Antoine Portal (1742-1832), doctor, knight of the Empire and founder of the Royal Academy of medicine
Xavier Riaud, FINS, medal of honour of the INS, Legion of Merit of the INS
Antoine Portal (© BIUM).
Antoine Portal had the distinction of surviving all the regimes he lived through and of receiving honours from each of them. Dupont (1999) said of him: « He lived through all the regimes without too much trouble, swearing allegiance to five kings, to a republic and to an emperor. »
He was born in Gaillac in the Tarn area on January 5th, 1742. He was from a family of apothecaries. He studied in the Jesuit secondary school of Alby. In 1760, he started his medical studies in Albi, Toulouse and then, Montpellier. He specialized in anatomy even though he carried out dissections and post-mortem examinations not without disgust.
When he entered the Academy of Sciences, Voltaire, who also attended the academy, said the following statement about him: « So this is the doctor who knows how to discover the secrets of life by delving into death (Lemaire, 1992 & 2003). » In 1764, he defended his Phd thesis. He immediately taught anatomy. In 1766, he went to live in Paris. Cardinal de Bernis recommanded him to the first doctor of King Senac and to his assistant doctor named Lieutaud. Those two men allowed him to become the heir apparent’s private tutor of anatomy in 1767 (Gourdol, 2010). This position helped him to get his diploma being recognized by the Faculty of medicine in Paris (Dupont, 1999 ; Ganière, 1966).
In 1768, he published Précis de chirurgie pratique (Handbook on practical surgery) and became professor of medicine at the Royal College, then at the Collège de France. He stayed there during sixty-four years. In 1769, he officially became the private doctor of the king’s brother. In 1770, he published Histoire de l’anatomie et de la chirurgie (Historical account of anatomy and surgery) in seven volumes. In 1771, he went on publishing Traité de physiologie (Treatise on physiology). In 1774, Traité de la structure du cœur (Treatise on the structure of the heart) came out. That same year, he got married in Gaillac. In 1776, he became professor of anatomy at the Jardin du roi, being recommanded by Buffon at the expense of Vicq d’Azyr, another famous anatomist. He taught there during fifty-five years (Dupont, 1999).
In the Academy of Sciences, he was made assistant member of anatomy on July 5, 1769, associate anatomy on February 17, 1774, permanent anatomist member on September 2, 1784 and finally, permanent member of the anatomy class during the reorganization of April 23, 1775 (Gourdol, 2010).
He set up his dental office on « rue Saint-André-des-Arts » and used advertising subterfuges to convince people to come to his office. Soon, he saw the bourgeoisie of Paris (Necker, Mme de Staël, d’Alembert) coming to see him while he still treated the destistute whenever he could (Dupont, 1999).
Before the Terror, he treated the soon-to-be Louis XVIII and then Louis XVI who made him squire in 1785 (Gourdol, 2010). And yet, when Louis XVI’s personal doctor died, he was not considered for the post and he had much difficulties dealing with it (Dupont, 1999). He also treated Cardinal de Rohan when the latter was imprisonned in la Bastille from August 15, 1785. It was for that reason that the population of Paris mocked him in a little song : they had noticed his ambitious and careerist side through his political dealings (Lemaire, 1992 & 2003).
He was not bothered during the Terror and even received a certificate rewarding his civic-mindedness. Indeed, during the Terror, he treated Pétion (Lemaire, 1992) and Couthon (Lemaire, 2003), and when it ended, he also treated Barras. In 1793, he hold the chair of the newly-created human anatomy department of the Natural History Museum. He lost his position in the Academy of Sciences in 1793 for it was disbanded that same year but then he got it back in the « Institut de France » in 1795. Indeed, he was elected first class permanent member in the National Institute of Sciences and Arts, notably in the medical and surgical branch on December 9, 1795 (Gourdol, 2010).
He carried on publishing and in 1804, Cours d’anatomie médicale (Lecture on medical anatomy) came out in five volumes. That same year, he was elevated to the rank of member of the Legion of Honour. Before the Empire was implemented, he was already made member of Bologna’s National Institute, member of Turin’s Academy of Sciences, of Harlem’s Society of Sciences, member of the Societies of Medicine of Edinburgh, Padua, Gênes, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Tours and Neufchâtel (Portal, 1804 ; Ganière, 1966).
Under the Empire, he treated senior figures (Princess Borghese, Joseph Bonaparte, Massena, etc.) and as such, he became a key figure of the era. However, the access to the Imperial House was always denied to him. Corvisart did not wish to integrate him into it, estimating that his success was too embarassing (Dupont, 1999). As he had partnered with Berthollet and Monge with whom Portal had an argument, Corvisart confided in Saint-Helena that he had developped some kind of coalition to prevent Portal from becoming Napoleon’s personal doctor. Despite many injunctions, Napoleon stuck by it and followed faithfully all of Corvisart’s recommandations. Portal was not allowed to be his personal doctor, let alone a baron. Corvisart blocked Portal’s entry to the Imperial House but his action did not end there. He also blocked his entry in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Animosity ? Rivalry ? Jealousy ? Resentment ? Nobody knew what was going on between the two men. Corvisart seemed to be « the emperor of Napoleonic medicine ». He recommanded, sanctioned, elected, decided appointments both in Napoleon’s entourage and in the universities, and hold back all the people he did not like (Lemaire, 1994). Alas, Corvisart deeply disliked Portal and stood up against him with all his might (Lemaire, 1994).
