Marie-François Xavier Bichat Biography (1771-1802)


Marie François Xavier Bichat was the first person to look beyond the recognizable organ systems and suggest that each part of the body was composedof various kinds of tissues. In addition, he suggested that disease acted upon these tissue is ways that could be seen and studied. For these insights, Bichat is considered the "father of histology."

Bichat was born in Thoirette, France, in 1771, the son of a physician. When it came time for Bichat to go to college, the French revolution was underway,and his father, a nervous member of the privileged class, sent his son away to the relative safety of Lyons to study.

In Lyons, Bichat studied mathematics and physical science before settling onthe study of anatomy. Political turmoil and the threat of military service forced him to leave Lyons and seek refuge in Paris. There he was befriended bythe Pierre-Joseph Desault, a prominent surgeon who served as his mentor and surrogate father until Desault's unexpected death in 1795.

In appreciation of the support Desault had given him, Bichat assembled Desault's journals, added a biographical memoir of Desault, and published the material as Journal de Chirurgie (Journal of Surgery). This was followed by another work that was a collection of Desault's thoughts on surgery supplemented by Bichat's own ideas.

By this time the political climate had cooled. Bichat took his place in the medical community and continued writing, lecturing, and doing research. Usingonly a hand-lens, he identified 21 different kinds of tissue, such as fibrous, glandular, or mucus tissue, in the body. He demonstrated that even when these tissue types were found in anatomically different organs or in different parts of the body, they showed physical and chemical similarities.

Bichat also studied the effects of different diseases and therapeutic agentson different tissues. He discovered that like tissues responded in a similarway regardless of where they were located. The idea of looking at tissues andhow they were affected by disease, rather than studying whole organs, was anew concept at the time. This eventually led to the branch of medicine knownas histology.

Bichat encouraged doctors to autopsy the bodies of their patients to study the physiological effects the their illnesses had on the tissues of the body. It is said that in one six month period, he performed more than 600 autopsiesin his drive to understand the connection between disease and observable changes in the tissues.

Besides studying different tissues, Bichat was interested in the distinctionbetween processes such as growth and reproduction, and the processes of self-awareness and interaction with the environment. He recognized that certain nervous diseases that we might consider mental health problems today were different from the other diseases he studied, because they did not cause any physiological changes in the tissues of the body. He supported his opinions with experimental research in which he drowned, smothered, burned, and poisoned a large number of animals.

Bichat was well known as a brilliant teacher during his life. He establishedthe Société Médicale d'Émulation to promote professional standards in medicine, and in 1800 was appointed to serve as secretary of a medical advisory board established by the French government. Bythe age of 31 he had published three well-received books on tissues, generalanatomy, and the physiological aspects of life and death.

Unfortunately, Bichat's brilliant career was cut short at the age of 31 by anaccident. Standing at the top of a flight of stairs, Bichat staggered, losthis balance, and fell. He never recovered from the fall, developed a fever, and died two weeks later. The cause of his fall remained unexplained even after an autopsy.

Today Bichat is remembered as a physician and teacher who advanced the understanding of the connection between disease and physical changes in the body. He introduced the idea that the body could be studied in ways other than looking at organ systems when studying the disease and healing process. A man of tremendous energy and commitment, he promoted the use of direct experimentation, accurate observation and dissection as ways to learn about the connectionbetween observable physical changes and specific diseases.

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