Journal de Sçavans
pp 338-340

Date: 26 July 1694

Translated from the French

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[JS p338]

Extract from a letter from Mr Leibniz1

     I do not know if anyone in Paris is continuing the registers or lists of baptisms and funerals in this great city that were compiled in the time I was there. This project seemed very useful, as did the Bills of Mortality in London, from which able people have drawn important observations. Yet we could go further, by having an annual history of medicine drawn up for Paris and the Île-de-France, as well as for other provinces, on the plan given to us by Mr Ramazzini, able doctor of the Duke of Modena,2 with whom I met when I was staying in that region. I strongly urged him to execute and pursue such a laudable project. He was finally inclined to do so, and has already given us a few years, having even done me the honour of dedicating the second to me. I had them inserted into the collections or ephemerides that our German doctors, who call themselves "curious about nature," have for a long time published every year. But I have no doubt that in France one can greatly improve on these beginnings. This doctor spoke there first about the seasons and the constitution of the air that was observed during the course of the year in the region whose medical history he undertook to give, namely of the city of Modena and neighbouring Lombardy. After that he relates how the grains and fruits prospered there, and the diseases which prevailed among the animals, and all this in few words. From there he comes to the chief matter, which is the health of human bodies, in which he observes not only epidemic diseases and symptoms, but also how other diseases have changed, since it is certain that there are great variations according to the constitutions of the times. Above all he observes which medicines have had the best effect, and what is called nocentia [what things harm] and juvantia [what things help]: and in the two years I have already received from him, he has observed [JS p339] great variations, and as it were changes from black to white; among others, with respect to quinquina,3 which has succeeded incomparably better in one year than in the other. And there should be no doubt that years similar to the preceding ones often return, where the past would be of the greatest use to decide on this matter in the future, whereas now we are reduced to learning almost always from scratch at the expense of the sick.
     It's easy to judge what a treasure trove of observations we would have if something similar had been done for a while now. But it is always time to begin good things; this one should be done in several provinces, and even by public order, being an important point of the police, all the more worthy of being executed since it has only to be desired and requires scarcely any trouble or expense. And as the police is excellent in France, these kinds of projects can be executed there better than elsewhere. It would not be necessary for entire books to be written everywhere, like what has begun in Modena. A letter of a few pages would suffice for an able medical practitioner to write with regard to his city or province, addressing it, for example, to the First Doctor of the King,4 under whose authority would be given a collection of them every year. It is true that the project deserves to be further expanded in large cities and especially the capital of the kingdom, and I imagine that the Lieutenant of Police would be delighted to assist with it, and to give encouragement to those who would like to undertake it. France, by giving such a fine example of precision and curiosity, would render a very considerable service to the human race, which would not be unworthy of the glorious reign of the monarch who currently governs her.5 The Mithridates,6 the Jubas,7 and the Gentius,8 to whom we are indebted for a few medicines, would have done nothing comparable to what would be due to His Majesty if he were to take in hand the fact and cause of medicine, as he did with regard to astronomy with a success to which the efforts of the Alfonsos,9 Ulugh-Begs,10 and other [JS p340] similar kings could not be compared. Indeed, men need an authority as great as his to be brought back to the true path; those who extravagate always outside themselves neglect themselves by a blindness which seems fatal and which deserves their attention the most. And it may be said that it is a truth as certain as it is unfortunate that the soul and the body are the first things that should be thought about, and the last things that are thought about.


1. The paper is an extract from Leibniz's letter to Germain Brice, published in the 26 July 1694 edition of the Journal des sçavans.
2. Bernardino Ramazzini (1633–1714), physician and Professor of Theory of Medicine at the University of Modena from 1682 to 1700.
3. Dried bark from Cinchona trees, used for treating malaria. Ramazzini was one of the first to promote its use.
4. In France, the First Doctor of the King was the head of all health officers in the service of the monarch and responsible for the organization of medicine throughout the kingdom. At the time Leibniz wrote, the post was held by Guy-Crescent Fagon (1638-1718).
5. A fawning reference to Louis XIV (1638-1715).
6. Mithridates VI (135-63 BCE) was for much of his life king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. In his youth he was reputed to have developed an antidote to several poisons, this becoming known as Mithridate.
7. Juba II (43 BCE-23 CE), King of Numidia and Mauretania, is reputed to have discovered the laxative properties of the Euphorbia plant, which he named after his physician Euphorbus.
8. Gentius, a king of the Ardiaei from 181-168 BCE, is reputed to have discovered the tonic properties of the Gentiana family of plants, since named after him.
9. Alfonso X (1221-1284) was King of Castile, León and Galicia, and renowned for his interest in - and encouragement of - astronomy.
10. Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) was a sultan of the Timurid Empire, noted for his work as an astronomer and mathematician.

© Lloyd Strickland 2019