‘Our schools … always observed religiously the true and blameless medicine of Hippocrates and Galen’.

Jean Riolan the Younger, Opuscula nova anatomica (Paris, 1653), Sig a2v. [1]

Jean Riolan the Elder, Opera omnia.Tam hactenus edita, quàm postuma, authoris postremâ manu exarata & exornata: quibus universam medicinam fideliter & accuratè descripsit, atque illustrauit (Paris, 1610), portrait of Jean Riolan the Elder.

The reputation of the University of Paris as a bastion of conservatism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries owed much to the careers of Jean Riolan the Elder (1538–1605) and his son Jean Riolan the Younger (1580–1657). In the sixteenth century Riolan the Elder had been vociferous in his condemnation of the chymical teachings of Paracelsus (1493–1541), which, with their emphasis on the tria prima of salt, sulphur and mercury as the key to therapeutics, had challenged the primacy of the Galenic four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Riolan the Elder was a product of the Parisian school and was one of its greatest defenders – his collected works, which Worth owned in a Parisian edition of 1610, outlined the Galenic teaching on offer there.

Riolan the Elder was known for his erudition and in particular his knowledge of the classics, which pervaded his work. A manuscript of lecture notes from one of his students, dating to 1584, makes clear Riolan the Elder’s allegiance to the Galenic model in the physiological section of his course and also the over-riding importance of ancient authorities for him. Robert Benoit calculates that ancient authorities accounted for 76% of the citations throughout the text, as opposed to just 15% for contemporary authors.[2] Of the latter, the physiological writings of his fellow countryman Jean Fernel (1497–1558), which was incorporated into Worth’s copy of Fernel’s Universa medicina (Frankfurt, 1592), proved to be his most popular contemporary source.[3] This was hardly surprising because Fernel’s works were popular textbooks but for Riolan the Elder they would have had an added attraction, for like him, Fernel was also committed to ancient Greek sources.

Jean Riolan the Younger, Opuscula anatomica nova. (London, 1649), title page. As Riolan’s title page makes clear, he was responding to texts by Johann Wallaeus, Caspar Bauhin, Adriaan van den Spiegel, Caspar Bartholin, Caspar Hofmann and Johan Vesling.

Riolan the Younger was likewise a keen defender of Galen, declaring in his first major work, his Anthropographia (Paris, 1618), that:

‘In composing my Principles of Anatomy I read, consulted, and compared all the anatomical authors, in order to gather, to collect, and to convert into my own juice whatever appeared to be useful and in agreement with truth. But above all I called upon the help and the authority of Galen, the most skilled of anatomists, whom I always followed as my guide and teacher in anatomy as well as in medicine; from his books I collected all the scattered and neglected data which perhaps have not been recognised by other scholars’.[4]

In his Anthropographia Riolan the Younger discussed his attitude to ‘anatome viva’ and ‘anatome mortua’ – the anatomy of the living and dead body and, as Mani notes, in the main Riolan favoured the dissection of the dead in a search to understand the structure of the body, rather than the vivisection of the living in an attempt to understand the function of the parts.[5] His quarrels with Jean Pecquet (1622–74) and Thomas Bartholin (1616–80) over the function of the lymphatic system may perhaps not only have been because of their findings, but may also have been due to their methods, for Riolan the Younger had strong (if sometimes contradictory) views on vivisection of both humans and animals.[6]

Worth did not own Riolan the Younger’s first major work, his Anthropographia (Paris, 1618) but he did have an edition of his Opuscula anatomica nova. (London, 1649), written in response to William Harvey’s thesis of the circulation of the blood. Riolan quickly realised the implications of Harvey’s discovery for the Galenic and set to combatting the attack by in effect offering his own version of it, one which could be aligned to Galenic therapeutics. In his response to Harvey he acknowledged the circulation of the blood but argued that it did not circulate in the way Harvey had suggested. As Mani concludes, instead he offered a ‘circulatio Riolani per vias Galencias’.[7] He attempted the same intellectual manoeuvre when faced by the discoveries of Pecquet and Bartholin on the lymphatics system. Bartholin’s concept of ‘dethroning the liver’ was anathema to Riolan because it fundamentally undermined the Galenic understanding of pathology. He could not ignore the findings of Pecquet and Bartholin and therefore acknowledged the existence of  the thoracic duct. Instead, as he had done in his response to Harvey, he questioned their methodology and conclusions.

