Article published on 12 January 2024
last modification on 15 February 2024


Naval Health officials served also in the colonies. In 1823, a fusion had taken place between the body of health services in the ports and that created in the colonies at the time of the Consulate.

To be clear about the details : in 1835, there were 389 health officials of which 80 served in the colonies, that is to say, 20%. It is only in 1890 that a colonial health corps will be constituted, independent of that of the navy. While the Principal School of Naval and Colonial Health Services was founded in Bordeaux, the schools of Brest, Rochefort and Toulon became preparatory institutions where were held competitive examinations for entry into the Principal School.

Under the reign of Napoleon III, the French Navy will, little by little, provide itself with steam as a means of propulsion. This revolution is going to change the nature of interventions which, from now on, are going to be confined to more limited geographical areas. It is the great age of naval stations, each consisting of a few small war vessels, placed in regions of strategic interest with the aim of assuring national representation, protecting French citizens and encouraging commercial activities, but they will also provide military support and logistical aid during colonial operations.

Marine physicians appointed to work in naval stations were generally on board the biggest vessels of the fleet, but quite often they remained on land at the operational base of the group; where they assured nursing service, unless going on board sporadically and taking turns on a little warship to assure the health and moral supervision of the crew. On land, by tradition or taste, they collected objects of natural history for the Museum or made scientific and ethnographic observations which they carefully noted or reported at the end of the campaign.

Certain naval stations, like those in Congo or Gabon, had hospital ships. In these tropical regions, health conditions were in fact subject to great trials. Difficult climatic conditions, unbalanced or deficient diets but, above all, diseases, were the sources of all dangers. Malaria and Yellow Fever caused huge ravages, not to mention Dysentery, Typhoid or Cholera, even Plague Typhus. Marine physicians themselves paid heavily in the fight against these epidemics.

Other medical officers could exercise their capacities in ports or coastal establishments such as those in the Gulf of Guinea. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many of them were directly appointed to work in military posts established inside the country in order to prevent forced entry. There they assured the treatment of the troops but also of the indigenous population in the area and conducted campaigns of vaccination (against smallpox) while inspecting health conditions in the bush. In the central living areas, they established infirmaries or hospitals and built laboratories.


The fundamental discoveries of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) between 1870 and 1886, by revealing the microbial nature of many infectious diseases, are soon going to lead to notions of immunity and vaccination. Thus the vaccination against rabies will be invented in 1885, but it must be remembered that the vaccination against small pox had been used in the navy since 1817. The identification of the pathogenic agents of most infectious diseases from 1870 onwards is already going to permit the taking of prophylactic measures or isolation and, especially, of maintaining hygienic conditions.

Physical asepsis, set up about 1880-1890, revolutionizes medicine and surgery. Towards 1900, naval hospitals are already endowed with aseptic operation theatres. The development of anaesthesia is also going to make it possible to enlarge the field of surgical indication, particularly in the visceral domain. In 1844, anaesthesia by nitrous oxide is discovered. In 1844 that by ether is made usable and, in 1847, that by chloroform. In 1883, Charles Duplouy will defend the technique of anaesthetizing with chloroform, which he has already been using for twenty years, that of "rendering unconscious after inhalation", administered with a cone and later with an Ombrédanne mask.

The naval surgeons, Duplouy, Auffrey and Bérenger-Féraud were great orthopaedic surgeons. The latter developed the direct setting of bone fragments in the fracture site in order to stimulate osteogenesis. He thus proved to be a surgeon who preserved parts of the body whereas, in the eighteenth century, one performed, above all, amputations.

In the domain of medicine, Amédée Lefèvre (1798-1869) discovered the nature of "dry colics" which spread in the navy. He had the merit of establishing the relationship between this pathology and the omnipresence of lead on board recently constructed vessels. This fact –which the administrative staff and the ship builders must be made to accept- permits the definitive eradication of lead poisoning in the navy.

Albert Calmette (1863-1933), physician of the navy and then of the colonies, founder of the Saigon Pasteur Institute, worked to improve the anti-rabies vaccine and perfected in 1921, together with Guérin, the famous BCG.

Among the most important discoveries must be mentioned that of X-Rays by Röntgen in 1895 - a technique that is immediately used in the navy - and that of radium in 1898. Besides, the pharmacists of the navy, in their status of "scientists", were made responsible for all new radiological installations. In this connection, we must acclaim the discovery in 1906 by the naval physician Tribondeau (1872-1918), together with Bergonié, of the elective sensitivity of embryonal and tumorous tissues to radiations, which will have the important applications we are aware of.

But it is undoubtedly in the domain of tropical pathology that the most significant contributions of naval physicians are made. Malaria – due to Plasmodium, discovered by Laveran in 1880 – was studied by many naval physicians among whom Thévenot (1801-1841), author, in 1840, of the Treatise on the diseases of Europeans in hot-weather countries, and Griffon du Ballay (1829-1908) who, during his appointment in Gabon from 1861 to 1863, prescribed a large quantity of quinine sulphate, which had been used in naval hospitals since 1825.

Yellow Fever, this great scourge of the tropics, due to the virus amarillic, was studied in the navy since 1807 by Repey, who defended the thesis of non-contagion, but especially by Maher during the epidemics in Havana in 1837 and in Sacrificios (in the Gulf of Mexico) in 1838. He identified, in the clinic, an unique, intermittent and pernicious version of the disease, which he treated successfully, like Malaria, with quinine sulphate. Dutroulau (1808-1872) describes the different clinical aspects, giving precise details about the red phase that shows the disease has caught on and the period of the really yellow state.

