Biography of Prosper Ménière
Diseases of the inner ear were unknown until Prosper Ménière in 1861 described the disease that bears his name. This pioneering achievement, however, was not fully appreciated in the Paris of his time. Being considered incurable, deafness was no fashionable field of investigations.
Prosper Ménière was born in Angers on the Loire, the third of four children of a prosperous merchant. He entered the Lycée in 1812, at age 13. There he stayed for four years through the decline and fall of Napoleon, receiving the excellent education given to a French boy in the classics and humanities. In 1816 he entered the preparatory school of medicine at the University of Angers. An excellent student, he won the annual prize in 1817 and 1818, and in 1819 commenced medical studies at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris. He became an extern in 1822, an intern in 1823. Menière soon revealed intellectual brilliance, receiving several awards for his achievements., and in 1826 he was gold medallist.
He qualified in medicine in 1826, obtained his doctorate in 1828 and gained the prestigious but unenviable appointment as clinical assistant to the famous Baron Dupuytren at the Hôtel Dieu. He occupied this demanding post with distinction and gained immense practical experience, especially during the political upheaval of 1830, when hundreds of injured rioters were admitted to that hospital. In 1832 he was appointed Chef de clinique at the faculty and then became agrégé under Chomel.
In 1832, Ménière was president of the "jurys" in medicine, the equivalent of the examining board. Later that year he became a professeur agrégé, or associate professor by examination, in the University of Paris. That year his life took an unexpected turn, as he was nominated by the government to ascertain whether Duchess de Berry was pregnant. She was the wife of the murdered Duc de Berry son of Charles X, and had considerable support for the accession of her own son to the throne. Méniére determined that she was pregnant but it was found that this was the result of a secret marriage to an Italian, and popular support melted away. She was no longer a problem to the government of the day, who released her and Méniére went with her to Naples.
In 1834, he was appointed Chef de Clinique to Chomel, a noted physician and Academician, and in 1835 was sent by the government to the Departments of Aude and the Haute Garonne to organize cholera assistance. For this work he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
If Ménière's gynaecological expertise had a negative effect on the succession to the French throne, it certainly did not hurt his own professional career. In 1835 an epidemic of cholera broke out in southern France, and the government assigned him with the leadership of the campaign against the disease. He went to Aude and Haute-Garonne, and was so successful that he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour.
In 1838, a year after an unsuccessful application to become professor of medicine and hygiene, Menière, on the recommendation of Mathéo-José-Bonaventure Orfila (1787-1853), became Médecin en chef at Institut des Sourds-Muets, the Imperial Institution for Deaf Mutes, in Paris and commenced the studies for which he became famous. These culminated in his classic account of the condition which bears his name.
Ménière based his observations on recurrent labyrinthine vertigo which he published in 1861 on the findings of Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) who in 1820, in experiments on birds, had distinguished between the function of hearing and balance of the inner ear, and the function of the individual semicircular canals.
He frequented the social circles, and amongst his friends in political literary and scientific circles were Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Ménière was persona grata in many of the most select salons in Paris and probably as well known as a figure in society as he was as a physician. In 1838 he married Mademoiselle Becquerel, who was related to Anton Becquerel, the discoverer of radioactivity.
Ménière was an elegant and prolific writer. The sheer volume of his writings makes one wonder how he found time to do anything else. In 1861 alone appeared over his name in the Gazette Médicale no fewer than eleven of the weekly "feuilletons." Five of these were historical, on medicine as practised in Angers from the 15th through the 18th centuries; four were botanical; and two were entitled, "Encore un mot sur la pellagre." He wrote on diverse themes on Roman poets and Cicero; one of them concerned Horatius' interest in medicine - provoked by his interest in finding a cure for his gout. In another article Ménière depicts a judge who is handicapped by impaired hearing. Ménière treated him by putting pressure on the eardrum with a golden needle. His hearing improved. Maybe this was the first case in history of a mobilisation of the stirrup in otosclerosis? He had many talents and received recognition as an archaeologist and botanist. His interest in botany was strong, and he was a connoisseur of orchids.
Ménière died in Paris of influenzal pneumonia on 7 February 1862 at the age of 63 years.
His son was Emile Ménière, an otologist who followed his father as senior physician at the Institute for the Deaf.