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Fernel, Jean Francois

1. Dates
Born: Montdidier, c. 1497 (Hazon quotes Plantius, Fernel's friend, as placing Fernel's birth in 1485.)
Died: Fontainbleau, 26 Apr. 1558
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 61
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
His father was an substantial furrier and innkeeper. Fernel's marriage testifies to the economic status of the family; his father-in-law was a counselor of the Parlement of Paris. Fernel received a substantial dowry, which he dipped into for the construction of some instruments until conflict arose over this. At this point Fernel laid mathematics aside and discharged the craftsmen and engravers whom he had maintained under his own roof.
Obviously affluent at the least, though wealthy would not be an assumption without support.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Paris, M.A., M.D.
After schooling at Clermont, Fernel entered the Collège de Ste. Barbe in Paris in 1519, and received his M.A. at the age of twenty two. Then he studied philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics until 1524. After 1524, he studied medicine, and obtained his venia practicandi and his M.D. at Paris in 1530.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Medicine, Anatomy, Physiology
Subordinate: Astronomy, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy
His De naturali parte medicinae (1542) , in which he addressed himself to physiology, was read for a century, until Harvey's time. He introduced the term "physiology" for the science of the function of the body. In Medicina (1554), he noted the peristalsis and the systole and diastole of the heart. Among his anatomical observations was the earliest description of the spinal canal.
He also pursued astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy. He rejected astrology over his career.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia, Patronage
Secondary: Personal Means
1521-4, Fernel seems only to have studied humane letters and mathematics with no thought of a career. He was supported by his father until 1524, when he began teaching.
1524-1530, teacher of philosophy at the Collège de Ste. Barbe.
1530-58, medical practice. Hazon says that he earned 2,000 livres a year, the best medical income of the age.
1534-56, professor of medicine at the Collège de Coenouailles.
1556-8, physician to Henry II. Fernel was physician-in- chief to the Dauphin, later Henry II. The prince wanted to keep him at court, but Fernel declined until 1556.
Plancy, Fernel's biographer and close associate, reports that Fernel seldom received less that 10,000 livres a year and sometimes more than 12,000. He evidently received 2,300 livres Tournai for Catherine's last childbirth alone. At his death, 30,000 écus d'or were found in his study.
8. Patronage
Types: Academic, Court Official
Fernel dedicated Monalosphaerium (1527) to Jocab de Gorea, a mathematician who either had been or would become Principal of Ste. Barbe. The book was sumptuous and appeared to indicate the support of a generous patron. This was also true of two other books published in this period.
Hazon says that Fernel cured Catherine de' Medici of sterility, which made his fortune. (There is another story about this below.) According to this story, the king rewarded Fernel with 40,00 écus, and Catherine is reported to have given him 10,000 écus at each birth (there were six).
In 1530s, (according to the other story) Fernel's reputation at court became firmly established when he saved the life of Prince Henry's mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Later he also treated Catherine de' Medici, Henry's wife. Fernel treated Francis I in 1547 before the king's death. Henry II wanted to keep him as physician-in-chief, but Fernel wanted to stay in Paris instead of moving to Fontainbleau. While Henry was Dauphin, he did keep Fernel at court for two years (with a large stipend), much to Fernel's displeasure. Much later, from 1556 to 1558, Fernel was physcian to the court. Henry II said that as long as he had Fernel beside him, illness would not be mortal. Fernel dedicated his Dialogue and The Natural Part of Medicine (1542) to the Dauphin. He dedicated Medicina (1554) to King Henry II.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
Fernel's practice thrived sufficiently that he was compelled to give up teaching.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. C.S. Sherrington, Endeavour of Jean Fernel, (Cambridge, 1946).
  2. Guillaume Plancy, "Life of Fernel," appendix II in Sherrington, pp. 150-70.
  3. J.A.Hazon, ed., Notice des hommes les plus célèbres de la Faculté de Médecine en l'Université de Paris, (Paris 1778), pp. 30-6.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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