However, even if the Emperor was not counted among his patient, he treated all the key figures of the capital. He even was elevated to the rank of Knight of the Empire in 1808 (Georgel, 1869). Gourgaud said the following words about him in Saint-Helena : « He was the most famous doctor abroad… » However, his clinical practical experience and his study of symptomatology were the same as Corvisart’s (Lemaire, 1992 & 2003). He always took his time to examine, to listen and to sound a patient before making a diagnosis, which was often considered as the most reliable. He was a brilliant multi-task person who was interested in all issues relating to medicine, who showed real general practice and omniscience.
In 1818, he was appointed Louis XVIII’s personal doctor by the king himself when his predecessor died. Portal was 76 years old. Portal campaigned for the creation of a Royal Academy of medicine in front of the monarch. He was successful in 1820 with the creation of this noble institution of which he became the permanent chairman right from its opening. An Academy with such a standing had to have the elite of French doctors and surgeons within its ranks (Gourdol, 2010). It was his life’s work. Charles X kept him to this position. The king elevated him to barony in 1824, made him commander of the Legion of Honour and Knight of the Order of Saint Michael (Georgel, 1869). Once he became king, Louis-Philippe wished to keep his personal doctor and subsequently, refused his services. Towards the end of his life, Antoine Portal went to the sessions of the Academy every Tuesday. He barely received people at his home, except close friends (Ganière, 1966).
He died of stone disease in Paris on July 23, 1832. He was 90 years old by then. He was buried in the cemetary of Calvaire in Saint-Pierre of Montmartre (Dupont, 1999, http://www.appl-lachaise.net, 2008).
If he was an extremely prolific author, he unfortunately did not make any major discoveries (http://fr.wikipedia.org, 2010). He passed out leaving about fifteen books behind him. All of them were about all possible subjects relating to medicine.
Antoine Portal always sparkled in society with the amount and taste of anecdotes he liked to relate. He notably told how, under the Directory, he used to be in business with men who illegally delivered him corpses to his own house. There, the doctor would carry out postmortem examinations on his own bed and if, by any chance, the police interpellated him, he would get rid of the bodies through a trap door leading to the neighbouring street. Portal was considered by his students and his entourage as a worthy doctor who was unequivocally as gifted as Corvisart (Ganière, 1966). He was also Larrey’s and Dubois’s friend (Dupont, 1999).
Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire (BIUM), personal communication, Paris, 2010.
Dupont Michel, Historical Dictionary of the Doctors in and out of Medicine [Dictionnaire historique des Médecins dans et hors de la Médecine], Larousse (ed.), Paris, 1999.
Ganière Paul, « Baron Antoine Portal, perpetual chairman of the royal academy of medicine [« Baron Antoine Portal, président perpétuel de l’Académie royale de médecine »], in Bull. Acad. Natl. Med., 1966 Oct. 18 ; 150(26) : 539-545.
Georgel Alcide, Armorial of the French Empire [« Armorial de l’Empire français »], in http://www.euraldic.com or National Library of France, Paris, 1869.
Gourdol Jean-Yves, Antoine Portal (1742-1832), a French doctor, anatomist and historian of medicine [« Antoine Portal (1742-1832), médecin, anatomiste français et historien de la médecine »], in http://www.medarus.org, 2010, pp. 1-2.
http://fr.wikipedia.org, Antoine Portal, 2010, pp. 1-3.
http://www.appl-lachaise.net, Portal Antoine, baron de (1742-1832), 2008, p. 1.
Lemaire Jean-François, Napoleon and Medicine [Napoléon et la médecine], François Bourin (ed.), Paris, 1992.
Lemaire Jean-François, The emulating faculty of medicine in Paris under the Empire [« L’émulatrice faculté de médecine de Paris sous l’Empire »], in Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, mars-avril 1994 ; 394 : 14-35.
Lemaire Jean-François, The napoleonic medicine [La médecine napoléonienne], Nouveau Monde/Fondation Napoléon (ed.), Paris, 2003.
Portal Antoine, Lesson of medical anatomy or elements of the human anatomy [Cours d’anatomie médicale ou éléments de l’anatomie de l’homme], Imprimerie Baudouin, vol. V, Paris, 1804.
 DDS, PhD in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and Associate member of the French Dental Academy, Free member of the French Surgical Academy.