Monday, 12 August 2013

Voltaire's brain, a final comedy...

Two Houdon sculptures,  two vital organs...

 Are you serious?  'Fraid so!  The brain of Voltaire is indeed said to reside in the base of his statue (the beautiful marble original) at the Comédie française. Nasty!

Houdon, Voltaire, marble
Foyer of the Comédie française
With his future resting place uncertain, Voltaire's corpse was hurriedly embalmed by candlelight on the night after his death by M.Try, surgeon rue du Bac, assisted by one Burard and a local apothecary named Pipelet Mitouart. The primary objective was preservation rather than the slightly voyeuristic "postmortem" often attributed to them, although of course they couldn't resist commenting on the poor state of Voltaire's kidneys and bladder (he had advanced prostate cancer), the smallness of his heart and (of course) the largeness of his brain.

Mitouart requested that he might preserve the dissected brain, which he did by boiling in alcohol to harden it, then placing it in a jar full of esprit-de-vin.  He kept it all his life on show in his premises in the rue de Beaune.  His son, himself a member of the Académie de médecine, offered it to the Directory government and a transfer to the Bibliothèque nationale was planned but never carried out; it was again declined under the July Monarchy in 1830.  According to Voltaire's biographer Jean Orieux, the younger Mitouart would from time to time open the jar and set alight a small amount of matter on a needle in order to demonstrate that the sparkle of the philosopher's genius was still alive.

In 1858 members of the Mitouart family were once more rebuffed, this time by the Académie française which claimed not to have an adequate reliquary. In the end the brain was left to a cousin, Mme Monard, and it was her son who finally offloaded it in 1924 to the Comédie française. In exchange he received two private seats in the theatre - good deal, I think!
In 1927 the brain undoubtedly existed. It was described in loving detail by a medical expert: it was not just the cerebellum ("cervelet"), we are told, but the whole brain, though now shrunken to an unspeakable lump a few centimetres in diameter At some point it had been transferred into an ornate crystal urn and the surrounding muddy residue decanted. (Yuck!)

In 2010 Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach credited the idea that the brain might indeed be deposited in the base of Houdon's statue. But in 2012, following the conservation of Voltaire's heart, researchers on the trail of Voltairean DNA met a categorical denial from the Comédie française; despite the documentation, the idea that the theatre conserved the brain was "nothing but a legend".  

That crystal urn would certainly never have fitted securely into a statue base; chances are it got broken or lost; or maybe Voltaire's brain simply dissolved definitively into goo.


These details are mostly taken from Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, Histoire d'os et autres illustres abattis, Pluriel 2010, p.113-117.
In the end I just couldn't resist buying this book, but there is a good summary (in English) in "The eternal life of bones" Medicographia. 2010;32:444-452

G, Variot « Le cerveau de Voltaire. Ce qu’il en reste dans le musée de la Comédie Française », dans Bulletin de la Société française d’histoire de la médecine, n° 21, 1927, pp. 260-276.

Nathalie Buisson, "Le coeur de Voltaire"(2012) concludes: "En revanche, l’hypothèse de la conservation du cerveau de Voltaire par la Comédie française n’est plus qu’une légende qui vient d’être confirmée par cette institution en dépit d’une littérature abondante sur le sujet."

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