Guy De Chauliac Biography

(Was a French Physician and Surgeon)

Born: 1300

Born In: Chaulhac, France

Guy de Chauliac, also known as Guido or Guigo de Cauliaco, was a French physician and surgeon best remembered for his seminal work on surgery, a treatise originally written in Latin titled Chirurgia Magna. Information provided in this lengthy and influential text that forms a guide to surgery and practical medicine was compiled by Chauliac from his own field experience and research of historical medical texts. It was later translated in different European languages and emerged as a significant reference manual of practical medicine being extensively read by physicians during late medieval Europe. Chauliac, a Master of Medicine and Surgery, earned repute as a physician and served as a personal physician to Pope Clement VI and thereafter to Pope Innocent VI, and Pope Urban V. He treated plague patients in Avignon when Black Death, the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, arrived in the city. He documented symptoms of the disease and claimed to have survived it himself. He was among the first physicians who distinguished between two forms of the disease, the Pneumonic Plague and the Bubonic Plague. He laid emphasis on anatomy, however his reluctance in looking beyond textbook knowledge was probably a reason why his anatomical descriptions are not always correct.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Guigo de Cauliaco, Guido

Died At Age: 68

Born Country: France

Surgeons French Men

Died on: July 25, 1368

place of death: Avignon, France

Childhood & Early Life

Guy de Chauliac was born in c. 1300 in Chaulhac, Lozère, France, in a peasant family of modest means. He developed an interest in the subject of medicine at an early age and was the only child who went on to pursue the subject, aided by the lords of Mercoeur. He started studying medicine in the city of Toulouse and thereafter furthered his studies in Montpellier, the city in southern France considered the center for medical knowledge of the country during the 14th century.

From 1315 to 1320, he was in Paris and obtained his degree as a Master of Medicine and Surgery around 1325. Thereafter he went to Bologna and studied anatomy under the tutelage of Nicola Bertuccio. He probably learned surgical techniques from Bertuccio, however it remains unclear whether he practically applied his knowledge on surgical studies. Charles H. Talbot was of the opinion that although it seemed that Chauliac learned his surgery and possibly used the knife for embalming dead bodies of popes, he however avoided using it on living patients. Others like Thevenet claimed that Chauliac learned the art of surgery from Bertuccio and thereafter went to Mende and then to Lyons to practice medicine.

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Chauliac served as canon of St. Just, and later of Rheims and of Mende. In no time he earned repute as a physician. He accepted invitation from the the Papal Court in Avignon, France, and served as a personal physician to Pope Clement VI and then to Pope Innocent VI and finally to Pope Urban V.

Meanwhile in 1348, the bubonic plague pandemic known as Black Death as also the Great Mortality, the Pestilence, or simply, the Plague, arrived in Avignon. While other physicians fled the city, Chauliac resolved to stay back and treat those afflicted with the disease, which took shape of a fatal pandemic causing death of millions of people thereby drastically reducing the world population during 14th century besides creating religious, social and economic disturbances which had profound effect on the course of European history.

Chauliac treated the plague patients directly and claimed to have been infected by the disease himself. He documented symptoms of the disease. His observations led him to become one of the first ones who distinguished the two forms of the plague, the Bubonic Plague that infected the lymphatic system and the Pneumonic Plague that infected the lungs and the respiratory system, both of which occurred during outbreaks in Avignon. He advised Pope Clement to take preventive measures in keeping the disease at bay by avoiding visitors and by keeping a fire burning continuously in his chamber.

According to the description that Chauliac gave to the papal court, the death toll that started in the city in January 1348 and continued for around seven months was of two kinds. The first one that lasted for two months witnessed continuous fever and spitting of blood in patients with death occurring within three days. In the second one symptom included continuous fever and in some cases patients had ulcers and boils with painful swellings in the neck, armpits, and groin and death occurred within five days. Chauliac asserted that the disease was so contagious, particularly when patient was spitting blood, that one can get infected through the patient not only by living in the same house but by merely looking at the latter. Although the causative agent of the plague was not known for sure, the plague was recognized as a highly contagious one. Chauliac’s advice on fighting the plague included maintaining a healthy diet, keeping air purified and venesection (bleeding).

