Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Madame Bovary: The clubfoot operation

Madame Bovary

Charles Bovary is a country medical practitioner, mediocre, a simple man, not the brightest, but not unambitious. He reads that a simple tendon cutting operation could cure the village stable boy’s club foot, perhaps also bringing recognition to himself and celebrity to the village.

At night he studies, trying to work things out. Is it a valgus, a varus, or an equinus? For on that will depend which tendon must be cut, whether it be the tendo Achilles or the tibialis anterior. Not that this troubles the stable boy, who has hobbled about the village on his horse-like foot all his life. But it will be a simple operation, he is told, no pain, no blood; so he consents. It is easily done, and also reported in the newspaper as a great surgical achievement and an act of the loftiest philanthropy.

The foot is tightly strapped in a heavy box, constructed by the local locksmith with iron, wood, leather, screws, and nuts. A great success! Convalescence will be brief, it seems. Then five days later the mother appears, scared, crying out that her son is dying.

At the bedside the patient is in convulsions, knocking the machine against the wall so as to break it. As the box is removed “an awful sight presented itself. The outlines of the foot disappeared in such a swelling that the entire skin seemed about to burst, and it was covered with ecchymosis, caused by the famous machine. . . . The livid tumefaction spread over the leg with blisters here and there, whence oozed a black liquid.”

Moved to the billiard room, the patient lies there moaning, pale, perspiring on the dirty pillow on which the flies are alighting, the stench repelling the billiard players even as they offer words of encouragement. As the gangrene spreads nothing works, neither poultices, nor religion; and it was a great event when the leg had to be amputated, all the peasants getting up early to watch, only Charles hiding in his room and not daring to go out. Then a heart-rending cry arose in the air, and he turned pale and nearly fainted as looking out of the window he saw the surgeon wiping his brow with his handkerchief, his assistant behind him carrying in his hand a large red box as they were leaving the village.


  1. Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. New York: The Book League of America; 1936.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 4, Issue 3 – Summer 2012

Summer 2012



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