International Giants in Otology: Guichard Joseph Duverney

Robert Traynor
October 13, 2015

igo1In 1648, Dr. John Duverney was a small community physician in Feurs, France when on August 5th, his wife Antoinette, gave birth to a son, Guichard igo3Joseph Duverney.  The life of a Forézien physician and his family in the 17th Century was  that of  routine.  Antoinette was responsible for the daily household routine, washing clothes, food and other chores while John attended to the health of his patients one by one, returning home to eat, sleep, and prepare for the next day.  The one room house. typical of rural 17th century homes, was bustling with the sounds of many children, house guests, others that lived with them – all sleeping with the livestock and poultry in the same room.

While Dr. John Duverney and his colleagues called their profession a science, the term “science” typically referred to their association with the academic learning that constituted the historical authority of physicians. This connection defined the learned nature of John Duverney and his colleagues but their 17th century classical education was based upon Galen, Aristotle and the apparent use of logic and observation skills in perceiving the patterns in an illness. igo2Physicians of John’s time employed reason, an often over-confident analysis of the disease’s cause and effect in their attempt to understand the sick individual.  In these times, there were plagues and pandemics that infected the population due to the situations in which people found themselves, such as close proximity to animals, not bathing, lice and other unhealthy conditions.  Simultaneously, John and his 17th century colleagues found new virulent diseases, such as typhus, scurvy, whooping cough and other emerging igo4maladies. It was also a period of little fresh drinking water, unsanitary disposal of human waste and close proximity to animals that caused disease to flourish.  Such was the medical world of Dr. John Duverney in rural France when his son was born.  As young Joseph Duverney grew up he was expected to help his mother around the house doing chores and his schoolwork.

The Making of the First Otologist

A hard working young man, Joseph eventually studied medicine in Avignon, where in 1667 he obtained his medical degree, becoming the third generation of physicians in his family. Shortly thereafter, he relocated to Paris, where he began to attend the weekly scientific meetings at the house of the Abbé Bourdelot. These meetings, called the Académie Bourdelot, was a circle for scientists, philosophers and authors, who came together twice a month and where Duverney often spoke on anatomical subjects. Here, too, he probably met Claude Perrault, who asked him to assist in dissections.  Perrault was the leader of a group of anatomists, who came to be known as the “Parisians”, that collaborated with one another to an uncommon degree. They regularly performed igo6dissections as a group and collectively reviewed both the text and plates before publishing their collaborative work. Individually and together they dissected a wide variety of animals, many of which came from the royal menagerie at Versailles.  As part of this group, Duverney performed the dissection of an elephant in the presence of Louis XIV. These anatomists considered most zoological writings inadequate and worked to assemble a large series of observations to constitute a new Historia animalium to replace that of Aristotle—one that would be worthy of their monarch.  In 1676, he became a member of the Académie des sciences.  In 1682, he was given a professorship at Jardin du Roi, a surgical school in Paris, for his  anatomical exhibitions thatigo1 became a public attraction.  Guichard Joseph Duverney is considered to be the founder of scientific otology and, to many, the father of the discipline.  During this time, he wrote what is thought to be the earliest and most comprehensive work in otology : Traité de l’organe de l’ouie, contenant la structure, les usages et les maladies de toutes les parties de l’oreille (Treatise on the organ of hearing, containing the structure, function, and diseases of all parts of the ear) which was published in Paris in 1683. In the book he discusses the anatomy, physiology and diseases associated with the ear.  He also collaborated with French physicist igo2Edme Mariotte (1620-1682) in the development of the first physiological relationships within the cochlea.  These ideas were fundamentally similar to those proposed in the mid-19th century by German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894).

Had Helmholtz read Duverney’s book in the development of his theories?  This could be as Duverney’s book was the Otology bible of its time translated into many languages becaming the reference book for most otologists during the 17th and 18th centuries.  His only departure from the theory ultimately credited to Helmholtz was that Duverney thought that high frequency would resonate near the apex of the cochlea, and low frequencies near the base which, of course was disproven by Helmholz and subsequent researchers.  In 1683, Duverney identified a temporal bone tumor, which is believed to be the earliest description of cholesteatoma. He realized the importance of the Eustachian tube and its role in adjusting air pressure in the tympanic cavity but mistakenly felt that it was normally open, acting as a vent to the air, when the eardrum moves in and out.  While the physiology was in error, the concept that air pressure was adjusted by the Eustachian tube was an innovation at the time.  Since  his support came from the government and patronage, Dr. Guichard Joseph Duverney did not practice medicine.  While he had numerous opportunities to practice, he felt that as an academic, his job was to conduct research and write about the findings and having to practice would distract him from his research. Duverney died in 1730 and is remembered at the first French Otologist and among the first otologists in Europe.



Covarrubias. D., (2012).  Life in 17th Century France.  Prezi.  Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Wikipedia (2015).  Guichard Joseph Duverney.  Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Wilkin, S., (2013).  An unusual power, choice, change conservatism in 17th century European medicine.  Academia.  Retrieved October 13, 2015.


Letesse, V. (2015). Huit blessés après l’explosion d’un four chez Castmétal à Feurs. France Bleu.  Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Politzer Society (2015).  How Adam Politzer became an Otologist.  Politzer society.  Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Leave a Reply