The Jews were falsely blamed for outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe from 1348 to 1351. They were considered heretics and were believed to have poisoned wells in some places. This resulted in a series of violent attacks on the community resulting in mass persecutions and massacres. Chauliac argued from his own treatment of the infected and refuted such misconception. He applied science in declaring such notion as untrue and asserted that the Plague happened due to scientific occurrences within the atmosphere. His research also aided Pope Clement VI in the latter’s efforts in protecting the Jewish communities during that time by issuing two papal bulls on July 6 and September 26 in 1348.

In 1363, Chauliac completed his seminal work on surgery, a lengthy and influential treatise written in seven volumes in Latin titled Chirurgia magna. It is a guide to surgery and practical medicine, information of which Chauliac compiled from his own experience as a medical practitioner and from research of historical medical texts.

In pursuit of elucidating the history of medicine in Chirurgia magna, Chauliac quoted from medical works written by earlier physicians and anatomists as well as by his contemporaries. According to editor E. Nicaise, Chauliac made around 3,300 quotations in the text with around 1,400 from Arab writers and 1,100 from ancient authors of whom Galen, an imminent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher of the Roman Empire, led the list with 890 different citations. Chauliac’s position as papal physician led him to lay his hands on texts of Galen which were brilliantly translated from Greek to Latin by Italian scientist, doctor and translator Niccolò da Reggio. Chauliac maintained that surgery started with Galen and Greek physician Hippocrates of the classical period and was developed in the Arab world by Persian physician and psychologist Haly Abbas, Arab Andalusian physician, surgeon and chemist Albucasis and Persian physician, philosopher and alchemist Al-Razi. Influence of works of Islamic scientists is palpable in this work where Chauliac often references Persian polymath Avicenna, a preeminent physician, astronomer, philosopher, and writer of the Islamic Golden Age.

Chirurgia magna covered several topics including anatomy, bloodletting, drugs, ulcers, anesthetics, cauterization, fractures, wounds, special diseases, and antidotes. Chauliac described a drug inhalation used as a soporific for surgical patients as well as several surgical techniques such as intubation, suturing and tracheotomy in the text. Treatments like the use of bandages are also elucidated. He was of the opinion that pus formed at the site of inflammation from an infection was advantageous for the healing process.

The original version of Chirurgia magna comprised of 465 pages. With time the text garnered popularity and was translated into different European languages including in English, French, Italian, Dutch and Provencal. The text was first translated from Latin to Irish by Irish physician and scribe Cormac Mac Duinnshléibhe.  According to physician and bibliophile Tibulle Desbarreaux-Bernard, the text was originally written at the medical school in Montpellier in Catalan and the surviving Latin version of the treatise is only an early translation. The text that emerged as an important reference manual of practical medicine was read extensively by physicians and remained a standard work on surgery till at least the 17th century. The text was however reworked several times (noticeable reworks include removal of references to Islamic scientists) to such extent that it was not any more identifiable as that of Chauliac's.

Chauliac was greatly influenced by Galen and this is evident from his belief that surgeons should have an in-depth knowledge of anatomy. He compared a surgeon who does not know his anatomy with a blind man who tries to carve a log. The way he elucidated the dissection of a corpse was also akin to the beliefs of Galen about the human body. However reluctance of Chauliac and his contemporaries in looking beyond textbook knowledge is a reason why his anatomical descriptions are not always correct.

Chauliac also wrote three other works, namely De subtilianti diaeta, a book that describe treatments for cataracts; Practica astrolabii (De astronomia), an essay on astrology; and De ruptura, a text elucidating various types of hernias.

Personal Life & Legacy

Chauliac was possibly a reserved person as there is not much information available on his personal life. According to sources, Chauliac believed in the healing powers of nature, and would research on Herbalism during his free time. He passed away in Avignon on July 25, 1368, during the exile of the Papal legacy.

He was tagged as the Father of Surgery, and his pioneering work Chirurgia Magna inspired physicians and surgeons for the next three centuries. Even though several physicians and historians remained critical of his works on surgical treatments, Chauliac is counted among the most noted surgical writers of the Middle Ages and went on to inspire umpteen number of surgeons and physicians across the globe.

See the events in life of Guy De Chauliac in Chronological Order

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