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Fournier de Pescay, François (1771-1833)

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Francois Fournier de Pescay was the first known African-descended physician to practice medicine and surgery in Europe.  Fournier de Pescay was the son of a French planter François Pescay and a free mulatto, Adélaïde Rappau. His parents left the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1771 and settled in Bordeaux, France. Little is known of Fournier’s childhood and young adult years in Bordeaux, a city populated with mixed-race immigrants from the French West Indies. Unlike the colonies, there existed few laws impeding upward mobility of free “persons of color,” thus Fournier gained a quality education in Paris followed by medical training in Bordeaux.

During the French Revolution, 21-year-old Fournier, along with his brothers Jacques Philippe and Louis Georges, joined the French army in 1792. As an army surgeon, he demonstrated extraordinary scientific ability by becoming the first Frenchman to duplicate Englishman Adair Crawford’s experiments with barium chloride to treat tuberculosis. He left the French military in 1799 to practice medicine in Brussels, Belgium, where he co-founded the city’s medical society, Société de Médecine de Bruxelles, and served as its first Secretary-General.  He recorded volumes of the proceedings.  In 1803, he founded the arts and sciences journal Le nouvel spirit des journaux and later published an eighty-six page treatise on tetanus which was praised by the Medical Society of Paris. He later moved from Brussels to Strasbourg, France to become professeur-directeur at the École Spéciale de Médecine de Strasbourg.

In 1806, Fournier re-enlisted into the French military as a surgeon-major.  Two years later, he was ordered to be the personal physician of the Prince of Asturias who eventually ascended to the throne of Spain as King Ferdinand VII in 1813. While attending to the confined prince, he focused his attention on early French literature, translating poetry and retelling ancient legends. With the departure of the prince and the return of the Bourbon monarchy in 1816, Fournier was conferred the Order of the Legion of Honor by King Louis XVIII in recognition of his exceptional medical career and service to the empire.  He was also appointed secretary to the Council of Health (Conseil de Santé). In the post-Napoleonic era, Fournier returned to conducting research, publishing on an array of medical afflictions such as eye disease, dysentery, scabies, and fever.  He, in addition, published on medical histories and biographies of physicians.

In 1823, Fournier sailed with his family to Port-au-Prince to direct the recently established Académie d'Haiti. He also worked in Haiti as an inspector-general for health services before returning to France due to his poor health in 1828. After a stint of recovery, he was employed as a water inspector for the small town of Barèges, 55 kilometers southeast of the resort city of Pau where he died on July 8, 1833.  He left behind four daughters.  His only son, Gustave-François, a writer, died in 1818 at the age of 20.

“François Fournier de Pescay,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 77 (September 1985); Biographie universelle, Vol. XIV, (Paris: Desplaces, 1856);

Fikes, Robert
San Diego State University

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