Marie François Xavier Bichat

The French anatomist, pathologist, and physiologist Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) was the founder of general anatomy and animal histology.

On Nov. 11, 1771, M. F. X. Bichat was born in Thoirett, Jura. His father, a physician, was his first teacher of anatomy. He studied anatomy and surgery at Montpellier and Lyons and later served as an assistant to P. J. Desault, a famous physician at the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris. In 1800 Bichat, after the death of Desault, became physician at the Hôtel-Dieu. From 1799 onward he abandoned surgery and did only research in anatomy, performing as many as 600 autopsies in a single year. He investigated the structure of the body generally, rather than studying particular organs as separate entities. He broke down the organs into their common elemental materials, for which he introduced the term "tissues."

Bichat rejected the iatrochemistry of the later Cartesians, which was still influential at the time. According to this principle, disorders in the human frame are caused by an imbalance in the chemical relations of fluids in the body. He also rejected Stahl's animism, which maintains that there is a special "Spirit of Life." Bichat was a follower of Albrecht von Haller's special form of vitalism, according to which the body possesses some truly vital functions such as motion, communication, and sensibility, while other characteristics of the body are not vital. In other words, he rejected the old theory that life is a collection of subtle fluids and maintained rather that life is a result of a combination of vitality and the vital functions of various tissues of the body. Bichat also rejected the reductionist philosophy, according to which all biological phenomena have to be reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry—an attitude becoming more and more prevalent in his own time. His definition was that life consists of the sum of functions by which death is resisted. One of his most interesting works is Physiological Researches on Life and Death.

Bichat's experimental work had great influence and was quoted for a long time as a model of experimental exactitude and penetrating insight. In this context it is interesting to note that Bichat refused all his life to make use of the most advanced experimental tool for anatomy, namely, the microscope. His feverish activity weakened him, and in 1802, after a fall from the Hôtel-Dieu's staircase, he contracted a fever and died on July 22, only 31 years old. This brilliant man had an enormous impact on French science not only through his experimental work and new version of vitalistic philosophy, but also through his writing of basic textbooks and establishing of research institutions.


Further Reading on Marie François Xavier Bichat

See Elizabeth Haigh, Xavier Bichat and the Medical Theory of the Eighteenth Century (1984). Background material is in Erwin H. Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine (1955); Lester S. King, The Medical World of the Eighteenth Century (1958); and Félix Martí-lbáñ A Prelude to Medical History (1961).