Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

On Voltaire, Akakia, De Maupertuis, and another Akakia

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

When in 1718 François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778) was released from incarceration at the Bastille, he changed his name to Voltaire. Soon he became an “enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.”1 “Ecrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush the infamous!”) was his motto for the relentless war he waged against religious despotism and hypocrisy.2,3

In one of his many books, The Story of Doctor Akakia and the Native of Saint-Malo, Voltaire attacked and mocked Maupertuis, the President of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin. A French mathematician, philosopher, and scholar, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) had been invited to that position by Frederick the Great. He had worked on various aspects of natural history, including the inheritance of genetic traits,4 and he developed the “Principle of Least Action,” a complex and difficult to understand theory in which action could be expressed mathematically, proving that Newton’s and other basic natural laws obeyed this principle.5

But why did Voltaire call Maupertuis “Akakia”? In Greek ἀκακία means guilelessness, naïveté, innocence, without malice. But it was also a cylindrical purple silk roll containing dust and held by the Byzantine emperors during ceremonies to remind them that all men must die.6 Voltaire may have chosen the word “Akakia” because of its Greek meaning. But there was also a real physician by this name who died 143 years before Voltaire’s birth.

Martin Akakia (1500–1551) had been physician to King Francis I of France and had written books on diseases of women, obstetrics, and medical remedies. He had lectured at the University of Paris, translated in 1538 two books of Galen from Latin,7 and had his Bibliotheca published in 1545.8

I could find no explanation or reason why Voltaire when mocking Maupertuis should have used the name of a respectable physician. But Voltaire, though philosophical, was not erudite. He showed great imagination and generally sound judgment but he kept his sources and methods to himself.9 It may be possible that his general contempt for physicians and some scientists lead him to use the name of an old French physician. He himself did not enjoy good health. He suffered from several chronic health problems and sought frequent advice from physicians. He lived to the age of eighty-four!9


  1. “Voltaire.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire.
  2. Konkle, WB. “Voltaire on syphilis.” Medical Library and Historical Journal 1905;3(2):117-27.
  3. Rolleston, JD. Voltaire and Medicine. Part II. Proc R Soc Med 1926;19(Hist Med):79-94.
  4. Emery, AE. Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). J Med Genet 1988;25(8):561-4.
  5. “Pierre Louis Maupertuis.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Louis_Maupertuis.
  6. “Akakia.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akakia.
  7. Bayle, Pierre. A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, v.4. Eds. John Peter Bernard, Thomas Birch, and John Lockman, London: John Bettenham; 1736.
  8. Gorton, John. A General Biographical Dictionary. London: Henry G. Bohn; 1851. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/generalbiographi02gort2
  9. Force, P. “The ‘Exasperating Predecessor’: Pocock on Gibbon and Voltaire.” J Hist Ideas 2016;77:129-45.

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

Spring 2024



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