He was, a Mani notes, ‘the last great humanist and Galenist of the Paris medical school’ and, despite the bitterness of his disputes with Pecquet and Bartholin the latter, in the dedication of his Vasa lymphatici nuper Hasniae in animantibus inveta et hepatis exsequiae (Copenhagen, 1653), declared him to be ‘The greatest anatomist on earth and in Paris’.[8] In the image below, from the Wellcome Collection, we see Riolan the Younger dissecting a body, with other anatomists and physicians of the time: on his right stands Johann Vesling (1598–1649), Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the University of Padua in the seventeenth century and the lesser known ‘A. Valcob.’; in front is the French physician Guy Patin (1601–72)  and the German physician Albert Kyper (d. 1655), Professor of Medicine at the University of Leiden.

An anatomical dissection by Jean Riolan the Younger (1580-1657). Engraving of 1649 by Renier van Persyn after a design of 1626 by Crispijn de Passe the second. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Under the Riolans, Paris in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have been a stronghold of traditional medicine but by the eighteenth century its reputation as a centre for anatomical and surgical instruction had risen to such an extent that foreign students were eager to try out what has been called the ‘Paris manner’ of dissection. The renown of teachers such as Pierre Dionis (1643-1718) a French surgeon who taught anatomy and surgery at the Jardin du Roi, and who was but one of a number of surgeons who offered popular courses on anatomical dissection and surgical practice, attracted French and foreign students. In the preface of his Cours d’operations de chirurgie, demonstre’es au Jardin Royal …, which Worth owned in a Paris 1714 edition, Dionis declared, with some justification that ‘Paris provided better opportunities for surgical instruction than any other city in Europe’.[9] He pointed to the public demonstrations at locations such as the Jardin du Roi, the School of Medicine and Saint Côme, and commented on the large figures such demonstrations attracted.[10] In addition, as Gelfand has explained, the Hôtel Dieu had initiated a course of anatomical lessons in 1706 which crucially facilitated students to undertake dissection.[11] Beyond these formal anatomical teaching experiences Paris also offered many private courses on anatomy and surgery which were likewise popular.

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.


Benoit, Robert, ‘Conceptions médicales à L’Université de Paris d’après les cours de Jean Riolan à la fin du XVI siècle’, Histoire, économie et societe, 14, no. 1 (1995), 25–50.

Gelfand, Toby, ‘The ‘Paris Manner’ of dissection: student anatomical dissection in early eighteenth-century Paris’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 46, no. 2 (1972), 99–130.

Mani, Nikolaus, ‘Jean Riolan II (1580–1657) and medical research’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 42, no. 2 (1968), 121–44.

[1] Cited in Mani, Nikolaus, ‘Jean Riolan II (1580–1657) and medical research’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 42, no. 2 (1968), 124.

[2] Benoit, Robert, ‘Conceptions médicales à L’Université de Paris d’après les cours de Jean Riolan à la fin du XVI siècle’, Histoire, économie et societe, 14, no. 1 (1995), 46.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Cited in Mani, Nikolaus, ‘Jean Riolan II (1580–1657) and medical research’, 125.

[5] Ibid., 127.

[6] Ibid., 132–8.

[7] Ibid., p. 131.

[8] Cited in ibid., 123. Bartholin’s text is not in the Worth Library.

[9] Cited in Gelfand, Toby, ‘The ‘Paris Manner’ of dissection: student anatomical dissection in early eighteenth-century Paris’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 46, no. 2 (1972), 104.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 112.

// Social icons // Facebook // VKontakte // Odnoklassniki // Twitter // Instagram // YouTube // Telegram // Search form icon (zoom icon) // Footer WordPress icon // Arrow icon // Edit icon // Rate icon