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Villemin, Jean Antoine

Category: Scientist

 

Jean-Antoine Villemin (January 28, 1827 – October 6, 1892) was a French physician born in Prey, Vosges. In 1865 he demonstrated that tuberculosis was an infectious disease. 

Villemin's contributions to science were not confined to his pathological studies of tuberculosis.  He published a number of papers on other subjects, the most important being devoted to the subject of scurvy.  In earlier days he had collaborated with Professor Morel, of Strassburg, in the production of a treatise on human anatomy - normal and pathological, which was accompanied by an atlas of original drawings, many of which were drawn from nature by Villemin himself.

He was elected Vice-president of the French Académie Nationale de Médecine in 1891, and for his tireless efforts during the cholera epidemic of 1866, he was awarded the title of Knight of the Legion of Honor. He received the rosette of officer of the Legion of Honor in 1881.  He was even nominated President of the Académie de Médecine but he died before the day foreseen for the 'sumptuous investiture'.

The town of Bruyeres (Vosges) has a monument honouring him; and at one time, a military hospital near the East station in Paris bore his name. The hospital has now gone, but has instead been replaced by the garden Villemin. The French Post Office printed a stamp bearing his effigy.

In 1992, the hundredth anniversary of his death was celebrated in Paris, Prey and Pont du Casse.

Tuberculosis has not gone away, it now rivals AIDS as a leading cause of death

Achievements

Dr Charles Rlchet Professor Of Physiology In The Faculty Of Medicine Paris 1908

The [next] discovery which I shall mention is that of the infectiousness of tuberculosis. Thousands and thousands of doctors had had tuberculous patients under their care. Three thousand years ago, Hippocrates described tuberculosis with as much precision as could be done to-day. Illustrious physicians in every land had tried to analyse the nature of this terrible disease and to unravel its cause ; nevertheless, they were unable, from clinical observation alone, to prove what is to-day quite commonplace knowledge, viz., that tuberculosis is infectious.

 In 1864, a French doctor, Villemin, conceived the simple and ingenious idea of inoculating rabbits with the tuberculous matter found in the lungs of consumptive patients. These rabbits became tuberculous; they died in a few weeks with tuberculous granulations in lungs and liver. It was thus demonstrated that tuberculosis was infectious. Later on, in 1878, Koch discovered that the active agent of this infection is a special microbe. But, however important may be the discovery of the microbe of tuberculosis (the tubercle-bacillus of Koch), the essential dominating fact is that tuberculosis is infectious.

 

As soon as this great fact became known, a profound revolution occurred in social hygiene, in the treatment and in the prevention of this terrible evil. We know now the consumptive man carries in his lungs and sputum the germ capable of developing the same evil in others ; consequently we know how to preserve ourselves against tuberculosis.

We must purify or destroy the habitations wherein consumptives have lived, burn or carbolise all the sputum, make spitting in public places a punishable offence, take sanitary measures against unhealthy meat, defend our children against contaminated milk — in a word, we are armed against a disease, the sole and unique cause of which, as experimentation alone has taught us, is infection. ……..

….times have changed ; there is no longer any fatality in tuberculosis ; there is imprudence, there is error, there is vice, and, specially, social vice. We may almost say that, if there are still consumptives in our midst, it is because of our defective social institutions.

We leave innumerable populations steeped in misery, seven or eight individuals living in the same infected hovel. In the slums of our large cities, swarms of infants are to be found morally and materially perverted by misery. Therefore, if consumption still exists, it is our own fault ; it is no longer as it was in olden times, when we knew not, because now we know.

The plague can be battled with; and if it still has so much power left, it is because we have not the courage to apply to public and individual hygiene the treatment science has definitely shown us should be applied. ………….

Moreover, however imperfect our defence against tuberculosis may still be, it is by no means nil; great progress has been made; the mortality has decreased in a considerable proportion. During the last twenty-five years, it has decreased by about 25 per cent., and notably in England, where the laws of public hygiene, energetically upheld by the good sense of the people, are strictly applied, the mortality has diminished by 50 per cent. This is only a beginning, and the near future will bring about the complete extermination of the disease.

 

In most of Europe - yes - in the rest of the world, no.

The earliest published work with which Villemin's name is identified, was an essay published in Paris and Strassburg in 1861, ‘On the seat, evolution, and nature  of tuberculosis’.  But it was not until 1865, at a meeting of the Académie Nationale de Médecine, that he read his first paper.  The conclusions of this paper, stated in his own words, are:
"Tuberculosis is a specific affection. Its cause is an inoculable agent. Inoculation can be made from it into the rabbit. Tuberculosis belongs to the class of virulent diseases and should be placed in nosological order near syphilis, but nearer to glanders [morve farcin]. "

Obituary – British Medical Journal Nov.  12, 1892.

La-visiteuse-d-hygiéne-1917

His subsequent papers brought fresh support for this brilliant generalisation, which had been attained at the cost of comparatively few experiments on animals and with apparatus and appliances of the most imperfect kind.
Villemin's paper created a great sensation and was very hotly discussed and criticised.  Villemin stood manfully to his thesis, and in 1868 he published his Etudes sur la Tuberculosis (Studies on Tuberculosis) in which he undertook to prove by reasoning and experiment that it was a specific inoculable disease.  His doctrine was not readily accepted either in France or abroad, and, as has been said, for many years was altogether rejected by the fashionable pathology of that day.

In time, however, the fundamental truth and importance of his work came to be recognised, and Cohnheim was found to write of his discovery that it was one "from which, if I am not mistaken, will date in the history of tuberculosis, not only an incomparable advance, but also a complete transformation of our mode of regarding the disease."

