Monday Series: A Disease with No Remedy V

Lithograph: portrait of P. Pinel, aged about 70; by Ducarm {?} after 'A. M.', published by Blaisot, n.d.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many medical men had written exhaustively on the hereditary predisposition to phthisis, implementing medical hereditarianism as a social recourse for advocating social distances between elements of society. Historian Sean Quinlan argues that between 1748 and 1790, heredity in France gave doctors an idiom for diagnosis in light of the social crisis resulting from the Revolution, in order to prescribe appropriate hygienic responses. Recognizing the high morbidity rates among the population, doctors strove to explain the so-called wasting diseases that appeared to “indicate the prevalence of hereditary degeneration among the population.”[1] Quinlan carefully notes that concerns over hereditary transmissions of disease were not conscious epistemological conceptual shifts, in which physicians gathered and applied new information from studies of phthisis; rather, attitudes towards domesticity, gender roles, and reproductive politics played a stronger rhetorical role in encouraging—if not forcing—physicians to shift conceptual thoughts of hereditary diseases to social concerns. He also adds that “moral degeneracy undermined the future vitality of European society,”[2] and forced physicians and state men alike to cure hereditary diseases through moral hygiene, by emphasizing family values. Reinforced by French essentialism, fears of hereditary taint downplayed any rationality, and strove to explain away widespread fears of degeneracy, nervous disorders, and demography decline. Essentialism was such a powerful explanation for heredity and moral degeneracy that hereditarians invoked sorrowful passions and unhealthy sexually activity such as masturbation and “venereal excesses” as causes for degenerating diseases like phthisis.[3]

Hereditary disease, as an explanatory tool for physical and moral degeneracy and as a diagnostic tool for explaining social ills, epitomized socio-political concerns in eighteenth century France. Some, such as Jean Baptiste Timothée Baumas, a physician at Montpellier medical school, claimed hereditary diseases challenged the natural order of things. As Quinlan explains, Baumas made a connection between heredity, consumption, and moral degeneracy and downplayed the positive aesthetic gloss often associated with consumption, believing that consumptive children who inherited morbid predispositions soon suffered from nervous disorders. Like some of his medical counterparts, Baumas believed that advocating moral hygiene was a far better approach in combating the hereditary disease and patients could generally overcome their hereditary limitations and self-consciously regenerate themselves. Other French physicians, such as Pierre Jean George Cabanis (1757-1808), Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), and Félix Vicq D’Azyr (1746-1794), attempted to reform the medical profession to become more socially relevant by emphasizing that hereditary transmissions of disease should be regarded as a public health problem.[4]


[1] Sean M. Quinlan, “Inheriting Vice, Acquiring Virtue: Hereditary Disease and Moral Hygiene in Eighteenth Century France.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80 (2006), p.667.

[2] Quinlan, “Inheriting Vice, Acquiring Virtue,” 665.

[3] David Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p.29.

[4] Carlos López-Beltrán,. “The Medical Origins of Heredity.” In Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology,

Politics and Culture, 1500-1800. Eds. Stoffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jürg Rheinberger (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007), p.111.

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