Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/December 1888/Sketch of F. A. Vulpian

PSM V34 D156 Felix Alfred Vulpian.jpg


THE name of Vulpian is associated in some way or another with most of the important physiological discoveries of the age. It is, according to Dr. Charles Richet, because, whenever a new experiment was published, he took it up at once, tested it, and perfected it, toning down with his critical and judicial spirit the exaggerations and rectifying the errors in the accounts, and, making the general application of the newly gained fact, gave it the right to be quoted as good physiology. Thus he cast light on all the problems which he grappled with.

Edme Felix Alfred Vulpian was born January 5, 1826, and died in Paris, May 18, 1887. He was the son of a distinguished French lawyer, and was graduated in medicine in 1854. He was soon afterward appointed to the Museum of Natural History, where he conducted a series of investigations on the nervous system; was admitted to the Medical Faculty, Paris, in 1860, with a thesis upon secondary pneumonias, and was made one of the physicians at the Salpêtrière; was appointed, in 1867, Professor of Pathological Anatomy; in 1872 was transferred to the chair of Comparative and Experimental Pathology; and in December, 1885, became Dean of the Medical Faculty. As professor he made it a point to perform new experiments in his courses every year. In fact, says Dr. Richet, all his lectures were marked by ingenious views, novel experiments, and important bibliographical data, to such an extent that they could be published as they were, almost without modification; and they constituted excellent monographs.

The anatomy and physiology of the nervous system was his favorite field of research. Next to Claude Bernard, says one of his biographers, he studied with the most particular care, in the minutest details, the nature and functions of the vaso-motor nerves, and the laws of their contractions and dilatations, the general effect of which on the mechanism of the functions is so marked. His lectures on these organs, with those upon the action of toxic substances and medicines, and upon the diseases and physiology of the nervous system, are regarded by Dr. Richet as works of the highest order, which gave definite shape to our knowledge on the most important points, and as containing an "incredible" number of precise facts that have become indispensable to the practitioner. Among these labors, those upon the action of curare, chloral, and strychnine have become classical. The localizations of the functions of the different parts of the cerebro-spinal apparatus, and the effects of alkaloids on these parts, occupied him for a considerable time. He was an eminent physician as well as a skillful physiologist; and in this capacity was called upon to attend, during his last illness, the Comte de Chambord, whose disease baffled the skill of the doctors.

Dr. Charcot, in his funeral eulogy of Vulpian, said that "he might be characterized in a single word—as a man of duty. He was never known to retreat from a task which he had engaged to perform. As soon as he felt his strength declining, he resigned the much-coveted post of physician at the Hotel-Dieu, five years before reaching the limit of age, and at the same time gave up the civil practice which he had carried on for several years with great success as consulting physician. This was because he wished to employ all of his time in the service of the Academy, and we all know how he discharged his duty in this relation. Vulpian was more than this: he was a man of great and good heart; a man ready to sacrifice everything for his family; a master adored by his pupils; a sure and devoted friend; and I, who have the sad honor of being your speaker, can not recollect without strong emotion how, in the numerous and warm competitions in which, we were engaged with one another, Vulpian was always a loyal, generous, and chivalrous rival.

"Although he performed high administrative functions, particularly as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, he met but few enemies, and these, I helieve, belonged to that class of unfortunates who can not come in contact with superiority of heart and mind without having a kind of feeling of irritation and despite. But we may let them pass.

"During the last few years, the condition of Vulpian's health had gradually changed. Then I heard him repeat what he had said to me thirty years before, just after the death of his brother, of whom he was very fond, 'I hope to restore myself by work, a remedy which we are fortunate to have.' Yes, work—always work—was his supreme refuge. The last struggle was one to which he was unequal, but yet we observed him making most courageous efforts to keep himself in the ascendant. He came to the Faculty of Medicine daily with the same order and punctuality that had marked the earlier part of his career, to take up and carry on, as long as his strength permitted him, the lectures which he had conscientiously prepared. At the Institute he performed his difficult duties with that scrupulous zeal and distinction which we have all been pleased to recognize."

M. Vulpian earnestly supported M. Pasteur in his late researches concerning the microbes of infection, and particularly in his investigations and experiments concerning hydrophobia; and when it fell to him to defend the daring inoculator and his intensive system of treatment against attack, he did it in the Academy of Medicine and the Academy of Sciences with a vigor that evoked the applause of the members of both bodies, and silenced M. Pasteur's adversaries for the time. Nevertheless, the intensive treatment has prudently been suspended.