 

The end of his professorship was marked by great satisfaction when, on March 24, 1882, the famous bacteriologist Robert Kock succeeded in highlighting, cultivating and then inoculating the tuberculosis bacillus. It had taken 17 years for Villemin’s discovery to be demonstrated.

Public health campaigns in the 1920s tried to halt
the spread of TB

Jaccoud:
In 1882, Robert Koch, ….  Finds the agent [responsible for tuberculosis] first announced by Villemin, and he establishes the pathogenic specificity of the bacillus, faithfully following the work of Pasteur for demonstrations of this kind.

One would have thought that the work of Villemin ought now to have earned him a brilliant reputation; it was alas completely the opposite: he is not anymore discussed, he is not anymore disputed, he is deleted.

The Prix Leconte was posthumously awarded to Villemin (and its ₣50,000 presented to his heirs) in 1893 in recognition of his work.

Life

Villemin was born on January 25th, 1827, at Prey in the Vosges, in a family of ‘modest farmers’. When he was 9 years old, Jean – Antoine’s father died.  Initially, things proved very difficult for the family, but aided by his uncle, Villemin attended classes at the school of latinité de Bruyères. He decided he wanted to be a teacher, so he prepared for the baccalaureate and his academic results justified his ambition.  But fate took a hand.

 

With the age of conscription came seven years of military service, and Villemin decided that as he did not want to be a soldier, he should prepare for and take the entrance examination for the school for non-commissioned officers.  But on the day of the exam, all went wrong and he failed.  Realising he was unlikely to ever be a teacher nor a non-commissioned officer, Villemin rethought his future and ‘obeying deep aspirations’, he decided to turn to medicine.

In November 1849, he was enrolled as a pupil surgeon at the military teaching hospital in Strasbourg, while performing his military service.  There he studied at the Faculty of Medicine of Strasbourg, where he was a pupil of Schuetzenberger. Five months into his studies, however, the Government decided that pupils could only continue their studies at their own expense. Villemin was desperate to continue his studies but he couldn’t afford it, even with the help of his uncle. The governmental decree looked as though it could be a disaster.

It is worth remarking that Villemin acknowledged and was eternally grateful for the help his uncle gave him.  In a letter ‘written on stamped paper’ he later arranged to try to repay him for his generosity: "Wishing to compensate my uncle, Claude-Nicolas Villemin, for the many sacrifices he made for me, but fearing that death may surprise me and not allow me to accomplish my  duty, I,  Jean-Antoine Villemin, undersigned, declares to bequeath to him as usufruct all my goods, buildings located in the commune of Prey….’

 

But fate lent a hand.  During the first five months of his studies,  a botanist called Professor Fée had noticed his “ardour at work, and his gifts as an observer and draftsman”, and made him his paid assistant.  This work provided him with the necessary financial resources and he was able to carry on his studies.  In 1853, he obtained his doctorate in medicine.  He obtained his Diploma of Doctor on 22 August; with a thesis on purulent collections of the kidney.

In 1853, after obtaining his degree he was appointed the Professor Agrege at the hospital of Val-de-Grâce in Paris and began a career as a doctor and researcher that lasted 31 years.  On 1863, the medical inspector Michel Lévy , an eminent hygienist, ‘placed at his disposal a modest pavilion’ to serve as an experimental laboratory.  And from this moment his research work was able to take off.  In 1864, he presented his paper "Tuberculosis belongs to the class of virulent diseases" at the Academy of Sciences on December 5:

During the twenty-two years spent at the Val de Grace, he helped train twenty-two military doctors.

Professor Villemin retired eventually from the service with the Rank of Medical Inspector General. He was elected a titular member of the French Académie Nationale de Médecine in the Section of Pathology in 1874, and at the time of his death was Vice President of the Academy.

Death

 

PROFESSOR VILLEMIN, died in Paris on October 6th 1891.  At the time of his death he was at last being acknowledged for the contribution he had made, being described as

“one of the most distinguished of modern pathologists owing to the important light which he threw on the true nature of tuberculosis. As has been well said, Laennec discovered the unity, Villemin the inoculability, and Koch the parasite of tuberculosis.”

[Laennec (inventor of the stethoscope) gave a description about 1800].  For many years, the excellence and accuracy of Villemin's work never received full recognition.  It took the discovery of Koch to identify the vital role that Villemin had played.   Villemin’s only son, Paul, became a surgeon of the Hôpitaux de Paris, and became famous in many fields of general and infantile surgery

In 1963 his great granddaughter Madame Françoise Pouliquen-Villemin,  speaking about his achievements said:  

It is in fact the pure and simple observation of patients that resulted in the discovery.

In the Val-de-Grace, three elite soldiers of the Emperor, of the "cent-guard" occupying the same room were successively admitted with tuberculosis. Instead of taking the conventional line which said that the disease was caused by overwork or fever, Villemin observed them and concluded that what he was seeing was contagion"

Villemin was a devout believer in God, and his lack of ego, his faith, his love of man and his achievements would have merited a place on this site anyway, but he was also something of a mystic.  The general physician Mignon, former director of the Val-de-Grace, wrote

Villemin was a contemplative, a dreamer, I can still picture him, sitting on a seat, close to the bed of one of his patients. He had a veiled look, his eyes were part hidden by the glasses of his lorgnon; he walked slowly from one of us to the patient and back deep in thought, and, seeming to sense our sensitivity to criticism, he waited patiently for us to give our diagnosis ".

References

  • Villemin, his life, his work -   Ch. Jamet - Vigné – 1936
  • The famous men of the Vosges - P. Heili
  • Hommage à Villemin -par Jean-Jacques FERRANDIS [in French]