Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne Biography (1806-1875)

Nationality
French
Gender
Male
Occupation
neurologist

Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne is best known for his research in disordersrelated to the nerves and muscles. In 1868, he provided the most comprehensive description to date of what is now known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He is also credited with identifying tabes dorsalis (a neurological form of syphilis), adult spinal muscular atrophy (Aran-Duchenne type), and facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. In addition, Duchenne is considered the inventor of electrotherapy (the stimulation of nerves and muscles with electriccurrent) and of the biopsy (the technique used to remove samples of living body tissues for examination).

Born to a family of seafarers in the French coastal village of Boulogne-sur-Mer, Duchenne was pressured to follow the family tradition and become a seafarer himself. Instead, he studied medicine in Paris. Graduating in 1831 after arather mediocre academic performance, Duchenne returned home and practiced medicine on the local fishermen, sailors, and their families.

After his return, Duchenne encountered a series of life-changing events: hiswife died from puerperal infection shortly after giving birth to a son, a second marriage failed, and Duchenne fell victim to depression. As a result, heneglected his medical practice and turned his infant son over to his mother-in-law.

However, in the midst of his melancholy, Duchenne made an observation that fascinated him: the ability of electricity to make a muscle fiber contract. This seemed to pull him out from his depression and he resumed medical practicein Boulogne.

In 1842 he returned to Paris, where he sought out nerve and muscle disorder cases in local hospitals that caught his interest. Using principles recently developed by the English scientist Michael Faraday, Duchenne continued experimenting with the diagnostic and healing powers of electricity, carrying a homemade induction coil and batteries with him on his rounds.

Another innovative technique Duchenne introduced was the biopsy. In order toobtain biopsy samples of muscle tissue, Duchenne developed a "harpoon" instrument, which distinctly resembled maritime devices he saw as a boy in Boulogne.

These unique types of experimental practices exposed him to derision from some of his medical colleagues, which might explain in part why Duchenne was never appointed to a hospital or university. He was awkward and eccentric, but eventually his private practice in Paris became richly rewarding.

His study of 13 cases of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, published in 1868, wasnot the first to report the disorder, which had previously been noticed by the Scottish surgeon Charles Bell and, in England, by the medical doctor EdwardMeryon. Duchenne called it pseudohypertrophic dystrophy, referring to the apparent overdevelopment of the calf muscle in afflicted boys. A century later,the disorder was named after Duchenne.

Duchenne's mapping of the facial muscles in 1862 led to his discovery of theDuchenne marker--the movement of the pars lateralis muscle near the eyes whena person smiles with genuine delight. This movement is not present during afalse or halfhearted smile.

When Duchenne died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris in 1875, he had still not attained respect from the local medical community. The esteemed British medical journal, The Lancet, nonetheless wrote: "His reputation has comeout clear and bright as an honest, hard-working, acute and ingenious observer, an original discoverer, a skillful professional man and a kind-hearted, benevolent gentleman." Several decades after his death, Parisians finally erected a monument to honor the eccentric country doctor.

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