Inside the Machinery of War

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By | From the Collections

Archive cataloguing sometimes unearths some previously unknown gems amongst our collections. This is certainly the case with the papers of father and son Dominique and Félix Larrey (MS.8889), formerly in the autograph letters collection.

Dominique Jean, 1st Baron Larrey. Stipple engraving by A. Tardieu after himself.

Dominique Jean,1st Baron Larrey. Stipple engraving by A. Tardieu after himself. WI no. V0003379EL

Dominique Jean Larrey, 1st Baron Larrey (1766-1842) was chief surgeon to Napoléon’s armies, and an innovator of battlefield medicine whose ideas are still in use today. His son followed in his footsteps as a medic, learning many of his skills by accompanying his father and seeing him work. Both father and son were Bonapartists, with Félix being physician to Napoléon III, and chief army doctor during the Second French Empire.

One of the key innovations introduced by Dominique Larrey was his creation of “Ambulances volante” (flying ambulances), These were able to transport surgeons and their equipment to the wounded, where they could provide vital first aid. Patients could then be removed to nearby field hospitals for further treatment, another innovation of Larrey’s. He also adapted his ambulance designs depending on the location of the battle, for example using camels instead of horses in Egypt.

Model of a ‘flying ambulance’

Model of a ‘flying ambulance’. WI no. L0058526


Dominique Larrey was at the centre of the administration of war in the Napoleonic era, as these papers demonstrate. He was a member of the Conseil de Santé, a senior body of the French army medical service, which consisted of three physicians, three surgeons and three pharmacists, all having at least 20 years military service behind them. The Conseil was effectively responsible for liaising between medics in the field and the government in Paris, and membership was limited to people nominated by the Minister of War. This body changed name and composition throughout the period, but their duties remained much the same.

The Conseil de Santé was responsible for the health of the troops. It undertook this role by supervising medicine in military hospitals, making inspections, examining new medical recruits, and delivering verdicts on things such as the quality of medical treatments and the standards of food. Additionally the Conseil was responsible for submitting candidates for senior posts in army and military hospitals, writing instructions on the treatment of disease, and distributing medicines and surgical instruments. In reality though, the powers of the Conseil de Santé were extremely limited, with the Minister of War having the final say in all important decisions.

This file includes many examples of open letters written by the Conseil de Santé to the Ministry of War concerning matters such as an outbreak of cholera in Marseille in the 1830s, and the lack of instruments to conduct autopsies at the military hospital at La Rochelle. From these surviving letters it is clear that solving any issue presented to the Conseil involved a lot of correspondence with the Ministry. Shortages of medical instruments and materials persisted throughout the Napoleonic Wars, which suggests that the Conseil were frequently unsuccessful in arguing on behalf of those who wrote to them.

Other material found in this file includes reports detailing injuries sustained during battle, treatment received and expected recovery time. These reports, which often relate to injuries sustained many years earlier, seem to be used to verify on-going disabilities. This would appear to be connected to a law passed in 1796 which decreed that each hospitalised soldier had to have a certificate detailing their illness or disability. Any soldier found with a forged certificate could be shot, and any doctor discovered to have issued false papers could be placed in irons for two years.

Felix-Hippolyte, 2nd Baron Larrey

Felix-Hippolyte, 2nd Baron Larrey. WI no. V0028503

Whilst Dominique Larrey is the most famous member of the family, his son Félix also had a notable medical career, and became president of the Académie Nationale de Médecine, fittingly based on the Rue Bonaparte in Paris, in 1863. As well as medical matters, the correspondence found here includes letters from Félix’s long term romantic partner, the French spy and heroine of the 1870 war, Juliette Dodu.

This small collection of material gives an extraordinary insight into a complicated period of French life, as seen through the eyes of two remarkable men.

Author: Natalie Walters, archivist

Natalie Walters

Natalie Walters is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library. She specialises in the management and curation of born-digital records, and has a worrying knowledge of the history of poisoning.

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