Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Pierre Bretonneau

Aditi Sivaramakrishnan
United Kingdom


Portrait of Pierre Bretonneau by René Théodore Berthon
Pierre Bretonneau
René Théodore Berthon (1776–1859)
Académie nationale de médecine, Paris

Pierre Fidèle Bretonneau was a French physician known for being one of the first to explore new ideas of medicine and science relating to bacteria and disease.

Born into a middle-class family of healers and medical practitioners, Bretonneau quickly gained an interest in history and medicine, encouraged by his father who was a surgeon. He was born at St. Georges-sur-Cher in France in 1778 and, surprisingly, did not learn to read until he was nine as he was uneducated until that point. At the age of seventeen, he left home to study medicine at the École de Santé in Paris. A woman named Madame Dupin financed his medical studies whilst he was in Paris. Bretonneau’s classmates at the medical school included other famous scientists such as Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, known for Dupuytren’s contracture, and Pierre Bayle, best known for his influential piece, the Historical and Critical Dictionary.

However, after failing an examination in 1801 he left his education and became a health officer in Chenonceaux, France. He gained fame and recognition while in this position and therefore was made chief physician at the Tours hospital. To qualify for this position he had to take his final examinations and complete his doctoral thesis, which he did in 1815.

He married Madame Dupin’s lecturer, who was twenty-five years his elder, and they settled in Renaudière in Chenonceaux. Bretonneau had many hobbies outside of his medical work, which included gardening and creating his own barometers, hydraulic hammers, and thermometers. He was very interested in botany and horticulture and took time to study the habits of bees and ants. During this time, his gardens in Palluau became renowned throughout Europe and he became the mayor of Chenonceaux in 1803 and was mayor until 1807. Bretonneau was always modest and hard working, as seen when he became director of École de Santé where he lectured to medical students with enthusiasm and inspired many with his lectures based on the medical philosophy of Hippocrates. Some of his famous students were Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie Velpeau and Armand Trousseau, both of whom were successful medical figures in history. Bretonneau gained a reputation as being “independent, proud yet modest, and disdainful of honors.”

For two years, between 1818-1820, there was a devastating diphtheria epidemic in Tours. Bretonneau observed this and ended up by publishing his findings in 1821. In this he showed that the disease caused a leathery parchment-like membrane, called a pseudomembrane, to form in the throat of the patient, finally causing death by asphyxiation. He eventually named the condition ‘diphtheria’, originating from the Greek word for leather or hide. Because of his findings, he is believed to have been the first to identify specific features of diphtheria and other diseases. Bretonneau was interested in preventing deaths caused by asphyxiation from diphtheria and this ultimately led to him performing the first successful tracheotomy in 1825 on a four-year-old girl. He did this by inventing a device called the double cannula that could be inserted into the girl’s windpipe. From then on many successful tracheotomies were carried out, saving over 200 children with diphtheria.

He distinguished between scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1826 and differentiated typhoid fever from other diseases in 1819. Later on, around 1838, he left his job to dedicate himself to practicing medicine among the poor. He also studied diseases in depth and in 1855, whilst trying to find out specific causes of infectious diseases, his keen eye for detail allowed him to be the first to think that bacteria caused disease. As this was before Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, it was a major and astounding breakthrough in medical research, as the idea had never been explored before. Unfortunately, Bretonneau could not get hold of a microscope to confirm his unique hypothesis at the time.

Using his observation skills, Bretonneau also discovered that the same diseases could have slightly different effects on different patients. He was part of the beginning of scientific medicine—a method in which careful observation led to clinical examination skills. This method is used today to find solutions and answers to sickness and problems.

At the age of 78, Bretonneau married again, this time to a young woman of 18. He died on February 18, 1862 at the age of 84.



  1. “Bretonneau, Pierre.” Wikipedia. Retrieved August 6, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bretonneau
  2. “Bretonneau, Pierre.” The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia . October 2009. Retrieved August 06, 2013 from http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/pierre-bretonneau
  3. “Bretonneau, Pierre.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Retrieved August 06, 2013 from http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2830900621.html
  4. “Dupuytren, Guillaume.” Wikipedia. Retrieved August 6, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillaume_Dupuytren
  5. “Bayle, Pierre.” Wikipedia. Retrieved August 6, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bayle



ADITI SIVARAMAKRISNAN is a Year 11 student at Wakefield Girls’ High School in the UK and is currently preparing for her national exams (GCSEs). She is sixteen years old and has a passion for science and research, her other interests being music and dancing. She has been playing the violin for over eight years and studying singing since the age of ten. She is an avid dancer, having studied both ballet and Indian classical dancing for over ten years. She loves to read and would like to pursue a career in medicine or medical research in the future.­­­­­­


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2015 – Volume 7, Issue 2
Spring 2015  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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