and further away from the techniques of the old Hippocratic medicine.


Today, it stands as a fully functioning hospital serving high quality medical care.


Medicine at the Royal French Court


France has a long standing history of scientific innovation. And this has been of particular benefit to the monarchy, who’ve been able to rely on breakthroughs in the sciences from time to time.


And it was King Louis XIV who was able to experience a major turning point in surgery — unfortunately for the Sun King, it was first hand.


With the reputation that Louis XIV has developed for being a capable political genius and energetic ruler, you might be surprised to find out that his health was always a major source of pain and frustration. He suffered smallpox as a child, went on to have several skin problems as an adolescent, frequent diarrhea and headaches, measles, tumors, rheumatism, and gout. A botched dental extraction also left eating difficult — it was said that food would pass up through the hole and fall out of his nose while he was chewing.


Needless to say, he was no stranger to medical problems. In early 1686, he complained of a small tumor near his anus. An immediate call for physicians and surgeons was made.


At the time, French medicine had not yet shed its Hippocratic roots. And surgery was something done by barbers who had wildly varying degrees of education.


Physicians were seen as a higher rank, and in general they looked down on surgeons. And so they took the lead in treating the King.


But after almost a year of painful treatments, the problem had grown into a fistula. Finally, the surgeon Charles-Français Felix de Tassy was brought in. He developed a new technique to use on the King after experimenting on poor patients in charity hospitals (no doubt including the Hôtel-Dieu).


From November to December 1686, Felix performed four surgeries on Louis in total. By January, the King was healed.


Louis was so taken by the successful results that he made Felix a nobleman, gave him enormous sums of money, an estate, and a yearly stipend. The King’s son Louis XV would go on to promote surgeons by establishing the Royal Academy of Surgery.


The Rise of Science


Throughout the centuries, there was slow movement away from Hippocratic medicine toward a science-based practice. But this happened in fits and starts, often with many years of backpedaling in between.


The French Revolution, however, made a massive leap in the development of medicine as a scientific field of study. As part of that change, France gave the world some of the biggest innovations and discoveries in medicine.


Louis Pasteur is no doubt one of the brightest stars among these. Born in 1822, Pasteur became a chemist and microbiologist who had several major insights that still save lives today. His achievements are numerous, including making fundamental breakthroughs in the creation of vaccines.


He lends his name to the process of pasteurization, which he helped create. In pasteurization, foods are treated with a low amount of heat as a way to kill potential germs inside. This both extends their shelf life and their overall safety. Pasteurization is based on the research Pasteur did on heat’s effect on microorganisms living in wine.


Those studies were built off of his work disproving spontaneous generation and making the basis for the germ theory of diseases — which is still used today.


France was also the adopted home of the great Marie Curie. At 24, Curie moved from Poland to Paris where she completed her education and set about her work. Her experiments with radioactivity are foundational to many cutting edge medical treatments developed today. She had such an influence on the field that she even coined the term “radioactivity.”


She discovered two elements — polonium and radium — and was instrumental in the growth of X-ray technology.


For her efforts, she became one of the most decorated scientists of all time. She remains the only person to ever win two Nobel Prizes in different categories, and she was the first person to ever win a second prize. She was also the first woman to ever win a Nobel.


During the Scientific Revolution of the 19th century, thinkers like Pasteur and Curie made medicine in France and around the world much more effective and safe. Their contributions radically shifted the field, leading to better outcomes and less suffering.


Explore the History of Medicine in Paris


There are many wonderful museums that you can visit in Paris today that tell the story of medicine in the city. These are great places to go for those who are morbidly curious, interested in the development of the science, or both.




But be warned — much of Medieval medicine can seem barbaric to us today!


Probably the best place to start would be the Museum of the History of Medicine, Paris (or the Musée d'histoire de la médecine). It sits on the second floor of the Paris Descartes University in a gorgeous room built in 1905. The collection of artefacts is a fascinating tour of the art of health through time.

The museum has a particular focus on surgery, and if you really want to see old surgical tools, there are still more places to visit in the city.


The Musée Carnavalet holds many wonders from Parisian history, and the buildings themselves are a part of that history. The museum is housed in two neighboring mansions (the Hôtel Carnavalet and Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau), both built in the 16th century.


Inside, you can find numerous paintings from the city’s past, including work by Joos Van Cleve, Jacques-Louis David, and others. But you can also find artifacts going far back into the deep history of the city. The Musée Carnavalet has surgical tools from the 2nd century CE, used when Rome ruled Paris.


While the museum is worth a visit in its own right, any retrospective on medicine in Paris is incomplete without it.


From "balancing humour" to Radiotherapy


Paris has been a major backdrop for the development of medicine in the West. And because of the city’s ongoing commitment to preserving our past, much of that can still be seen and visited today.


While you won’t be able to get your humours balanced, you can see the tools people used when performing medicine. You can visit the places the poor once sought comfort and treatment. And you can even visit the homes of some of the greatest minds in medical science.


Paris is an amazing place to visit for those interested in science and medicine. If that sounds like you, reach out to me today!

We can begin crafting your perfect tour of Paris.

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