Jean-Paul Marat, physician and revolutionary
|Fig 1: Death of Marat. Jacques-Louis David. 1793. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Via Wikimedia.|
The murder of the notorious Jean-Paul Marat in his bath in July 1793 by Charlotte Corday is a tale where revolution, art, and medicine each played a part. When the commoners stormed the Bastille royal prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, to defy the Ancien Régime, they struck a blow for freedom and fairness. The French Revolution (1789-1799) arose from the failure of the Ancien Régime to manage an increasing population, unfair taxation of the poor, starvation, and poverty. Rebellion and violence hit the streets and Louis XVI was swiftly deposed and executed in 1793.
Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was an infamous revolutionary who led a political group called the Jacobins that wanted to depose the monarchy and form a republic. He was famously murdered in his bath on July 13, 1793, by Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday d’Armont (1768-1793), a young aristocrat: “The killing of one revolutionary by another.” She was a member of the Girondins, a moderate republican faction opposed to the Montagnards’ excessive violence. She had gained access to him in his bath by requesting his authorization to guillotine citizens whom she had listed as dissidents. She then drew a concealed knife and fatally stabbed him. At her trial she testified, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand.” She was guillotined four days later.
David’s The Death of Marat
Only days after the murder, the great French artist Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Marat, (Fig 1)1 now in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. It is acknowledged as a masterpiece. It shows Marat, lying in his bath, with a knife wound below his right clavicle and his dangling right arm clutching a quill; it recalls the posture of Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican. Jacques-Louis David, the preeminent painter of the era, had changed the prevailing genre from the Rococo towards a classical style with expressed humane elements and sentiment. David was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, and a friend of Robespierre; he supported the execution of Louis XVI. Thus, David apotheosized Marat as Christ, a revolutionary martyr destined for heaven.
Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793)
Marat was born in Boudry, Switzerland. The eminent art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon describes him as “a nasty piece of work,” for he incited mass murder on the streets of Paris. As a radical of the Montagnard faction, his ideas derived support from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. Suffering from a chronic itchy skin disease, known as “le leper,” each day Marat wrapped his head in a vinegar soaked turban and immersed himself in baths for many hours. (Dermatologists have made many unproven speculations about his skin disease.)2,3 He was soaking in his medicinal bath—an easy victim of attack—when stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday.
|The Chains Of Slavery, Book by Jean-Paul Marat.|
Physician and scientist
Possibly because of his brutal role during the French Revolution, Marat’s work as a physician and scientist before the events of 1789 has been forgotten. His revolutionary beliefs, however, were never far beneath the surface. One of his early works included The Chains of Slavery (1774) (Fig 2), an attack on despotism in which the title page omits the author’s name. He wrote articles urging constitutional reform and political equality for all French citizens. He was beloved by the poor in Paris for his journal L’Ami du Peuple (1789) and its fierce criticism of those in power, which encouraged bloody revolution. In July 1790 he declared:
Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom, and happiness. A false humanity has held your arms and suspended your blows; because of this millions of your brothers will lose their lives.
Recognized as a troublemaker, in April 1793 he was arrested and tried before Paris’s Revolutionary Tribunal on charges of inciting violence. He was acquitted. By contrast, in the 1770s he had worked in Britain and published several texts on science and philosophy. His Essay on the Human Soul (1771) made little impression, but A Philosophical Essay on Man (1773) was translated into French and published in Amsterdam.
Marat had studied medicine in Paris, though he never graduated.4 When in London in the 1770s he practiced as a doctor and visited Edinburgh, Dublin, and Holland.5 He published medical papers on gleets (gonorrhea) and on diseases of the eyes. On the commendation of the Scottish physicians William Buchan and Hugh James, he was granted an honorary medical degree from the University of St. Andrews in 1775.
He returned to France in 1777 and was soon in demand as a physician. His patients including Charles Philippe, youngest brother of Louis XVI, and the Parisian elite. He wrote articles on and experimented with optics and electricity: “Physical Investigations on Electricity” 1782, “Investigations on Medical Electricity,” “Elementary Notions of Optics” 1784, and “Academic Memoirs, or New Discoveries Concerning Light” 1788. He successfully practiced medicine until 1783 when he resigned his medical post. With fanatical fervor he then concentrated on politics and became one of the most radical leaders of the Revolution signing countless death warrants of royalist factions.
In spite of his scientific attainments, he became paranoid and embittered by his failure to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. His medical writings were forgotten until the rediscovery a hundred years later of two medical papers, which were thought sufficiently important to republish in 1892.6,7
After the fatal stabbing, he was buried in the garden of the Club des Cordeliers. His remains were transferred into the Pantheon in 1794 in great pomp before being moved to the cemetery of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont on 8 February 1795.
Records of his time in Britain and his medical works and training5 provide an insight into the mind of a revolutionary. There seems little doubt that Marat held honorable convictions about the injustices and sufferings inflicted on the common people, but the violent expressions of his passion conflicted with and overwhelmed his humanitarian motives as a physician and man of science.
- Dunea G. The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. Hektoen Int. Spring 2012.
- Fischer H. Another look at the medical problems of Jean-Paul Marat: searching for a unitary diagnosis. Hektoen Int Summer 2020.
- Lipman Cohen JH, Lipman Cohen E. Doctor Marat And His Skin. Med Hist. 1958; 2(4): 281–286.
- Jaime Cerda L. Jean-Paul Marat. Médico, científico y revolucionario (Jean-Paul Marat. Physician, scientist and revolutionary). Rev Med Chile 2010; 138: 124-7.
- Ashbee HS. Marat en Angleterre, 1890. cited by Silver & Weiner (ref 2).
- James Blake Bailey, Jean Paul Marat. Two Tracts Paperback English, reprinted, BiblioLife 2009.
- Silver JR, Weiner M-F. Doctor Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93) and his time as a physician in Great Britain. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 2013;43(1):76-81.
JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.
Spring 2021 | Sections | History Essays