Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian
Biography of Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian
Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian was descended from the aristocracy and the legal profession. His father was the advocate and dramatic author Alphonse Vulpian (1795-1829). His father died of smallpox after refusing vaccination, leaving four children in poverty. Vulpian wanted to enter the École Normale, the top teacher's college in France, but failed in the entrance concours.
To make a living, Vulpian obtained a technician's job at the Muséum with Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) Flourens, the discoverer of the respiratory centre of the medulla oblongata. Through Flourens' influence, Vulpian was entered into medical school at the age of nineteen, and his doctoral thesis in 1853, on the origin of the cranial nerves III to X, was regarded as being of the highest standard.
Vulpian was appointed médecin des hôpitaux in 1857 and agrégé at the faculty in 1860, but continued to teach neurophysiology and for three years was Flourens' deputy as professor of physiology at the chair in the Museum for Natural History. In 1867 he succeeded Léon Jean Baptiste Cruveilhier (1791-1874) as professor of pathological anatomy at the faculty, despite a great deal of opposition from the bishops in the senate. Vulpian was involved in a heavy conflict with the clergy because his teaching and his lectures were considered materialistic, and particularly because of a paper Vulpian had written on the higher functions of the brain.
In 1862, Vulpian and Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) took over the chaotic welfare institution for the chronically ill known as the Salpêtrière.
In 1872 he changed to the chair of experimental and comparative anatomy, while at the same time holding a position at the Paris Charité. He was elected member of the Academy of Medicine in 1867 (16/18: 1869), succeeded Charles Adolphe Wurtz (1817-1884) as dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris in 1875, and the following year was made a member of the Academy of Sciences, replacing Gabriel Andral (1897-1876).
Vulpian was more restrained and perhaps even more learned than his great friend Charcot, an experimenter as well as a fine teacher, but somewhat retiring and therefore greatly overshadowed by Charcot. He confirmed Flouren's observations concerning the functions of the semicircular canal and the cerebellum and established principles of regeneration of nerves as well as investigating the vasomotor functions. Using chromium salts he discovered the chromaffin system of the adrenal gland and demonstrated that curare caused paralysis by affecting a point between nerve and muscle.
He was a prodigious worker who started his day at 4 a.m. and was much admired by his students as an outstanding teacher. With unprecedented conscientiousness he went over and over his experiments, checking and controlling them until he could be certain of the results. The effect on his students was profound. One of them, Madame Dejerine (Augusta Marie Dejerine-Klumpke, 1859-1927), was impressed by his intelligence, gentleness and good looks, and has recorded how he pointed out to her the extension of the big toe in paraplegics long before Babinski's demonstration.
He recognised the lack of the use of the microscope in French investigative medicine, whereas Germany with men like Rudolf Virchow were making was strides. Using the microscope, he showed that tabes dorsalis was not primarily a dorsal column disease, and demonstrated the retrograde changes in the spinal column after amputation or nerve sectioning.
In 1856 Vulpian applied a solution of ferric chloride to slices of the adrenal glands and noted that the medulla stained green while the cortex did not. He also noted that the same reaction was given by samples of venous blood leaving the adrenal, but not by arterial blood entering the gland. To account for these observations, he assumed that the medulla synthesized a substance that was liberated into the circulation.
Together with Charcot he founded the journal Archives de Physiologie Normale et Pathologique. He was permanent secretary of the Academy of Sciences and undoubtedly was one of the great influences on French medicine. The achievements of both his colleagues, Charcot, and his students, the Dejerines, perhaps kept him from the international recognition that might normally have been expected. His written work comprises 225 publications.
We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.