Monday, 8 July 2013

Dominique Jean Larrey, Surgical Pioneer

Dominique Jean Larrey (Paris, France, 8th July 1766 - Lyon, France, 25th July 1842)

Portrait of Dominique Jean Larrey by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
Napoleon named Larrey "the worthiest man I have ever met", seen here in an 1804  portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

Today I thought we'd pay a birthday tribute to the achievements of a man of medicine and a Frenchman at that; we Gilflurt girls have always had a soft spot for a doctor ever since our grandmother had an encounter with a medical gentleman at Scarborough, but I digress...

As surgeon-in-chief of the Napoleonic armies for 18 years, Larrey served with Napoleon in 25 campaigns, 60 battles and over 400 engagements. An impressive record even before we consider the fact that his innovations in military medicine and his extensive writings are still considered invaluable today.

In his early teenage years Larrey travelled to Toulouse to serve as apprentice to his surgeon uncle, Alexis. After six years learning his trade he went to Paris to continue training under Desault. The outbreak of war cut his education short on he went straight into service as a naval surgeon on board the Vigilante, bound for America. His sanitary methods were second to none and only one member of the crew died during the crossing but Larrey suffered from constant seasickness and exchanged the navy for the army, serving in the Rhine.

In 1797, Larrey pioneered the use of the Ambulance Volante, or "flying ambulance". These dedicated, highly-trained teams could recovered battlefield casualties in under 15 minutes, transporting them to Larrey's newly-established system of field hospitals where the injured were tended according to the seriousness of their wounds regardless of which side they served on or how high up the ranks they were! This was a revolutionary approach and Larrey's expertise wasn't only limited to strategy, he was also a pioneer of amputation and field surgery and would later perform a ground breaking mastectomy on Frances Burney, caring for the patient in her Paris home.

Awarded the title of Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur on 12 May 1807, Larrey was given the title of Baron two years later. His skill and dedication was recognised by his opponents too when the Iron Duke himself ordered a stay of fire in order to let Larrey retrieve the wounded who fell at Waterloo. Even capture and death sentence by the Prussian army couldn't stop the Baron and he was pardoned and returned to France, where he resumed his medical career away from the military.

Happy birthday Larrey!

Painting of Larrey Tending Napoleon at the Battle of Ratisbon by Pierre-Claude Gautherot
Larrey Tending Napoleon at the Battle of Ratisbon by Pierre-ClaudeGautherot


  1. It would seem as though he created what we now know as battlefield triage and MASH units.

  2. A true angel who saved the life of"our Fanny".With his marvellous reputation it's no wonder she survived?...and he must have known General D'Arbley? WELL DONE THAT MAN!!!

    1. He did indeed know the General; bravo, Larrey!

  3. Napoleon on St. Helena spoke often of Larrey.

  4. A lot of surgical techniques adopted in the 19th century originated in France..ironic, given the british attitude to the French!