Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila - Encyclopedia

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MATHIEU JOSEPH BONAVENTURE ORFILA (1787-1853), French toxicologist and chemist, was by birth a Spaniard, having been born at Mahon in Minorca on the 24th of April 1787. An island merchant's son, he looked naturally first to the sea for a profession; but a voyage at the age of fifteen to Sardinia, Sicily and Egypt did not prove satisfactory. He next took to medicine, which he studied at the universities of Valencia and Barcelona with such success that the local authorities of the latter city made him a grant to enable him to follow his studies at Madrid and Paris, preparatory to appointing him professor. He had scarcely settled for that purpose in Paris when the outbreak of the Spanish war, in 1807, threatened destruction to his prospects. But he had the good fortune to find a patron in the chemist L. N. Vauquelin, who claimed him as his pupil, guaranteed his conduct, and saved him from expulsion from Paris. Four years afterwards he graduated, and immediately became a private lecturer on chemistry in the French capital. In 1819 he was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence, and four years later he succeeded Vauquelin as professor of chemistry in the faculty of medicine at Paris. In 1830 he was nominated dean of that faculty, a high medical honour in France. Under the Orleans dynasty, honours were lavishly showered upon him; he became successively member of the council of education of France, member of the general council of the department of the Seine, and commander of the Legion of Honour. But by the republic of 1848 he was held in less favour, and chagrin at the treatment he experienced at the hands of the governments which succeeded that of Louis Philippe is supposed to have shortened his life. He died, after a short illness, in Paris on the 12th of March 1853.

Orfila's chief publications are Traite des poisons, or Toxicologie ge'nerale (1813); Elements de chimie medicale (1817); Lecons de medecine legale (1823); Traite des exhumations juridiques (1830); and Recherches sur l'empoisonnement par l'acide arsenieux (1841). He also wrote many valuable papers, chiefly on subjects connected with medical jurisprudence. His fame rests mainly on the firstnamed work, published when he was only in his twenty-seventh year. It is a vast mine of experimental observation on the symptoms of poisoning of all kinds, on the appearances which poisons leave in the dead body, on their physiological action, and on the means of detecting them. Few branches of science, so important on their bearings on every-day life and so difficult of investigation, can be said to have been created and raised at once to a state of high advancement by the labours of a single man.

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