Reference : From anti-climatology to pre-industrial pollution. Retz, Ramel and the medical topogr...
Scientific journals : Article
Life sciences : Environmental sciences & ecology
From anti-climatology to pre-industrial pollution. Retz, Ramel and the medical topographies before the French Revolution
[en] De l'anti-climatologie à la pollution pré-industrielle. Retz, Ramel et les topographies médicales avant la Révolution française
Collart, Muriel mailto [> >]
Droixhe, Daniel mailto [Université de Liège > Département de langues et littératures romanes > Département de langues et littératures romanes >]
Ympäristöhistoria Finnish Journal of Environmental History
[en] Climatology ; Industrial pollution ; medical topographies ; Noël Retz ; Benjamin Ramel ; V. Janković ; meteorology ; stagnating waters ; dirty workshops ; tanners ; leather curriers ; tallow-founders ; coal-miners ; Jean-François Morand ; charbon de terre ; Nicolas-Pierre Gilbert ; Encyclopédie méthodique ; insalubrity ; cobalt ; mercury ; arsenic
[en] Noël Retz, member of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Dijon Academy, and the Bernardin
Ramel were the first French authors who questioned the importance attributed to climate and
meteorology as causes of a number of diseases, in the program of medical topographies developed
by the Académie de médecine in the last decades of the 18th century. The program shared the
“wide-spread consensus on the connection between an individual’s state of health and the state
of the air they breathed” (V. Janković, Confronting the Climate. British Airs and the Making of
Environmental Medicine, 2010).
Retz, in the Nouvelles instructives bibliographiques, historiques et critiques de médecine,
chirurgie et pharmacie (1785), immediately depreciated the idées fixes adopted by the “sect of the
topographical physicians”, as “idle in itself, humiliating for most of the practitioners, ridiculous
in some parts, contradictory in others, and finally very dangerous in its carrying out”. We give
a sketch of his arguments concerning the useless of an inquiry about the relationships between
epidemics and the “constitutions of the atmosphere”.
Ramel published in 1787 his Aperçu et doutes sur la météorologie appliquée à la médecine
and afterwards De l’influence des marais et des étangs sur la santé de l’homme. He borrows
to authors like Pringle and Mead his remarks over “the stinks of stagnating waters” - especially
Thames - corrupted by “putrid exhalations from the earth” and “above all” by “dead Carcasses
lying unburied”. But « M. Nosereau », in his “Topographie de la ville et de l’hôtel-dieu de Loudun
» (1787), rejects
the harmful influence of a cloaca located in the south-west of the city. In the same way, Ramel
writes that “the air, this necessary element of our existence, does not exert upon the animal
body a methodically tyrannical and destructive empire, a constantly oppressive and poisonous
influence”. To prove it, he takes the example of “the dirty workshops” of the “tanners, leather
curriers, tallow-founders”, etc., who “spend their whole life in an atmosphere loaded with putrid
and mephistic emanations” without any “serious or mortal illness”.
The health of the coal-miners is particularly discussed in the history of professional diseases. The
French scientist Jean-François Morand reports from 1768 to 1779 an inquiry that he led in the
Liège country and he rejects the theory of the coal toxicity - in the phase of extraction but also in
its domestic use. By shifting from the producers to the consumers, Morand crossed a second step
in the debate concerning the “charbon de terre”. He developed this other aspect of the question in
a 1770 volume. A third step will be crossed when some authors extend the problem of nuisance
to the extra-domestic world (Philippe de Hurges, 1615).
That kind of complaint had of course to increase with the rise of industrial revolution. The
environmental concern was more insistent in the article “Workshops (Insalubrity)” by Nicolas-
Pierre Gilbert, published in the Encyclopédie méthodique (1821). He writes that “the mines
where are executed the metalworks, and especially those concerned by the cast iron, may be
YFJEH Ympäristöhistoria Journal of Finnish Environmental History 1/2016 17
harmful to the health of the people living in the neighbouring houses”. Some measures must be
taken: “It is important to isolate the factories where those materials are treated on a large scale
by fire, and especially the laboratories where are prepared the mercurial salts, the soft mercurial
muriate, the over-oxygenated muriate of mercury, the calcination of cobalt for the evaporation
of arsenic, etc. etc.” That does not sound so trivial.
Researchers ; Professionals ; Students ; General public

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