About Jean-François Fernel, Docteur
Jean François Fernel (in Latin, Fernelius) (Montdidier 1497–Fontainebleau 1558) was a French physician who introduced the term "physiology" to describe the study of the body's function. He was the first person to describe the spinal canal. The lunar crater Fernelius is named after him.
In the 1500s, Fernel suggested that fat could trigger human taste buds, but scientists rejected the idea until a recent study (carried out by Purdue University in 2001) proved it plausible.
He was born at Montdidier, and after receiving his early education at his native town, entered the College of Sainte-Barbe, Paris. At first he devoted himself to mathematical and astronomical studies; his Cosmotheoria (1528) records a determination of a degree of the meridian, which he made by counting the revolutions of his carriage wheels on a journey between Paris and Amiens.
His works on mathematical and astronomical subjects also include Monalosphaerium(1526), and De proportionibus (1528).
But from 1534 he gave himself up entirely to medicine, in which he graduated in 1530. His extraordinary general erudition, and the skill and success with which he sought to revive the study of the old Greek physicians, gained him a great reputation, and ultimately the office of physician to the court. He practised with great success, and at his death in 1558 left behind him an immense fortune.
His medical works include: De naturali parte medicinae (1542), De vacuandi ratione (1545), De abditis rerum causis (1548), and what has been called his "crowning work", Universa Medicina, comprising three parts, the Physiologia (developed from the De naturali parte), the Pathologia, and the Therapeutice.
His father was an substantial furrier and innkeeper. Fernel's marriage testifies to the economic status of the family; his father-in-law was a counselor of the Parlement of Paris. Fernel received a substantial dowry, which he dipped into for the construction of some instruments until conflict arose over this. At this point Fernel laid mathematics aside and discharged the craftsmen and engravers whom he had maintained under his own roof.
Obviously affluent at the least, though wealthy would not be an assumption without support.
Education - Schooling: Paris, M.A., M.D.
After schooling at Clermont, Fernel entered the Collège de Ste. Barbe in Paris in 1519, and received his M.A. at the age of twenty two. Then he studied philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics until 1524. After 1524, he studied medicine, and obtained his venia practicandi and his M.D. at Paris in 1530.
Religion - Affiliation: Catholic
Primary: Medicine, Anatomy, Physiology
Subordinate: Astronomy, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy
His De naturali parte medicinae (1542) , in which he addressed himself to physiology, was read for a century, until Harvey's time. He introduced the term "physiology" for the science of the function of the body. In Medicina (1554), he noted the peristalsis and the systole and diastole of the heart. Among his anatomical observations was the earliest description of the spinal canal.
He also pursued astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy. He rejected astrology over his career.
Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia, Patronage
Secondary: Personal Means
1521-4, Fernel seems only to have studied humane letters and mathematics with no thought of a career. He was supported by his father until 1524, when he began teaching.
1524-1530, teacher of philosophy at the Collège de Ste. Barbe.
1530-58, medical practice. Hazon says that he earned 2,000 livres a year, the best medical income of the age.
1534-56, professor of medicine at the Collège de Coenouailles.
1556-8, physician to Henry II. Fernel was physician-in- chief to the Dauphin, later Henry II. The prince wanted to keep him at court, but Fernel declined until 1556.
Plancy, Fernel's biographer and close associate, reports that Fernel seldom received less that 10,000 livres a year and sometimes more than 12,000. He evidently received 2,300 livres Tournai for Catherine's last childbirth alone. At his death, 30,000 écus d'or were found in his study.
Patronage - Types: Academic, Court Official
Fernel dedicated Monalosphaerium (1527) to Jocab de Gorea, a mathematician who either had been or would become Principal of Ste. Barbe. The book was sumptuous and appeared to indicate the support of a generous patron. This was also true of two other books published in this period.
Hazon says that Fernel cured Catherine de' Medici of sterility, which made his fortune. (There is another story about this below.) According to this story, the king rewarded Fernel with 40,00 écus, and Catherine is reported to have given him 10,000 écus at each birth (there were six).
In 1530s, (according to the other story) Fernel's reputation at court became firmly established when he saved the life of Prince Henry's mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Later he also treated Catherine de' Medici, Henry's wife. Fernel treated Francis I in 1547 before the king's death. Henry II wanted to keep him as physician-in-chief, but Fernel wanted to stay in Paris instead of moving to Fontainbleau. While Henry was Dauphin, he did keep Fernel at court for two years (with a large stipend), much to Fernel's displeasure. Much later, from 1556 to 1558, Fernel was physcian to the court. Henry II said that as long as he had Fernel beside him, illness would not be mortal. Fernel dedicated his Dialogue and The Natural Part of Medicine (1542) to the Dauphin. He dedicated Medicina (1554) to King Henry II.
Technological Involvement - Type: Medical Practice
Fernel's practice thrived sufficiently that he was compelled to give up teaching.
Fernel was one of the foremost medical writers of his day, but modern historians of medicine have been distracted from his story by the more dramatic actions of some of his contemporaries. His was the first general synthesis of assumptions about the nature of the human that underlay Renaissance medical theory.
The erroneous idea that Jean Fernel was a son of Charles VIII of France is part of a fanciful story invented by genealogist Gustave Anjou (1863-1952).
"After Childebert follows a long line of French Kings until we reach Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany. On this eminent couple a bad fairy or a wicked nursemaid played a dastardly trick, snatching from the royal cradle their youngest son, and, after substituting a lad of humble birth, spiriting him away for purposes which seem to have had something to do with the Protestant Reformation.
"Royal genius will out, however, and the little prince, all unknowing, grew up to be the great court physician, Dr. Jean Fernel. Fernel -- he was a real person, by the way, born at Clermont in 1497 -- married Magdalen Luillier, and with her our genealogist gives us our first connection with the Washingtons, for he says that her great-grandfather, Jean Luillier, married Anne Washington. Of Dr. Fernel's vast estate the Catholic church seized no less than $21,000,000 and the Popes have successfully resisted all efforts of the Fernalds and Washingtons to get it back. Jean is the 150th generation in the pedigree, the 151st being his son Francis Junius Fernel who married Maria Comnenus, presumably a descendant of the Byzantine emperors although the author neglects to say so." (Davis 36).
- Anjou, Gustave, "Fernald Family records" (known to be spurious).
- Davis, Walter Goodwin. The ancestry of Joseph Waterhouse, 1754-1837, of Standish, Maine. Portland: Anthoensen Press, 1949. Print.
Jean-François Fernel, Docteur's Timeline
April 26, 1497
March 3, 1533
Bourges, Cher, Berry, France
February 3, 1534
May 1, 1544
September 5, 1546
April 26, 1558
Fontainebleau, Île-de-France, France