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Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Grant-writing has been preoccupying me lately, so I’m going to compress what I initially intended to be a straight plug for an excellent article in the latest SiC, and do a Hump-Day History post drawing on some of its contents: Stéphane Schmitt’s “From Physiology to Classification: Comparative Anatomy and Vicq d’Azyr’s Plan of Reform for Life Sciences and Medicine (1774-1794)” Science in Context 22 (2009): 145-193.

Félix Vicq-d'Azyr (1746-1794)

I admire the article because it demonstrates an exemplary sense of historiographical problematics, placing its subject matter within the literature as well as addressing it to a well-defined historiographical question: how did comparative anatomy become a dominant methodology within natural history circa 1800?  The shift has been identified most strongly with the work of Georges Cuvier at the Museum of Natural History in Paris beginning in 1795, but the prior work and advocacy of former Buffon assistant Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1799) and his protege Félix Vicq d’Azyr has clear importance that was widely recognized at the time, but became subsumed in later histories.

Vicq d’Azyr was born in Normandy and arrived in Paris in 1765 to study medicine.  Around 1770 he attended courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and perhaps met Daubenton at this time.  Daubenton soon became Vicq d’Azyr’s patron, and Vicq d’Azyr married Daubenton’s niece in 1773 (she died 18 months later and Vicq d’Azyr never remarried).  It was around this time that the young physician decided to make the unusual turn to comparative anatomy.  This led him to membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and he became a founding figure and permanent secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, which was founded in 1776.

In the 1770s, French natural history still revolved around the figure of the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788, named comte in 1772), the intendant of the (more…)