Tuesday 21 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (3)

In the name of the father
Part 1: The House
Part 2: In the name of the son

I’m standing in front of the Charcot mausoleum in the Cimitière de Montmartre. My only company here is a couple of chattering magpies, and all is silence apart from a distant hum of traffic and the breaths of wind passing through the fresh, green leaves of a plane tree. It is a rather austere monument, perhaps not what may be expected for two national heroes, but understandable when we consider that they are in fact invited guests in the tomb of another family. The Laurent-Richard name is more prominent than that of the Charcots, emphasing that Jean-Martin, the father, had married into a clan more powerful and wealthy than his own.

Both Charcot men had died as celebrated figures, and both today lay side by side in this peaceful location. My previous post dealt with Jean-Baptiste, the son, and his path to this final resting place, but I have written little so far about his father. Jean-Baptiste had struggled throughout his life to make the Charcot name his own, but what exactly was the weighty heritage of this exceptional father, and what traces of this man remain in the city today? This end point seemed like a good a place as any to begin.

Jean-Martin Charcot was born in 1825 in the family home at 27 Rue Bleue in the 9th Arrondissement, not far from where his son was later to live. His father owned a carriage building business in the Rue du Faubourg Poissonerie and he was baptised in the Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle church. Although his father was little more than a member of the petit bourgeoisie with four sons to support, he nevertheless had sufficient means to send his eldest, Jean-Martin, to the exclusive Pension Sabatier school situated at 9 Rue Richer, a few steps from his home. Here Jean-Martin would learn the classical subjects that would enable him to enter medical school.

Art or medicine? Charcot hesitated.

Charcot though hesitated for a long time between an artistic and medical career. As he was later to say, "si j’ai eu des médecins parmi mes ancêtres, j’ai eu aussi quelques peintres. Entre les deux, mon cœur balance" (If I had doctors in my family, I also had some painters. My heart is torn between the two). In 1843, though Charcot had decided and began his medical training at the school in the Rue de l’Ecole de Médicine, a building which still stands today as the Université Rene Descartes. He was a good student, but not brilliant, and his medical career was slow to take off. After spending several years bumbling around the lower levels of his profession, it was not until 1862 that he would become the holder of a post at the Salpêtrière hospital.

Part of Charcot's library.

It is at this point that the life of Charcot becomes exceptional. Firmly installed at the Salpêtrière and already specialising in avant-garde studies on neurolgical issues, he now began organising what would become his famous Tuesday morning lectures. His personal life changed too, and in 1864 he married a rich widow, Augustine Victoire Durvis (Laurent) with whom he would have two children. Her finances meant that he would now have the necessary means to support his ambition.

“Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière” (André Brouillet)

Two places in Paris become important in his life from this period until his death. The Parisot division of the Hopital Salpetrière and the family home, the Hôtel de Varengeville on the Boulevard St Germain. Charcot ran an entire section at the hospital (the newly created School of Neurology) and had a large room in which he would give his lectures. Almost anybody could attend these sessions, and the atmosphere of these extraordinary events was captured by the artist André Brouillet in his painting “Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière” in 1887*. The walls of this room were covered with photos and paintings of women in trances or suffering from hysteria, mostly for reasons connected to religion. Charcot though was later to be the first person to show that hysteria did not only affect women.

These buildings were sadly demolished in the 1970s, but there are still traces of Charcot in the hospital. A lecture theatre was built in place of Charcot’s rooms, and above this stands a library of neurological and psychological texts which has also become a kind of shrine to the Doctor. The library he had built up at his home is now situtated here, as are his desks, tables and chairs. It is open to the public, but it is rather strange to see these artifacts in and around 1970s concrete.

In 1884, he moved his family to the Hôtel de Varengeville** on the Boulevard Saint Germain. This illustrious eighteenth century rococco palace was a place he could now show off his art collections and intellect, and each Tuesday evening he invited a selection of artists, writers, politicians and statesman for dinner. The most famous visitor of all was perhaps Sigmund Freud who was extemely impressed by the man and his “magic castle”. Freud was later to confess to his wife in a letter that he had been so nervous before his first visit that he took a little cocaine beforehand ‘to loosen (his) tongue’.

By all accounts, Charcot was a charming and persuasive man, but also a domineering and despotic figure. His lectures were almost theatre, with Charcot controlling them like a showman (probably to the detriment of the medicine) whilst his dinners were apparently impressive and stimulating. What was it like to grow up in this environment though? Charcot senior had little pressure on his shoulders when growing up, but his son would have to live with a crushing weight. We can understand Jean-Baptiste’s careful steps in his father’s footprints in his early years, pursuing the same studies through fear of this dominant figure and the comments of the many illustrious visitors to his home. It is to his credit though that he managed such a radical change in his life after the release of his father’s death, and that he succeeded in ensuring that there would always be two Jean Charcots.

*The original of this painting can be seen in a corridor of the René Descartes University near the entrance to the Musée d'Histoire de la Médecine (12 rue de l'École de Médecine), where Charcot had begun his medical studies. The painting shows one of his most famous patients, Blanche Wittman being hypnotised during a hysterical attack. Looking on are some of the most famous names in medicine of the time. Freud always kept a copy of this picture at his desk, and named his first son Jean-Martin after this doctor who had impressed him so much.

**The house today is the Maison de l’Amerique Latine
where you can eat and drink at the chic restaurant and bar. If you are true fan of Charcot, you can even celebrate your wedding here!

Note: I am not qualified to write of Jean-Martin Charcot’s substantial achievements in medicine, and in any case this has been amply documented elsewhere. My primary interest here has simply been to look at the man and father he was, and investigate where he lived, learned and worked in the city.


PeterParis said...

... and all this just because of a house facade!! You proabaly made the most complete biography of the Charcots written since years, or ever! (... and I didn't know them at all!)!

Of course, the original question is still without a clear answer. :-) Will there be more episodes?

Starman said...

Fascinating stuff, as usual. I wonder if Jean-Baptiste's pressure was self-inflicted through some vague need to honor the family name?

Squirrel said...

very interesting post!

CarolineLD said...

Fascinating - but those lectures look quite disturbing.

Adam said...

Peter: I have a phone number for Jean-Baptiste's granddaughter, but I think it would be possibly going too far to call her. If she or any other member of the family should ever read this however, I'd be delighted to ask a few questions that would help me to fill in the gaps.

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