The pathogenic agent of exanthematic typhus is discovered by Ricketts in 1910 but it is Charles Nicolle (1866-1936) who shows the role of body lice in its transmission.

The plague bacillus is found in 1894 by Yersin (1863-1943), who had arrived in Indochina as a physician of the merchant navy. The colonial physician, P.-L. Simond (1858-1947) proves in 1898 that the plague is transmitted by lice in rats. Girard, a colonial physician, Director of the Pasteur Institute in Tananarive, Madagascar, elaborates, in 1932, a vaccine against plague, which raged in the big island.

Twenty years before the identification of Entamoeba histolytica, agent of amoebiasis, by Lambi in 1859, the naval physician Alexandre Ségond (1799-1841) was treating dysentery in Cayenne with success, using pills containing ipecacuanha and an extract of opium. Then follow the remarkable descriptions of anatomic lesions by the naval physician Dutroulau in his Treatise on Diseases in Hot Countries published in1861 and, after that, the work of Delioux de Savignac (1812-1876), another naval physician, who is the first to mention, in his Treatise on Dysentery, the contagious nature of the disease due to droppings and amoebae in the blood of faeces caused by the tearing up of the mucosa. He therefore declares that "emetine was to Dysentery what quinine was to Malaria".

Lalluyaux d’Ormay (1824-1878), naval physician, identifies "the Cochin-China Diarrhoea", now called tropical sprue, which is a syndrome of malabsorption.

A lot of work is done on Filariasis, due to a species of roundworm: the Filariasis of Bancroft (Wucheria bancrofti), Loiasis, Onchocerciasis, the Filariasis of Médine or Dracunculiasis. This latter was studied by the naval physician Bartet in his work: The Dragon Worm of Guinea, Filaria of Médine, published in 1909.

Emile Marchoux, (1862-1943), an emblematic personality of the Corps, naval physician and then colonial physician, undertakes, as Chief of the Microbiology Service of the Pasteur Institute, important work on leprosy (whose bacillus is discovered by Hansen in 1871) and on Malaria. A Member of the Academy of Medicine, he is elected President of the International Leprosy Association and President of The Society of Exotic Pathology.

In the course of this century, Medicine takes a great step forward and it could be said that the magnificent progress of twentieth century medicine was the fruit of the seeds sowed in the nineteenth. Naval physicians, as we have seen, took an active and significant part in this progress; Pioneers in tropical medicine, they made this field known by their work and their publications. Does one know that as early as 1863, the chief naval physician Beaujan (1821-1867) founded the School of Medicine in Pondicherry ?


This is a period of numerous explorations of "virgin lands". The explorers are not always appointed for this purpose in the colonies. It is generally on the spot that they are noticed and chosen by the military or administrative authorities because of their particular aptitude, their endurance or their motivation to be integrated into exploratory missions. They are then immediately called upon by the Museum of Natural History, the Ministry of Public Instruction or again by the Geographical Society for doing research. Different explorations are realized by naval health officers, according to whether they are physicians or pharmacists.

In Africa, Touchard explores the river of Gabon in 1860. Griffon du Bellay, with the ship lieutenant Serval, goes up the Ogooué in 1862. Quintin is associated with Marge on a mission in Niger (1863-1866), activated by Faidherbe. Bayol is the Lieutenant Governor of the Southern Rivers (Guinea) in 1883. Ballay goes down the Congo River setting out from its tributary, the Alima, in the company of Savorgnan de Brazza in 1883 before becoming the Lieutenant Governor of Guinea in 1889 and then Governor General of French West Africa in 1900. The pharmacist Liotard, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Ubangi in 1894, initiator of the Liotard-Marchand mission towards the Nile, later becomes the Governor of Dahomey, of New Caledonia and of Guinea. Cureau is the Lieutenant Governor of French Congo in 1906. Emily, physician of the Marchand mission, is the Director of the Colonial Army Health Service in 1824. Bartet takes over a delicate mission in Dahomey in 1897.

In Indochina, Joubert and Thorel take part in the Mekong scientific mission led by Doudard de Lagrée(1866-1867). Harmand makes five voyages of exploration to Cambodia from 1875 to 1877 before becoming a diplomat from 1881 and French Minister in Japan from 1894 to1905. Morice, a distinguished ethnologist, stays twice in Cochin-China (1872-1874; 1876-1877) while Néis explores Laos in 1883.

In New Caledonia, the surgeons Vieillard and Deplanche communicate their on-the-spot experiences in their Essay on New Caledonia, published in 1863. It is a remarkable study of the whole colony under its different aspects, particularly in the field of botany.

In Oceania, one finds Cuzent, a botanist and chronicler of Polynesian customs; Lavigerie, an ichthyologist but also a public minister in the courts, and Viaud, the brother of Pierre Loti, Tahiti’s first photographer.

In South America, we can mention Le Prieur, a naturalist in Guyana, where he stayed three times between 1830 and 1849, but especially Crevaux, a First Class Surgeon, who made four fabulous exploratory voyages in Guyana and the Amazon Rainforest, was killed in 1882 at the age of 35 in Bolivia by the Tobas Indians, and the pharmacist Lejanne who accompanied him on his third voyage (on the river Orinoco).

To this incomplete list can be added the Cape Horn Scientific Mission to the Antarctic for a series of scientific observations. Accomplished on the Romanche, from 1882 to 1883, with the naval physicians Hyades and Hahn, this campaign rich in results was recounted in seven volumes of a collective work, under the direction of Hyades who was himself responsible for volumes IV and VII on geology and ethnography.

This brief account reveals the multiple medical and extra-medical activities of overseas naval health officers at this time. Their exploratory missions, among other accomplishments, brought them great prestige.