Rene Nicolas Desgenettes

Rene Nicolas Desgenettes

  • Desgenettes inoculates the plague in the presence of sick soldiers to calm their imaginations

    VAFFLARD Pierre-Antoine-Augustin (1777 - 1835)

  • René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes (1762-1837), chief physician of the Egyptian expedition

    LAFFITE (2020 - 2020)

Desgenettes inoculates the plague in the presence of sick soldiers to calm their imaginations

© RMN-Grand Palais (museum of the castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet

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Title: René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes (1762-1837), chief physician of the Egyptian expedition

Author : LAFFITE (2020 - 2020)

Creation date : 1807

Date shown: 1799

Technique and other indications: etching

Storage place: National Museum of Malmaison Castle website

Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (museum of the castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet Link to the image

Picture reference: 98-004934 / MM.40.47.9702

René-Nicolas Dufriche, baron Desgenettes (1762-1837), chief physician of the Egyptian expedition

© RMN-Grand Palais (museum of the castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet

Publication date: April 2020

Professor of modern history at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.

Historical context

The health service and the Egyptian expedition (1798-1801)

If theegypt expedition passed down to posterity for its scientific aspect or the Battle of the Pyramids (July 21, 1798), it also involved considerable logistics to transport troops and materials across the Mediterranean as well as a health service capable of keeping the troops in a state of combat in hostile terrain. General Bonaparte was perfectly aware of this when he wrote on March 30, 1798 to Simon de Sucy, chief ordinator of the army of Egypt, a trusted man who served him in Italy: “Citizen Desgenettes is a doctor in Chief, Citizen Larrey, Chief Surgeon. Eighteen surgeons and doctors must have left and, at the present time, be returned to Toulon. You will never have too many. Each warship or transport ship must have its pharmacy […] and you will also have to embark a quantity of medicines proportionate to the strength of the army which happens to be 30,000 men ”.

René-Nicolas Desgenettes (1762-1837) is himself a veteran of the Italian campaign, where he was appreciated by Bonaparte and fought against typhus. When the plague, endemic to the Levant, breaks out, Desgenettes presents it as a "bubonic fever" and forbids naming the infection by name, aware of the panic that might seize men if the information were to be disseminated in their ranks.

In Jaffa, which the French besieged and captured in March 1799, the plague wreaked havoc on the civilian population and the ranks of the army. This engraving by Pierre Antoine Augustin Vafflard (1777-1835) presents in an epic and heroic way the exemplary nature of the leader, here René-Nicolas Desgenettes, chief doctor of the expeditionary force, in front of a tragic situation: contamination by the plague , soldiers of the army of Egypt, during the campaign in Syria. Laffite is one of those artists who made the link between the Ancien Régime, the Revolution and the Empire: Grand Prix de Rome in painting in 1791, he benefited from official orders under the Directory and under the Empire and used many media distribution: paintings, engravings and medals.

Image Analysis

The chief doctor sets the example

In uniform, Desgenettes presents his arm to show that he has just been inoculated with "bubous fever". The officers and soldiers around him are seized by such recklessness while others show the sick Desgenettes' gesture. The lines of flight converge towards him and stage this sacrificial gesture. The engraving here reminds us that the doctor Desgenettes, trained with the best French and Italian masters, is a firm supporter of smallpox inoculation - which he performed on his son. But the image also helps to erase doubts and ambiguities. Indeed, Desgenettes refused to name the plague and the title evokes the "imagination" of the soldiers to be calmed. Moreover, by his own admission, Desgenettes does not inoculate the pus coming from a seriously ill patient, but "from a first degree convalescent", which is quite logical on the part of a tenant. of inoculation: it is about eliciting an immune response, not killing. The image also helps silence those who denied that Desgenettes inoculated himself.

The strong water places more emphasis on the decor and less emphasizes the military dimension: no saber or bicorn, only the uniform is visible. It is the exemplary nature of the doctor that is highlighted here. Desgenettes presents her arm and points to the inoculation points. Witnesses like Berthier, in fact, noticed inflammation there several weeks after inoculation.

Interpretation

Building a medical and imperial legend

This engraving is part of a "military gallery". It participates in its own way in the construction of the imperial legend. Along with Percy and Larrey, Desgenettes is one of the figures of the Army Health Service during the Napoleonic epic - army training hospitals still bear their names: from the Egyptian campaign to the Russian campaign ( 1812) where he was taken prisoner by the Cossacks.

Facing General Bonaparte then Emperor Napoleon Ier, Desgenettes reacts like a doctor and does not hesitate to challenge the military authority. When the end of the plague victims of Jaffa must be, by order of Bonaparte, accelerated by injection of laudanum because of the retreat of the French army and in order not to let the sick fall into the hands of the Turks, Desgenettes retorts - or would have retorted -: "My duty is to conserve". In Moscow, he did it again - or would have done it again - when the evacuation of a children's hospital was decided: "Your Majesty probably wants to repeat the massacre of the Innocents? »But the Emperor, who knows how to recognize talented men with strong character, made Desgenettes officer of the Legion of Honor, Baron of the Empire, Inspector General of the Health Service and charged him with reorganizing the Val de Grâce. .

Moreover, it is the title of Baron of the Empire, therefore subsequent to the Egyptian campaign and the creation of the Empire (1804), which appears significantly in the title of the engraving. In short, the legend of Desgenettes owes a lot to her relationship to Napoleon. As in a mirror effect, this engraving and its variants can be compared to another famous staging: Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, March 11, 1799 by Jean-Antoine Gros. Heroism and the spirit of sacrifice transcend the vagaries of war, and in Syria as in the Russian campaign, military defeat. The chief doctor also knows how to build his own legend, when he returns to the inoculation of bubonic pus "to make it a" memorable action "and it is his daughter who ensures that his name appears on the Arc. de Triomphe.

  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • egypt expedition
  • Syria
  • plague
  • hygiene
  • medicine
  • military
  • Legion of Honor
  • Italian countryside
  • Russia

To cite this article

Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, "Rene Nicolas Desgenettes"


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