Félix Vicq d’Azyr (1746–1794): early founder of neuroanatomy and royal French physician
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- Tubbs, R.S., Loukas, M., Shoja, M.M. et al. Childs Nerv Syst (2011) 27: 1031. doi:10.1007/s00381-011-1424-y
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Although he lived a short life, Félix Vicq d’Azyr is considered as one of the greatest neuroanatomists of the eighteenth century although relatively little is written of his life and contributions. His descriptions of the brain were among the most accurate for his day with his Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie that epitomizes one of the finest neuroanatomical works. Vicq d’Azyr accomplished many other feasts during his life including being the first to use lithography in neuroanatomy, becoming a royal physician to Queen Marie Antoinette, and first describing multiple neuroanatomical structures including the central sulcus (almost 50 years prior to Rolando), insula, red nucleus, and substantia nigra. Eponymously, he is remembered for the mamillothalamic tract or bundle of Vicq D’Azyr. Furthermore, Vicq d’Azyr was an acquaintance of forefathers of the United States including John Adams. The present paper will review the life of Vicq d’Azyr and emphasize his contributions to our early understanding of neuroanatomy.
In 1776, as the USA became a nation, Vicq d’Azyr continued his study of anatomy in Paris, following the recommendation of his teacher Petit. In fact, Petit had wished that Vicq d’Azyr would succeed him as chair of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi after his retirement in 1778, but the appointment went to Antoine Portal (1742–1832) who was supported by the Count of Buffon (1707–1788). One year after Petit’s retirement, Vicq d’Azyr was married and over the next 2 years, lost his wife (the niece of Daubenton) and child both to tuberculosis. Of note, some sources state that he was childless . In 1780, he became professor and chair of comparative anatomy at Alfort Veterinary School, a post he would hold for the next 8 years . Vicq d’Azyr was instrumental in establishing the Société royale de médecine, and eventually, became the permanent secretary for this group. In 1788, he was elected into the Academie Francaise, the highest scientific honor in France. A year later, he succeeded Lassone as royal physician to Queen Marie Antoinette (1754–1793) . Interestingly, he was in charge of the group that manufactured saltpeter used in gunpowder for the revolution .
Interestingly, it was Vicq d’Azyr and not the Italian anatomist Rolando who discovered the central sulcus and pre- and postcentral gyri. In fact, François Leuret (1796–1851) first applied the name Rolando to the central sulcus in 1839 (Anatomie Comparée du Systéme Nerveus) to direct attention toward Rolando’s descriptions. When Leuret prepared his publication on the brain, he did not have access to the writings of Vicq d’Azyr . Vicq d’Azyr first mentioned the central sulcus in 1796 in his Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, which was one of the finest publications on the brain prior to the advent of microscopy.
The height of his career marked the beginning of the French Revolution. With this upheaval, he spent the last year of his life (1794) as military physician and superintendent of the anatomical collection that had belonged to the count of Orléans . During this tumultuous time, he saw the King and Queen of France beheaded along with several of his friends and colleagues .
In 1790, he presented his plans for reformation of the method in which medicine was taught in France to the Constituent Assembly. He described the medical curriculum of his day as “partout viscieux et nul,” perverted and worthless . Vicq d’Azyr’s outline called for grouping together schools of medicine, surgery, veterinary, and pharmacy with close union to hospitals and additionally, for the active participation of medical students in clinical work and competitive examinations. Such vision resulted in the creation of three Écoles de Santé (Schools of Health) being established in Paris [10, 11].
Connections to American forefathers
In 1783, Vicq d’Azyr corresponded with the second president of the USA, John Adams (1735–1826), regarding collaborative efforts between scientific organizations in the USA and France . Later in 1789, he became friends with American statesman and founding father of the United States Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) during his function as United States minister to France. Parent  stated that it is believed that Morris may have transmitted letters from the King and Queen of France to London with the aid of Vicq d’Azyr. During Benjamin Franklin’s trips to France, he met and also became friends with Vicq d’Azyr . The two discussed various issues. For example, letters of correspondence show that these men were intrigued by the potential of infectious agents being transferred from the dead to the living [12, 13]. Franklin brought to Vicq d’Azyr’s attention the case of illness in archaeologist that resulted, presumably, from contact with ancient Egyptian mummies. In fact, he would deliver Franklin’s official eulogy to the Academy of Sciences on March 1791. He began this speech by “A man is dead, and two worlds are in mourning” .
Vicq d’Azyr died from uncertain causes (perhaps tuberculosis) on June 20, 1794 during The Reign of Terror (la Terreur, 1793–1794) . His short life was filled with discoveries and descriptions that continue to propel our understanding of the human nervous system.