Adjunct Assistant Professor of History
University of Oregon
Mr. Dracobly is currently working on a book length manuscript on Philippe Ricord and the French school of syphilography.
It is sometimes asserted that Alfred Fournier, the late- nineteenth-century « pope of syphilography, » was the son-in-law of Philippe Ricord, as if the scientific relationship between the « master » and his most illustrious student and scientific legatee was mirrored in their private lives1. Fournier was one of Ricord’s last interns at the Hôpital du Midi. He co-authored Ricord’s last substantial contribution to the field, his Leçons sur le chancre (1858), and Fournier defended his thesis in 1860, the same year in which Ricord retired from « public life. » Thus, as myth would have it, Ricord, the dominant syphilographer of his generation passed the torch to his scientific heir and son-in-law, Alfred Fournier, the dominant syphilographer of the next generation, a family mandarinate if ever was one. Unfortunately, the myth has it wrong. If Fournier was Ricord’s « fils scientifique, » he was never a member of the master’s family.
How do we know? First, none of Ricord and Fournier‘s contemporaries ever refer to this putative relationship between « father and son. » 2 Ricord was one of the most celebrated physicians of his day and Fournier was hardly less so. But at Ricord’s death in 1889, not one of the twelve eulogists – including Fournier himself, who spoke in the name of Ricord’s former students – so much as mentioned Fournier‘s family ties to Ricord. Similarly, none of the many biographical notices written by Ricord’s contemporaries and either published during his lifetime or shortly after his death refer to Fournier as his « gendre. » Indeed, there is no evidence whatsoever indicating that Fournier married the master’s daughter.
For good reason: Ricord never had a daughter. Ricord was a lifelong bachelor. He shared his home at 6 rue Tournon with his older brother Alexandre (who was married but had no children) until the latter’s death in 1876, after which he was cared for by his great-niece, Jenny Nitard-Ricord. With the exception of legacies to the Academy of Medicine, the Society of Surgery, the Association générale des médecins de France, the Hôpital du Midi, he left his substantial fortune to his great-niece, « ma légataire universelle en pleine propriété. » 3 Neither a daughter nor Alfred Fournier are mentioned in Ricord’s will. As for Jenny, she was married to one M. Salata and had a single son, Charles, possibly from an earlier marriage.
What, then, is the source of the myth of Fournier‘s relation to Ricord? It most likely arose sometime after World War II (I have never seen such a reference prior to the war but I may be mistaken), perhaps the result of a confusion between Fournier‘s scientific and his personal relationship to Ricord. There is much truth to the assertion that at his retirement in 1860 Ricord « fit de Fournier son légataire scientifique. » 4 And Ricord must have derived immense satisfaction from seeing Fournier established at the Hôpital du Midi’s main institutional rival, the Hôpital Saint-Louis (where Ricord’s adversairies, Camille Gibert and Alphée Cazenave had practiced). Fournier, moreover, continued to maintain close, even filial, ties with Ricord until the latter’s death. In the words of the medical chronicler, the pseudonymous Horace Bianchon:
M. Fournier, on le sait, a été l’un des plus brillants internes de Ricord; il est, aujourd’hui, le continuateur de son enseignement et l’héritier de sa grande renommée. La science évoluant sans cesse, il est fatalement arrivé que l’élève a dépassé le maître, et que le maître s’est vu, dans son grand âge, un peu dépossédé de sa suprématie scientifique. Peut-être en a-t-il souffert dans l’intimité de son cœur: en tout cas il n’en a laissé rien paraître, et son disciple triomphant lui a sans cesse témoigné tant de déférence et d’admiration, qu’ils sont restés et resteront les meilleurs amis du monde. Et le premier mai de chaque année, jusqu’à la mort du maître, Fournier s’armait d’un gros bouquet pour aller souhaiter la fête au vieux Ricord, et filialement l’embrasser, sur les deux joues.
Mœurs patriarcales d’autrefois, qu’êtes-vous devenues?.5
Ricord’s relations with his students do appear to have been paternalistic, 6 but he was father to none. Fournier thus might well be regarded as Ricord’s « fils spirituel, » the heir to Ricord’s scientific mantle, but nothing more and, if we discount the sentimentalism of Ricord’s nineteenth-century eulogists and biographers, perhaps even a good deal less.