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Eugène-Louis Doyen

Eugene-Louis Doyen

Eugène-Louis Doyen was born on 16th December 1859 to Octave Doyen, the former mayor of Doyen’s birthplace, Reims, a cathedral city in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. He studied medicine in Reims and Paris, where he subsequently opened a private medical institute which attracted a singularly wealthy clientele prepared to pay the high fees Doyen charged to finance his research work.

Doyen was a controversial and celebrated figure whose outspoken views, uncompromising nature, and mercurial and temperamental spirit ensured his fame spread beyond the world of medicine. Doyen’s most important work in medicine was in the field of immunology, although his sphere of influence ranged from cancer research to munitions testing. He possessed exceptional hand/eye co-ordination which not only contributed immeasurably to his renown as a first-class surgeon, but also won him an equal reputation as a marksman (he was reported to have a taste for duels) and a fencer. Doyen could perform operations with a speed so astonishing that his dexterity attracted praise and disdain in equal measure. Although his speed of hand was a natural gift, he worked hard to enhance this gift by inventing a number of surgical instruments to enable fast, accurate movements at a time when the use of anaesthesia was fraught with risk to the patient.

He was also convinced of the usefulness of images in the teaching of medicine and surgical procedure, and created an episcope to project anatomical sections. He also produced thousands of didactic photographs, some of them in colour. Unfortunately, most of these images vanished during the German bombing of Paris in WWII.

After attending an early Lumière show, Doyen was immediately struck by the potential for filming surgical operations for use as a teaching aid. In the face of objections from the French Medical Academy, he enlisted the aid of Clément-Maurice, the organiser of the earliest Lumière show, and cameraman Ambroise-François Parnaland to film some of his operations in 1898.   Clément-Maurice modified a Cinématographe so that it could film for the extended period required and, somewhat bizarrely, suggested to Doyen that he operate in the open air on a corpse. Naturally, Doyen refused, and the filmed operations were conducted in a room in the doctor’s clinic in which the walls had been painted with a special finish to dull any unwanted light reflection . Four electric lights were positioned to provide optimum illumination for both the surgeons and the cameras.

The composition of each film was virtually identical: the face of the surgeon and the patient were hardly ever seen, and only body parts essential for surgery were filmed so that the viewer’s attention was drawn without distraction to the medical procedures taking place. Many procedures were preceded by intertitles explaining the activity that was about to take place. Doyen also insisted, where possible, on screenings of his films being accompanied by a commentary from an experienced surgeon who was present at the operation, feeling that otherwise the films would fail to be instructional. Doyen would often provide the commentary himself at national and international conferences. Due to the hostility towards his plans in his native land, one of the first commentaries he gave was to the British Medical Society in Edinburgh in July 1898.

Doyen operating on Radica and Doodica in 1902

Few of Doyen’s films exist today, but fragments of possibly the most famous - an eight-minute record of the separation of conjoined twins Radica and Doodica in 1902 - have survived. Indian-born Radica and Doodica Neik, conjoined twins attached at the stomach, were one of the main attractions at the Barnum & Bailey Circus as it toured Europe in the early years of the 20th Century. At the age of 12, Doodica became infected with tuberculosis, and surgery was considered necessary to prevent it spreading to her sister. The operation took place at Doyen’s clinic and was considered a success, although Doodica died a week later. Radica lived for a further year before dying of tuberculosis.

Within weeks of the operation, the film was being screened at conferences in Paris and Berlin, and Doyen had published a detailed account of the operation in a medical journal. Although Doyen felt his film was of medical value, his opinion wasn’t shared by others in the profession. Dr Legrain, the chief surgeon at the Ville-Evrard hospital, condemned the film as of a dubious nature and damaging to the medical profession, and publicly accused Doyen of charlatanism. Doyen’s initially furious response was later tempered by the discovery that Legrain’s harsh criticism had been provoked by the fact that Ambroise-François Parnaland, unknown to Doyen, had sold his copies of the film of the Radica and Doodica operation to an impresario for 600 francs. It was not the first film that Parnaland had sold in such a way, and Doyen was dismayed to learn that films of his operations were being screened in fairground sideshows for the entertainment of the general public.

Doyen began legal proceedings against Parnaland. The legal battle lasted for years, but in 1905 Doyen succeeded in winning the right to payment of substantial compensation from Parnaland, and the return of the offending films. Doyen subsequently offered sole distribution rights to his films to the ‘Société Géneral des Cinemathographes Eclipse’ on condition that they were shown for medical and educational purposes. Eclipse sold the collection of films on to Gaumont after WWI. Despite his good intentions, however, the films were rarely screened for any reason other than entertainment purposes.

Doyen’s medical research continued, but in increasing isolation as he found himself ostracised by the Faculté de médecine and other medical institutions which made it difficult to find collaborators. He was finally excommunicated completely over his work on cancer immunology by the Faculté, who condemned his plan to transplant a fragment of non-vascular breast cancer from a patient‘s diseased breast to her healthy one as a vivisection performed by a mad scientist.

After completing more than 60 filmed operations, Doyen ceased filming in 1906. He later combined fifteen of his films into three compilations, two of which - Extirpation des tumeurs encapsulees, and Les Operations sur la cavite cranienne - survive today.

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