“Presque tous les hommes meurent de leurs remèdes et non de leurs maladies” (Molière)
Here is English authoress Nancy Mitford on seventeenth century French doctors:
‘Illness and death were very dreadful at Versailles in the seventeenth century. As soon as the breath had left the body of a member of the royal family, his or her gilded bed-chamber was turned into a butcher’s shop. Lords or ladies in waiting, who had spent their lives with the deceased, and were often in a state of grief, were obliged to stand by the bed while the body was chopped to pieces. The head was sawn open and examined, the liver and lights laid aside; the heart, on a silver salver, was given to one duchess and the entrails, in a big silver bowl, to another. Seven or eight doctors made notes of their gruesome findings and pronounced the causes of death; the only cause which invariably escaped their notice was their own incompetence.
‘Descriptions of seventeenth century diseases read strangely to us. Racine’s twelve-year old daughter, Fanchon, went to bed with a headache. Presently, Racine, who adored his children, went to see how she was getting on. He found her with her head on the floor and her throat full of water, drowning. He picked her up; she was like a wet sack. He and his wife forced salt down her throat, and rubbed her with spirits of wine; it still seemed she must die. They sent frantically for doctors but none would or could come, or were away from home. Finally she vomited an appalling amount of water which seemed to have come into her chest from her brain. Then she was perfectly all right. Mareschal the surgeon arrived and bled her. Doctor Fagon arrived and diagnosed catarrh; he said it came from not blowing her nose enough. After this she drove everybody mad by blowing her nose noisily all day.
‘The dangers for human life in those days were childbirth for women, battle for men, babyhood and smallpox for everybody. Old age was not particularly dangerous or disagreeable; people lived to enormous ages unless they were poets or composers, who always seemed to die, tragically, in their thirties. Lauzon rode to hounds every day at eighty-nine. Mme de Ventadour danced a minuet at ninety. Mme de Maintenon, at over seventy, complained to her confessor, who wrote it down in his diary, that the King insisted on his conjugal rights every day and sometimes twice. She died at eighty-four, but only of boredom. Mme de Cléramboult was the best of company at ninety. Le Nôtre was in perfect health at eighty-eight. Isaac Bartet, one of the King’s secretaries, died at a hundred and five, and the Spanish Marquis de Mansera at a hundred and seven, having practically lived on chocolate for years. Octogenarians abound in the pages of the memorialists, as lively as larks.
‘Infant mortality was appalling, and the doctors responsible. When a child was sick, first they bled it, then purged it, and then administered an emetic which sometimes did the trick, and saved the child. They never noticed that this treatment left anything to be desired, and though of course the mothers and nurses knew it was bad, they could do nothing, since pious public opinion would have accused them of murder had they refused to let the doctors have their way. As soon as the faculty of medicine was called in, the mothers were left to their prayers, and find what consolation they could in the thought that their darlings would soon be with God. Ten of the seventeen children the King had with his wife and chief mistresses died in infancy – a perfectly normal percentage for a rich person. The poor, whose lives were in so many ways so wretched, were at least spared the attentions of doctors like Fagon; had his methods prevailed in country districts the population of France would certainly not have been twenty millions.’
Quoted by Dean Swift from Nancy Mitford