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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Podiatry: The French Connection





Care of the feet as we understand it today (podiatry) was first described by Laurance Laforest who wrote L'Art de Soigner les Pieds (1781). He was the podiatrist to Louis XVI., but after the Revolution, changed his occupation to grocer. History does not reveal why the change in career, but I am sure his customers would be relieved to know he washed his hands regularly.



The French Revolution (1789-99) violently transformed France from a monarchical state with a rigid social hierarchy into a modern nation in which the social structure was loosened and power passed increasingly to the middle classes. In the new France the proletariat mattered and their health and welfare of the Hoi polloi was of political importance. Up and until this time hospitals retained the image of a place for the poor, and most sick people of any means continued to choose to be treated at home. Hospitals were places to die in as opposed to the centres of medical excellence we know today.



The concept of the teaching hospital was introduced in France at this time and medical experts were employed to practice their art and teach others the science of medicine. Many major advances were made including microbiology by Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806), and histology by French physiologist Marie Francois Bichat (1771-1802). These biological and medical discoveries led medicine to safer and less traumatic models of practice.



Specialist foot care was part of the new order after the Revolution and Laforest's work was eventually plagiarised by an English corn cutter called David Low. To avoid being found out he translated the original text into English and retitled it, Chiropodologia, Or, a Scientific Enquiry Into the Causes of Corns, Warts, Onions, and Other Painful or Offensive Cutaneous Excrescences: Confirmed by the Practice and Experience of D. Low. Hence the name, chiropodist. A decade later Low’s works was again plagiarised by North Americans. I suppose it was a classic case of the means justifying the ends. Eventually Low left corn cutting and started a new venture and became the first hotelier in history.



During the eighteenth century foot care was important to at least one Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte. Rising to command of the French Revolutionary armies, he seized political power as first consul in 1799 and proclaimed himself emperor in 1804. By repeated victories over various European coalitions, he extended French rule over much of Europe. His corn cutter, Monsieur Sagrada, was a constant companion on all his campaigns. When Bonaparte was eventually held captive on St Helena (1815–21) the British Authorities were unable to break the code of silence that surrounded his close circle of friends, They were imprisoned on a ship and with the promise of amnesty as an incentive they offered a new start in England to anyone able to jump ship. Yes, you have guessed it, the first to lay his foot on the ground was corn cutter Sagrada. After he told all he knew MonsieurSagrada was allowed to practice in Westminster, London for many years.



Emperor Napoleon was a doyen of fashion and had his servants break in his shoes before he would wear them. Empress Josephine was not much better and when she discovered a hole in her dancing slipper she complained to her shoemaker. "Ah, I see what the problem is, madame" he exclaimed "You have been walking in these"



Napoleon's sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, had exceptional feet and was so proud of them she held receptions in the Palazzo Borghese in Rome. These were known as the Toilette des pieds and guests came to admire her feet and observed her toiletry. On arrival Princess Pauline displayed her feet on a cushion for all to see and admire. Her maids would ceremoniously wash and powder the revered feet. An admirer of the princess and frequent witness to the ceremonial washing was once reported to admiring lift her foot and tuck it into his waistcoat saying, "it was like a little bird."



As if by irony Napoleon’s nemesis the Duke of Wellington detested corn cutters and his disdain extended to suing a London corn cutter for having the audacity to claim in the press that he was corn cutter to great man. Wellington also refused to have a general in his command who dared complain of sore feet.

Footnote
I have always taken consolation that on that famous of historic moments when Napoleon said to his lover "Not tonight, Josephine" what history did not record was the end of the sentence "because I have a foot care appointment."

Bibliography
Runting EGV 1915 Jottings of an old chiro The Chiropodist 2:5 40.
Runting EGV 1932 Some phase of chiropody Chiropody Jottings London: Faber & Faber 210.

Reviewed 1/12/2016

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