Medical curiosities and disease in Bouhéreau’s diary

Marsh's Library, Dublin

Today, Élie Bouhéreau is remembered principally for being the first librarian of Marsh’s Library in Dublin, which opened its doors to the public in 1707, one of the earliest in Europe. Some 2,000 of his scholarly books are still part of the collection. 

Born in La Rochelle in May 1643, Bouhéreau studied theology at the Academy of Saumur, and then medicine at the University of Orange, graduating there in 1667. He and most of his family left France in the aftermath of the Revocation, crossing to England in January 1686. In England, like many a Huguenot refugee, Bouhéreau first obtained work as a tutor, to the children of the Duchess of Monmouth, until mid-1689. It is at this point that he started writing his diary, which covers the years 1689-1719. After his employment as tutor he became secretary to the British Envoy Extraordinary to the Swiss cantons, Thomas Coxe, a period of his life described in great detail in his diary. He returned to England in the autumn of 1692, spending a year there, before taking another post as secretary to Lord Galway, military commander and envoy to the Duke of Savoy. His eldest son accompanied him as under-secretary. The rest of the diary covers his life in Dublin between 1697 and 1719.

The diary documents the private and personal, as well as aspects of his involvement in the public and official spheres. His recorded descriptions of diplomatic etiquette whilst secretary to the ambassadors are meticulously detailed, and sit alongside entries for the births of his grandchildren and the deaths of his friends. What is of particular interest are the notes he made of disease and medical curiosities he came across. While reading the diary it is impossible to forget that Bouhéreau was a medical doctor. 

For instance, in August 1695, at the end of the siege of Casale in the Piedmont, he hints at an epidemic of some sort but there are frustratingly few details. It is clear that many soldiers were afflicted, the conditions in the trenches and at the camp having undoubtedly increased the risks of contagion. He mentions that his son ‘fell ill’, that the chaplain was ‘also a convalescent’. ‘We are sending all our sick’ to Turin; ‘there are a great number of them in Casale, and in all the surrounding areas. Almost all of my lord’s household have been ill’. Bouhéreau himself was contaminated. He experienced a fever in late August/early September, and he took notes of his own symptoms, the remedy he ingested, in which quantity, and for how long. For nearly two weeks we have updates on his condition, starting with the entry:  ‘I had a slight bout of fever with shivers but without any symptom that gives me reason to believe that I need any remedy other than quinquina’. A couple of days later, he writes: 'having begun yesterday to take quinquina, three glasses per day, I still felt a little hot in the afternoon. Today I had a little more fever, but without any shivers’. Whether he had carried quinquina (Jesuits' powder) with him is unclear. Two days later, he thanks God for having ‘no further symptoms of fever’, and while ‘I do not notice any change for the worse in myself’, he errs on the side of caution, ‘but I am continuing to take quinquina to prevent any developments’. A few days later he reduces his ‘intake of quinquina to two glasses a day’. Eleven days after first feeling feverish and taking medicine, he finally writes: ‘today I took my quinquina, but I will no longer continue, not finding a need. I only took a single glass of it’. 

Bouhéreau's diary, August/September 1695. Copyright Marsh's Library 


On another occasion, in August 1694, he travels several miles in order to meet a man, a Servite friar in a monastery, believed to be possessed. Bouhéreau conversed with him for some time, and his diagnostic was ‘I easily recognised that he was a genuine hypochondriac’.  Bouhéreau had an interest in the subject of possession. There is a tract from his collection in Marsh’s Library about a famous case in a French Ursuline convent in Loudun and the ensuing witchcraft trial in 1634. In it he noted that he did not believe the nuns were possessed. This may have sparked his curiosity as a physician and led him to see the man for himself.  

Bouhéreau's diary, August 1694. Copyright Marsh's Library


In November 1694, he writes that while in Turin he saw a child aged about ten, ‘who has another, imperfect child, coming out of his chest’. Bouhéreau notes that they share the same navel. It must have been rare to meet Siamese twins, and rarer still to encounter ones who had survived past infancy.

One of the most moving entries is in January 1697, when his eldest son dies. Bouhéreau identifies the causes of death as ‘pleurisy or peripneumonia’, a term covering many conditions, including pneumonia. He also notes that he died eight days after experiencing his first symptom, a fever. He was a few weeks short of 27.

Perhaps the most peculiar entry in his diary, in December 1691, is that of an autopsy performed on a seven-month-old infant, the baby of the ambassador’s wife who had ‘languished for several days’. Bouhéreau describes the spleen, ‘a little black, with some obstructions, the liver fine, but extremely large, which left the diaphragm little freedom to descend; the chest very narrow at the top so that the lungs, being confined and hitting against the ribs during respiration, were a little inflamed in some places, to which the poor circulation, slowed down by the obstructions of the spleen, again contributed’. While the notes are clinical they are not devoid of empathy. Bouhéreau continues, ‘this was the cause of the difficulty in breathing that the child had experienced since birth, and that ended his life so early. The brain was large, and filled with fluid, collected by the same lowness of circulation, and which, again, caused a distillation on the chest. The remainder was in very good condition’. The baby was given a beautiful funeral. 

Bouhéreau's diary, December 1691. Copyright Marsh's Library


Bouhéreau also records the cost of a blood-letting and medicines for his wife in May 1697. Later that year, he mentions that his son's arm ‘had to be cut off to try to save his life’. Injured during the war, ‘his wound seemed at first not to be serious, but gangrene and other developments meant that amputation became necessary’. In the later part of the diary, he records the births and deaths of his grandchildren, with a reminder that childbirth was hazardous for both infant, and mother: his ‘dear eldest daughter’ having passed away shortly after confinement, perhaps of sepsis, in April 1707.

Bouhéreau reminds us that we have always faced disease and death. Today, more than ever perhaps, the frailty of human life unites us as one people, for regardless of ethnicity, creed, or wealth, we are all in this together.

Marie Léoutre

Further reading: 

M. Léoutre, J. McKee, J-P. Pittion, A. Prendergast (eds.), The diary (1689-1719) and accounts (1704-1717) of Elie Bouhéreau (Dublin, 2019).

J-P. Pittion, 'Medicine in print in the early modern period: medical books in Marsh’s Library, Dublin', in Danielle Westerhof (ed), The alchemy of medicine and print: The Edward Worth Library, Dublin (Dublin, 2010)


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