Jean Zuléma Amussat

Born 1796-11-21
Died 1856-05-13

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French surgeon, born November 21, 1796, Saint-Maixent, Département des Deux-Sèvres; died May 13, 1856.

Biography of Jean Zuléma Amussat

Jean Zuléma Amussat, the son of a physician, received his first medical training from his father and from a surgeon by the name of Servan. When he was called up for military duty in 1814, aged 17, he was therefore employed as junior assistant in the army. After the war, despite his shortage of funds, he went to Paris to continue his medical studies. One of his mentors here was Troussel, who gave Amussat the opportunity to participate in the anatomical work at the Salpêtrière.

After his first years as a student he got a post at the Charité through Concours Externe. At the Charité he also got lodging - and ample opportunity to continue his medical studies. Nilammon Théodore Lerminier (1770-1836), who had noticed Amussat's interest in pathological anatomy, helped him and let him work at his hospital department.

Two years later, through concourse, he obtained an internship and returned to the Salpêtrière. While working here on his investigations of the spinal marrow, particularly directed at finding pathological changes that might have been caused by epilepsy, he invented the rachiotome, which came into common use. At this time he also started to give private lectures in anatomy for artists. But, in December 1821, he became assistant in anatomy, through concourse, and was thus able to double, or treble, his activity with courses of anatomy, surgery, and operative knowledge.

Amussat's ambition was to compete for the post as prosector at the faculty, but then he was almost killed by an infection, and his health was seriously impaired. Following a series of illnesses he had to abandon the concourse permanently. No longer capable of competing for a professorship or a post as hospital physician, he had to settle with his private practice.

In 1824 he received the honour of becoming a member of the Academy of Medicine, even before he had been conferred doctor of medicine. In 1826 he defended his doctoral thesis for the academy. It was entitled "Quelques considérations sur l'étude de l'anatomie". In it Amussat emphasises the importance of animal experiments for physiological purposes.

In 1827 and 1828 he undertook a series of investigations on traumatic haemorrhages and methods for alleviating them. He subsequently, in 1829, delivered his investigations of the torsion of the arteries to the Paris institute, and soon after lectured on the theme to this assembly. This method is one of Amussat's ingenious inventions, to which his name will always be attached.

Although he was unable to compete for office, poor health did not prevent Amussat from being a prolific writer. His first paper was in Journal de médecin in 1819, his last in 1854 was a treatise on the possibilities of treating cancer. A large part of his work was published as reports from the meetings of the medical academy, in Archives générales de médecine.

In a book published in 1822 he stands out as one of the inventors of lithotripsy. One of his achievements was the reintroduction of the almost forgotten sectio alta – the high cut - which he strongly advocated as the least damaging form of stone section. Although his surgical interests were varied, he concentrated on surgery of the bladder, prostate, and abdominal viscera. The originality of his works is clearly demonstrated by the prizes he won: 2000 francs for lithotripsy, 6000 for the torsion of the arteries, 4000 for air embolus, and 3000 for what was then called "artificial anus" - colostomy.

Extraperitoneal colostomy in the lumbar region for imperforate anus had been suggested some years earlier, and in his work on this Amussat reports on his success in adapting the method to the treatment of malignancies of the lower bowel and rectum where obstruction existed. His method of lumbar colostomy was popular until later in the century when anterior transperitoneal colostomy became the preferred method. Amussat devoted a considerable portion of the book to excerpts from earlier writers on the object and includes his reflections on their writings.

Amussat is special in that he became famous without ever having been member of a faculty and never held a post as physician to a hospital. As an operator he was a great artist, and he worshipped his art passionately, although he exercised it both carefully and skilfully. As a surgeon he was generally conservative, but still unusually innovative.

Amussat began teaching while still a student, and later gave well-attended courses of anatomy, operating, bandaging, and experimental surgery. He also held weekly surgical conferences at which local and foreign physicians were invited to share his results and observations.

In 1831 he arranged a course of military surgery for the young physicians who were to join the African army. He was a very benevolent and charitable person, remembered as the founder of the Société de prévoyance, a physicians medical aid organisation. He also instigated prizes for the best-written works in the field of experimental surgery. Amussat died on May 13, 1856, at the age of only 59 years, after a few days sickness.

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