Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Eugène J. Woillez (1811–1882)

Eugène Woillez c. 1870. Via Wikimedia.

Eugène Woillez was born in the town of Montreuil sur Mer, near Calais, in 1811, one year before Napoleon committed the colossal error of invading Russia. As a young man, Woillez studied the sciences and arts, and spent his leisure painting with watercolors, playing musical instruments, and dabbling in lithography under the pseudonym Ozelli (his own name with letters transposed or omitted). After some hesitation, he decided to become a doctor. In 1835 he graduated in medicine from the much more climatically propitious University of Montpellier, then settled in the central French town of Clermont.

Once established he wasted no time getting married. He then engaged in hobbies close to his heart that the great Lord Moynihan of Leeds would have designated as truancy from medicine. Archaeology became the major passion, especially that of ancient monasteries. After some years of visiting ancient sites, he ended up proposing a new classification of Roman architecture, using the twelfth century as a dividing line between what he considered an earlier pure Roman style and a later transformational style. He also used his background in the fine arts trying to help the blind by inventing a form of treatment called musicotherapy to supplement the efforts work of Louis Braille. When cholera came to his town in 1849, he worked so hard and selflessly that he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.

As he was in charge of a mental asylum, he reportedly treated the infamous Richard Dadd, who had brutally murdered his father, fled from England to France, violently attacked a fellow traveler in route from Calais to Paris, and was apprehended and committed to the asylum in Clermont. Dadd constantly suffered from hallucinations, seeing black devils everywhere, and as a patient would try all the time to spit on Woillez or attack him even though he thought he was dealing with Jesus Christ.1

In 1851 Woillez moved to Paris. He worked at several hospitals, including the prestigious Necker and Charité. In 1854 he invented the Spirophore, a ventilator forerunner of the Iron Lung in which the entire body was enclosed in an iron tube and only the head left exposed. This ventilator was operated by hand and used for stillborn babies, drowning victims, and recovery from snake bites.

After 1866 Woillez focused on pulmonary diseases, and as x-rays were not yet invented, devised his own clinical classification. He wrote on percussion and auscultation, on pleurisy, ”pleurodynia”, and published a dictionary on medical diagnosis. A disease called “pulmonary congestion” was named after him, as the Maladie de Woillez. In 1865 he organized services against yet another epidemic of cholera. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he worked with the Red Cross to organize the medical care at the front. In 1872 he published a detailed treatise on respiratory tract diseases, and the next year was elected to the French Academy of Medicine.

Outside France, Woillez has remained largely unknown, remembered mainly for his spirophore. He lived at a time when progress in medicine was slow, keeping up to date was easy, doctors had time to pursue the arts, study the classics, read great literature, and were considered “learned.”


  1. Helene Klemenz. Richard Dadd and his demons in France. The Burlington Magazine, April 2010;152:227.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Spring 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.