1640? (Paris, France)
October 3, 1704 (Paris)
Denis was born in Paris, presumably in the 1640's. He was the son of a hydraulic engineer who was Louis XIV's chief engineer in charge of the works distributing the water of the Seine from the pumps at Marly to the fountains at Versailles.
Denis is said to have studied medicine at Montpellier (1),
but no records of his inscription as a medical student or of the conferring
upon him of a diploma as doctor in medicine can be found in the very
complete archives of the Faculty of Medicine. Niceron says that he
obtained "un bonnet de Docteur en cette Faculté" and that "il
fut aggrégé à la Chambre Royale" (10).
On the other hand, Martin de la Martinière, who was a physician
in ordinary to the king, in a letter to Denis accuses him of taking
the title of "maître" because of a "lettre de Médecine"
that he obtained in Rheims (2).
Nothing has yet been found in Rheims indicating that he obtained such
a degree. While in Paris he taught philosophy and mathematics, assuming
the title of professor, which he placed at the head of most of his
works. No evidence for a degree in mathematics or philosophy has yet
Beginning in 1664, Denis gave public lectures in physics, mathematics,
and medicine at his home on Quai des Grands-Augustins in Paris, and
published these lectures as conference reports (7).
He also joined the group surrounding Habert de Montmort, which met
to discuss the new philosophy much like the groups in London that
preceded the Royal Society. When the Académie des Sciences
was established in 1666, the Montmort group did not participate and
continued its own meetings independently of that body.
The discovery of the circulation of blood by William Harvey stimulated
experiments on the circulation; intravenous injection was begun by
Christopher Wren and Clarke in the 1650's. This was followed by the
first trial of transfusion of blood in animals. After discussions
at the Royal Society as early as its public meeting of 17 May 1665,
an account of successful transfusion in dogs was given by Richard
Lower in a letter written to Robert Boyle on 6 July 1665 and submitted
by Boyle to the Royal Society. This led to another successful transfusion
in November 1666 at the Royal Society (9).
When reports of these experiments reached Paris late in 1666 or early
in 1667, the Académie des Sciences immediately set about repeating
them, appointing a committee including Louis Gayant, an anatomist;
Claude Perrault, the physician noted for the east facade (the Colonnade)
of the Louvre; and Adrien Auzout, the astronomer. Gayant performed
the first transfusion in Paris on 22 January 1667, using dogs. Transfusion
also attracted the interest of the Montmort Academy, which apparently
appointed Denis and Paul Emmerez, a surgeon from St.-Quentin, to carry
out independent studies. On 3 March 1667 Denis performed a transfusion
experiment on two dogs (8). On 2 April 1667 various experiments involving
transfusion from three calves to three dogs were made. These were
published in the Royal Society's PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS (11).
But it was the transfusion of blood in men which was of the greatest interest to Denis, gave him his celebrity, and started the greatest medical controversy of that time. In these experiments he was assisted by Paul Emmerez.
The first transfusion of blood in man was made on 15 June 1667, on
a drowsy and feverish young man. From a lamb he received about twelve
ounces of blood, after which he "rapidly recovered from his lethargy,
grew fatter and was an object of surprise and astonishment to all
who knew him" (4).
The second transfusion was carried out on a forty-five-year-old chair
bearer, a robust man who received the blood of a sheep (4).
He returned to work the next day as if nothing had happened to him.
The recipient of the third transfusion was Baron Bonde, a young Swedish nobleman who fell ill in Paris while making a grand tour of Europe. He was in such a bad state that he had been abandoned by his physicians; and in despair, having heard of Denis's new cure, his family asked Denis to attempt transfusion of blood as a final recourse. After the first transfusion, which was from a calf, Bonde felt better and began to speak. This improvement lasted only a short time, however, and he died during a second transfusion.
The fourth transfusion patient was a madman, Antoine Mauroy (5),
who died during a third transfusion. He may have been poisoned by
his wife, who, perhaps to divert suspicion from herself or at the
suggestion of the many Paris physicians antagonistic to Denis, accused
Denis of having killed her husband. Denis brought the case before
the court, and a judgment tendered on 17 April 1668 cleared him of
any wrongdoing but forbade the practice of transfusion of blood in
man without permission of the Paris Faculty of Medicine. Meanwhile,
another transfusion had been made by Denis, on 10 February 1668, on
a paralyzed woman. After this, however, the practice of transfusion
faded out as suddenly as it had begun.
In 1673 Denis was invited to England by Charles II, who wished to
learn about transfusion and other remedies purportedly discovered
by Denis. He went to England and successfully treated the French ambassador
and several personalities of the court. Despite offers to remain,
he became dissatisfied and returned to Paris (10),
where he continued his interest in science and mathematics (7)
but never practiced medicine or again concerned himself with transfusion.
He died suddenly on 3 October 1704.
1. Jean Astruc, MÉMOIRES POUR SERVIR A L'HISTOIRE
DE LA FACULTÉ DE MONTPELLIER, rev. by M. Lorry and P. G. Cavelier,
V (Paris, 1767), 378.
2. Martin de la Martinière, REMONSTRANCES CHARITABLES
DU SIEUR DE LA MARTINIÈRE À MONSIEUR DENIS (Paris, 1668).
3. J.-B. Denis, LETTRE À M. L'ABBÉ
BOURDELOT ... POUR SERVIR DE RÉPONSE AU SR. LAMY ET CONFIRMER
LA TRANSFUSION DU SANG PAR DE NOUVELLES EXPÉRIENCES (Paris,
4. J.-B. Denis, LETTRE ESCRITE À ... MONTMOR ...
TOUCHANT UNE NOUVELLE MANIÈRE DE GUÉRIR PLUSIEURS MALADIES
PAR LA TRANSFUSION DU SANG, CONFIRMÉE PAR DEUX EXPÉRIENCES
FAITES SUR DES HOMMES (Paris, 1667).
5. J.-B. Denis, LETTRE ESCRITE À M .... TOUCHANT
UNE FOLIE INVÉTÉRÉE, QUI A ESTÉ GUÉRIE
DEPUIS PEU PAR LA TRANSFUSION DU SANG (Paris, 1668).
6. J.-B. Denis, LETTRE ÉCRITE À ... SORBIÈRE
... TOUCHANT L'ORIGINE DE LA TRANSFUSION DU SANG, ET LA MANIÈRE
DE LA PRATIQUER SUR LES HOMMES (Paris, 1668).
7. J.-B. Denis. RECUEIL DES MÉMOIRES ET CONFÉRENCES QUI ONT ÉTÉ PRÉSENTÉES À MONSEIGNEUR
LE DAUPHIN PENDANT L'ANNÉE 1672 (1673-1674) (Paris, 1672-1683).
8. J.-B. Denis. "Extrait d'une lettre de M. Denis, professeur de
philosophie et de mathématique, sur la transfusion du sang.
De Paris le 9. mars, 1667," in "JOURNAL DES SÇAVANS," 6 (1679).
9. "Minutes of the Royal Society" (16 Sept. 1663), p 201.
10. J. P. Niceron, MÉMOIRES POUR SERVIR À L'HISTOIRE
DES HOMMES ILLUSTRES DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE DES LETTRES, XXXVII (Paris,
11. "An extract of the letter of Mr. Denis ... touching
the transfusion of blood, of April 2, 1667." in PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS
of the Royal Society, 1, no. 25 (6 May 1667), 453.
-- Hebbel E. Hoff