Marcel Proust's diseases and doctors: the neurological story of a life

Front Neurol Neurosci. 2007;22:89-104. doi: 10.1159/000102874.


Marcel Proust (1871-1922), one of the greatest writers of all times, suffered from asthma beginning at age 9, in an era when the illness was considered a 'nervous' disorder belonging to what Beard, in 1870, called 'neurasthenia'. Proust's father, Adrien, was himself a professor of medicine (hygiene) who had met Charcot, and who contributed to neurology with studies on aphasia, stroke, hysteria, and neurasthenia - a condition about which he, along with Gilbert Ballet, published a book in 1897. Through his father, Proust met Edouard Brissaud, the co-founder of the Revue Neurologique in 1893, and, in 1896, the author of The Hygiene of the Asthmatics, with a foreword by Adrien Proust. Shortly after his mother's death in 1905, Proust contemplated admitting himself to a private hospital to reset his irregular sleep patterns and to improve his asthma. He hesitated in his choice of care between Jules Dejerine in Paris, Henry-Auguste Widmer at Valmont, and Paul Dubois in Bern. Finally, he decided to enter Paul Sollier's clinic, in Boulogne-sur-Seine, on the advice of Brissaud, and stayed there for 6 weeks in semi-isolation. Together with Babinski, Sollier was, at that time, considered the most gifted follower of Charcot. He was a forerunner of studies on emotional memory, which strongly influenced Proust. In Proust's opus magnum work In Search of Lost Time, 'involuntary memory' indeed forms the core mechanism of the entire novel, counterbalancing the decaying effects of time. A few years before his death from complicated bronchopneumonia at age 52, Proust became terrified of developing a stroke, like his mother and father, and he consulted with Joseph Babinski, who tried to reassure him. Proust's life followed an unusual neurological itinerary, which has been largely overlooked, but which is in fact critical for an understanding of his literary work.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / history
  • Asthma / psychology
  • France
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease
  • Literature, Modern / history*
  • Male
  • Medicine in Literature
  • Mental Disorders / history*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Neurology / history*
  • Physician-Patient Relations

Personal name as subject

  • Marcel Proust