Medicine in the Encyclopédie (1751-1780) of Diderot and d'Alembert

J Nephrol. 2011 May-Jun;24 Suppl 17:S12-24. doi: 10.5301/JN.2011.6485.


On July 1, 1751, the royal Parisian printer Le Breton published the first volume of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert, a rational dictionary, in folio and in alphabetical order, sold by subscription. The whole work was completed in 1780 (a total of 35 volumes, of which 12 were of illustrations, 4 of supplements and 2 of indices). In 1782 it was followed by the Encyclopédie méthodique, printed by Panckoucke, which ended in 1832 with volume number 166. The frontispiece of the first volume, designed by Charles-Nicolas Cochin Jr. and engraved by Benoît-Louis Prévost showed the columns of an Ionic temple where the Truth appears between Reason and Philosophy. Reason is shown trying to break the veil of Truth, and Philosophy trying to embellish it. Below are the philosophers, their eyes fixed on Truth. Theology is on his knees with his back facing Truth, and seems to receive light from the top. The subsequent chain of figures depicts Memory, Ancient History, Modern History, Geometry, Astronomy and Physics. Below are Optics, Botany, Chemistry and Agriculture. On the bottom line one finds the representatives of arts and professions derived from science. In a 42-page preface ("Discours préliminaire") d'Alembert discussed the path to new knowledge as one "based on what we receive through senses. Ideas depend on senses." The medical collaborators were, or became, famous. Medicine was considered to be rooted in experiment, in patients and in measurements. Functions started to be described with numbers. It was the birth of determinism which was later reinforced by Magendie and Claude Bernard. Albrecht Haller, president of the Academy of Science at Göttingen, as well as a member of all European academies, wrote seminal entries. New accurate definitions appeared for life, disease, death, infections, plague, epidemics, hygiene, fevers and edema. Semiology, the study of signs, became the visible explanation of deranged function, diagnosis and prognosis.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Encyclopedias as Topic*
  • France
  • History, 18th Century*
  • Humans
  • Philosophy / history*
  • Publishing / history*

Personal name as subject

  • None Diderot
  • None d'Alembert