Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Humble Surgeon

Those of you in the medical field may have heard the name Dupuytren. 

Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, a brilliant surgeon, pathologist, and professor of medicine, had humble origins as the son of a penniless lawyer in Pierre-Buffiere, France. He attended medical school in Paris while the French Revolution raged, became Chief Surgeon of the famed Hôtel-Dieu during Napoleon's reign (supposedly treating the Emperor's hemorrhoids), and amassed a huge fortune. Eleven medical terms bear the Baron's name. He was widely disliked due to being pompous, combative, conniving, miserly, and a harsh critic, but he was such a talented surgeon and teacher that it didn't stop him from treating an estimated 10,000 patients a year (including Napoleon, King Louis-Philippe, and King Charles X).

Some of the Baron's huge fortune went to establish a chair at the ècole de Médecine and some of it went to establish a home for doctors in distress. The Baron had also offered a million francs to Charles X when he was newly overthrown and bankrupt. 

The Baron was also quite generous with his nephew.

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Pigné-Dupuytren

The Dupuytrens had been far from wealthy; the Baron attended school on charity and still had to work at the same time. His sister and her husband were struggling farmers in Limoges. Their son Jean-Baptiste Pigné was delivered in 1807 by a colleague of the Baron's, one Professor Cruveilher. 

The Baron had no son to inherit his estate or title, and legally adopted Jean-Baptiste with Napoleon's assistance, adding his own surname to his nephew's. He then enlisted Professor Cruveilher to see to the boy's education, making it as complete as possible. Jean-Baptiste attended the best schools in Paris, received a bachelor's and master's, and had the Professor as his own private tutor when studying medicine and surgery. 

After completing his medical studies in France, Jean-Baptiste was sent to Heidelberg, Germany for further studies (for which he also mastered German). After graduating, the Baron sent him to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh for still more medical studies under English-speaking professors. 

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Pigné-Dupuytren, by now 38 years old, was put in charge of the Museé Dupuytren, an anatomical museum founded by the Baron, and was made prosector of dissection materials for anatomy students at the Hôtel-Dieu. He did not care to stay in France due to ongoing political upheaval (the 1848 Revolution was just around the corner), and left for New York, bringing all the medical equipment and furniture he would need to set up a practice. (Le Guide Francais states that as of 1932, the bed that had come over from France with the Doctor was still in the possession of his daughter Leona. Does anyone out there know its current whereabouts?)

Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren rubbed elbows with the likes of railroad barons and the owners of Delmonico's restaurant in New York, but wanted to see the rest of the United States. Armed with multiple letters of recommendation, he visited Niagara Falls, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Richmond, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans (a city he favorably compared to France). He attempted, unsuccessfully, to set up a practice in New Orleans. Upon returning to New York a few months later, the Delmonico brothers asked him to go to San Francisco to oversee the second restaurant they had just established. San Francisco was booming, and the restaurant would only take part of his time. The doctor accepted. 

Legend has it that Commodore Vanderbilt offered Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren a free ride around Cape Horn on one of his ships. However, another source states that he in fact sailed on the Sea Witch, which was owned by Howland & Aspinwall, and which was known to sail from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn during and after the Gold Rush.

San Francisco's population was growing so exponentially that the Doctor's first practice was in a tent, owing to a severe shortage of office space. Or, for that matter, any indoor space at all.

Before long, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren backed the Marquis de Pindray, Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon, and dozens of other San Francisco Frenchmen on a failed expedition to Arizona and Mexico, with the goal of reopening old silver mines and establishing a French colony. The people of Sonora, understandably, weren't having it, and the Marquis was killed in a raid. Most of the survivors returned to San Francisco.

Just a few years later in 1856, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren was called to perform autopsies on James Casey and Charles Cora, lynched by San Francisco's Vigilance Committee for allegedly murdering a newspaper editor. The doctor was the founder and first President of San Francisco's prominent French organization Ligue Liberale, and doubled as editor of French-language newspaper Courier de San Francisco. He was such a prominent San Franciscan that he was one of a few residents chosen to represent the city at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, and brought over 3,000 mineral specimens to exhibit. While living in San Francisco, he became friends with both Prudent Beaudry and the diplomat J.A. Moerenhout, who we'll meet at a later date.

In 1874, the Doctor sent his wife Isabella (née Grain, born in New York to a French colleague) and their daughter Leona to Los Angeles to establish a new home. He followed on the Orizaba a few months later, and at some point purchased a plot of land at what is now 7th and Grand downtown. And, of course, he renewed his friendships with Beaudry and Moerenhout.

One source states that Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren traveled back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles until permanently settling in LA around 1883, another states that he took on a smaller clientele in LA so he could spend more time on other interests. Newspaper accounts seem to place the family in both cities off and on, and one indicates that Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren's Los Angeles practice could have opened as late as 1877.

Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren served a term as President of the French Benevolent Society and had a stint as Vice President of the Southern California Medical Society.  The Los Angeles Times described the doctor, in part, as "one of the best-informed men to be found, and could talk well and to the point about any given subject, his store of knowledge on all topics being apparently inexhaustible." The doctor also doubled as an editor for two of LA's own French-language newspapers, unsuccessfully attempting to revive L'Union (which had a negative reputation for its prior owners' irregular publishing schedule) and going on to edit Le Progrés. Due to his advanced age, he resigned after one year and was succeeded by Georges Le Mesnager.

When the well-heeled surgeon died in San Diego County in 1886, his friend and colleague Dr. E.A. de Cailhol delivered the eulogy at the funeral. In part:

"The deceased has often laughed with me over the circumstance, which seemed to run counter to his modest desires, arguing that he would never bear the title for several reasons: First, because he himself was unworthy of it, having never done anything remarkable; second, because being an unflinching and determined Republican, it would be a reproach to accept an empty title." (Note: Dr. de Cailhol's use of the word "Republican" probably referred to French politics. Although Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren was a naturalized US citizen, the threat of the French monarchy's restoration had a hand in prompting him to leave France.)

True to his word, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren had never accepted the title of baron (his famed uncle had died in 1835). He seems to have been content to be a doctor, polymath, and sometime adventurer in the Old West.

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