Ludwig Courvoisier (1843-1918)
|Ludwig Courvoisier was born in Basle, Switzerland in 1843. His father was a merchant and
his mother the daughter of an English clergyman. At the age of seven his father developed pulmonary tuberculosis and the family moved to Malta where his maternal grandparents lived. On the island he learned to speak fluent English and
developed an interest in botany and butterflies. He completed his schooling on Malta. As he was about to start university in Germany he developed typhus and had to delay the start of his medical studies for over a year. His early
undergraduate years were spent at the University of Gottingen before he returned to Basle to graduate in 1868. Soon after qualification, at the age of 25, he was chosen by Professor Socin to be his assistant. Socin was one of the first
continental surgeons to adopt antiseptic techniques. At the end of his assistantship he visited London and studied under Sir William Fergusson and Sir Spencer Wells. He then spent a year in Vienna where he studied with Billroth and Czerny.
During the Franco-Prussian war Courvoisier served in a military hospital in Karlsruhe before returning to Basle. Soon after his return to Switzerland, he was elected as surgeon to a hospital in Riechen, a small town approximately 5 miles
north of Basle. He was to work for most of the next 30 years. Despite working in such a small hospital his reputation grew and in 1888 the University of Basle recognised his achievements by appointing him Professor of Surgery Extraordinary.
It was not until the death of Socin in 1899, when Courvoisier was 57 years old, was he allotted beds
in Basle and shortly afterwards he was appointed Professor of Surgery in the University.
Courvoisier's most important work concerned surgery to the biliary tract. It was he who developed the operation of cholecystectomy and he was one of the first surgeons to remove a stone from the common bile duct. The well known 'Courvoisier's
law' is named after him stating that 'if in the presence of jaundice the gallbladder is palpable, then the jaundice is unlikely to be due to a stone.' This was first proposed by him in his book 'The pathology and surgery of the gallbladder'
published in Leipzig in 1890.
Courvoisier was regarded by many as safe rather than brilliant surgeon. He gladly handed over cases to others when confronted with conditions lying outside his experience. He never abandoned his boyhood love of flowers and butterflies and, in
addition to his surgical writings, he published 21 papers on entomology. On his death, at the age of 75, he bequeathed his great herbarium to the Botanical Institute and his butterfly collection to the Natural History Museum in Basle.
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