François Pourfour du Petit

Born 1664
Died 1741

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French anatomist, physiologist, ophthalmologist and surgeon, born June 24, 1664, Paris; died June 18, 1741, Paris.

Biography of François Pourfour du Petit

François Pourfour du Petit was the son of a merchant and lost his parents when he was still a child. He received his early classical education at the Collège de Beauvais and then travelled through Belgium and Germany to undertake private studies. He enrolled at the University of Montpellier in 1687 and received his medical degree from that university in 1690. It is not known how he supported himself before he graduated. It is said that he met a man named Blondin, a distinguished amateur, who gave Pourfour access to his library and encouraged him to get a medical education.

Following graduation, Pourfour du Petit continued his medical and scientific studies in Paris and completed his surgical training at the Charité hospital. While at Paris he attended the public lectures at the Jardin du Roi by Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648-1730) in anatomy; Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) in botany; and Nicholas Lemery (1645-1715) in chemistry.

Between 1693 and 1713 he served for extended periods as a physician in the armies of Louis XIV. He joined the army in Flanders in 1793 and in 1797, after the peace in Ryswyk, he worked as a physician in various military hospitals. It was during this war service that he carried out some of his most important physiological investigations. After the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 he returned to Paris and established himself as an eye specialist.

Pourfour du Petit is especially associated with the physiological experiments carried out at Namur between 1710 and 1712 at the Hôpitaux du Roi, and at Paris during the mid-1720's. In 1712 at Namur he showed that the origin of the sympathetic nerve was not the cranium. He carried out this experiment for members of the Académie in 1725. He was a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences from 1722 until his death in 1741. His son, Étienne-Pourfour du Petit became a physician.

In Trois lettres d’un médecin (1710) he described the head wounds and symptoms of paralysis of soldiers brought to him as patients. After many observations and post-mortem dissections, the results of which he confirmed on dogs, he concluded that the movements of a limb are effected by animal spirits supplied by the side of the brain opposite the limb and that paralysis is complete only after the destruction of the contralateral corpus striatum.

Pourfour du Petit’s other experiments were concerned with the origin of the sympathetic nerve, then called the intercostal. Through brilliant experiments on dogs, he showed that whatever the site of superficial origin of the sympathetic chain, it was not in the cranium. Thus he demolished the erroneous view that the sympathetic system was an outflow of one of the cranial nerves. It is remarkable that, although his results were definitive, they were largely ignored until the nineteenth century.

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