We have been favored with the following grateful reminiscence of Prof. Vulpian by one of his former students, W. W. Skinner, M. D. (Paris), of New York: "It was seven years ago when the pursuit of my medical studies first brought me into contact with this truly great medical teacher. He was then Dean of the École de Médecine of Paris, a position only obtained by the wisest and most learned of the great corps of professors in that school, and which confers upon the incumbent the highest honor that his colleagues can bestow upon him. At the same time, he was Professor of Experimental and Comparative Pathology; and his demonstrations of the pharmacodynamic actions of the most active substances of the materia medica brought a roomful of interested students to his laboratory three times weekly during the summer semester.

"One Tuesday, at the usual hour of his demonstrations in the. laboratory, he gave us students an agreeable surprise, and one which we shall long remember. He had invited the renowned Pasteur to show to the class the results of his researches in his now world-famed methods of prophylaxis by vaccination of many virulent diseases of the lower animals. For the short hour of the lecture, Pasteur took chicken-cholera for his subject. He showed the students the micrococcus which causes the disease, the manner of converting it into a harmless vaccinating matter, and finally the lesions produced in the unvaccinated fowl by the micrococcus. Prof. Vulpian, in his large-hearted admiration for his fellow-scientist, took a real pleasure in giving his class an opportunity of seeing and hearing Pasteur.

"The personal appearance of Prof. Vulpian was more than usually striking. He was above the average in stature, and his broad but slightly stooping shoulders were surmounted by a large, finely shaped head, which was adorned by a thick growth of wavy, iron-gray hair. His grave and dignified mien, and the modest air of a true savant that he constantly bore, at once commanded the respect and consideration that he so well merited. His kindly disposition of character endeared him to all with whom he came in contact; and the generosity and absence of jealousy with which he welcomed any discovery made by another scientist, or any honor conferred upon a colleague, was another trait in the character of this truly estimable man.

"He lived in the rue Soufflot, that short but fine street in the Latin Quarter of Paris which is closed at one end by the Pantheon, where the remains of Victor Hugo rest, and at the other by the beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg, where stands the stately palace in which the Senate sits. In this remarkable garden of the Luxembourg, full of fountains, statuary, flower-beds, orange-trees, and students, the hero of this sketch was fond of walking after dinner. Almost every evening about sundown he could be seen strolling quietly through the garden, during half an hour, in company with a tall young man whom I supposed to be his son, and with whom he kept up a pleasant, fatherly conversation. Then, before the retraite sounded, which was the signal to close the gates, he would return to his home close by, where his arduous professional work awaited him.

"During the progress of that hot debate which took place last year in the French Academy of Medicine upon the value of Pasteur's method of vaccination as a means of preventing the outbreak of hydrophobia after the bite of a mad animal. Prof. Vulpian gave proof of his excellent judgment in medical controversy, and of his unshaken friendship for Pasteur. In the session of January 18, 1887, he made a warm defense of Pasteur's method, and, in closing, used these memorable words: 'The glory of Monsieur Pasteur is such that many envious teeth will be broken upon it. Our works and our names will long be buried under the inconstant tide of oblivion, when the name and the works of Pasteur will still be resplendent, and will shine upon such elevated heights that they will never be reached by that dismal flood.'

"Four months after the utterance of these enthusiastic and prophetic words. Prof. Vulpian was borne to the grave. The members of the Academy of Medicine, the Academy of Sciences, the Faculty of Medicine, and the numerous scientific societies of Paris, participated in the grand and imposing obsequies with which the world-renowned savant was honored, and delegates from these institutions pronounced well-merited eulogies over his tomb. The numerous writings from his pen with which medical literature has been enriched will long constitute the highest authority upon the subjects which he investigated."

Vulpian was elected to the Academy of Sciences in the Section of Medicine, when he took the place of Andral in 1876; in 1886 he was chosen perpetual secretary, to succeed M. Jamin. He was given the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1869, and was made an officer of that body in 1878.
The collection of M. Vulpian's publications gives only an incomplete idea of his labors, which were divided between experimental research and teaching. These works include "Des Pneumonies Secondaires" ("Of Secondary Pneumonias," 1860); and "Leçons sur la Physiologic Générale et Comparée du Système Nerveux" ("Lessons on the General and Comparative Physiology of the Nervous System"). Before the short illness of which he died, he was giving lectures on the respiratory system, and he was about to publish an important book on the cerebral functions.

It is now manifest, says Prof. Judd, that no classification of geological periods can possibly be of world-wide application; and that "we must be contented to study the past history of each great area of the earth's surface independently, and to wait patiently for the evidence which shall enable us to establish a parallelism between the several records." Moreover, while attention was once predominantly given to marine deposits, "the growth of our knowledge concerning the terrestrial floras and faunas of ancient geological periods. . . has constantly forced upon the minds of many geologists the necessity of a duplicate classification of geological periods, based on the study of marine and terrestrial organisms respectively." One of the greatest sources of danger to the progress of geological knowledge at the present day is the tendency to forget that the geological record, although of enormous value, is exceedingly imperfect, and thus to make too hasty generalizations on insufficient data.