Harry W. Paul, Henri de Rothschild, 1872-1947: Medicine and Theater

Harry W. Paul, Henri de Rothschild, 1872-1947: Medicine and Theater (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 322 pp. £70 hb. ISBN 978-1-4094-0515-3.

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As the subtitle of this meticulously researched biography indicates, there was much more to the Rothschilds than wine and banking. Henri de Rothschild, the great-grandson of the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, was an extraordinarily active and energetic doctor, scientist and playwright whose medical work had a lasting impact in ways that we now take completely for granted. He also wrote almost forty plays in the latter half of his life. The wine-making and banking fuelled both the theatrical and the medical-scientific work, allowing Henri a privileged life akin to Darwin’s Wedgewood-financed independence. Like Darwin, he rarely seemed to rest, taking his family’s work ethic to an extreme. To chart all of this activity, across so many fields, Harry W. Paul needs a vast canvas, and his book becomes much more than the story of one man; he gives us a detailed portrait of the dramatically changing medical culture in France in the early twentieth century.

Divided into two parts, the book first deals with the Rothschild family’s combined interest in medicine and philanthropy. The family established hospitals in Paris and at Berck-sur-Mer, supported scientific research, developed new treatments for syphilis and burns, pioneered the science of infant feeding and the field of pediatrics, served in the medical corps in World War I, and much more. The second part deals with Henri’s other career as a playwright and man of the theatre, writing plays under the pseudonym of André Pascal. These two careers—the medical and the theatrical—overlapped:  Rothschild continued to work as a doctor and scientist while writing plays that dealt with medical and scientific themes. Although almost all of his plays (some written with collaborators) are now forgotten, Harry W. Paul brings a few of them to life again through extensive discussion of their plots, themes, and critical reception. The book will therefore appeal to historians of medicine as well as those interested in the field of theatre and science.

Paul provides fascinating insights into French culture at the time. For instance, a pressing issue of the day was the high rate of infant mortality, linked to unsanitary conditions, the widespread use of wet-nursing (poor provincial women leaving their babies to work in Paris as wet-nurses meant that their own babies often died), the need for proper maternity hospitals and the lack of nutritionally appropriate artificial substitutes for breast milk. Henri took a keen early interest in all of these problems, devoting himself and a considerable portion of his fortune to developing substitutes for breast milk, distributing pure, sterilized milk to the poor, and establishing maternity hospitals as well as helping to found the new science of pediatrics. One might assume that in the land of Pasteur sterilized milk would be de rigeur by the 1890s. But in spite of intense lobbying by physicians and politicians alike, “the process of pasteurization was finally legally defined in 1955”, although already by 1925 it was “hardly possible to find adulterated or contaminated milk in Paris”. Thus, around 1900, when Henri first became widely known through a series of public lectures on milk at the Pasteur Institute, France had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and “milk was a more exciting and potentially deadly liquid than wine”. In fact, milk “inspired him with scientific and charitable passion” while wine left him cold; he eventually sent his son Philippe to run the Mouton estate.

There is a great deal of data and statistics in the book, clearly drawing on vast amounts of meticulous research. But often these are simply listed and expected to speak for themselves. It would help the reader to contextualize, situate and analyze the meaning of lists of facts such as “In 1909 alone 28,000 dressings were done, 11,000 free prescriptions given out, 18,000 liters of milk given away, and 281 orthopedic devices applied. In over 20 years, from June 1903 to December 1924, 2667 sick people were hospitalized, including 1681 cases of major surgery. There were 221,371 consultations with free distribution of medicaments, 195,254 liters of milk, and more than 1500 layettes.”

Henri’s lifelong interest in deontology provided the impulse behind much of his playwriting. He observed, and was troubled by, the widespread system of fee-splitting (“la dichotomie”), whereby doctors often needlessly referred patients to their surgeon friends and shared the resultant fees. He also loathed “le charlatanisme” of so much of French medicine. These issues went into plays such as Le Caducée (written in 1910, published in 1912, and revised and performed in 1921), often seen as his best theatrical work, and Le Grand Patron (1931), which made a “big splash in the world of Parisian theater” when it opened at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées. He also worried about the impact of women doctors on French medical practice and on femininity more generally, and this became the theme of La Vocation (written with his colleague Pierre Delbret, and first performed in 1926) which argues that women make good doctors only if they remain single, since the profession is incompatible with their maternal instincts and their primary calling as mothers and wives. The play was highly controversial in its day, causing riots amongst the medical students in the audience.

What is missing from this discussion of the selected plays is a sense of their theatrical context. What else was going on in the theatre? What were Henri’s theatrical influences? What did he see and read? How do his works relate to other theatrical treatments of similar subjects? Apart from mentioning Shaw and Pirandello, the discussion gives little attention to broader developments of modern drama. Theatrical performance—an area that, like the medical arenas Rothschild was involved with, underwent vast changes in this period—likewise receives almost no attention. What was the acting and scenography like for these productions? Who came to see them? Although much research has been done on the extensive theatrical archives of the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal, there is little attempt to situate any of the critical responses quoted, to give a sense of different critical orientations and positions; the overall effect is one of randomness.

Amidst all of the dense detail it is sometimes difficult for Henri to remain in sharp focus. Perhaps the two parts of the book might have been better integrated; the turn to discussing Henri’s theatrical work feels sudden and the conclusion turns abruptly from theatre to a consideration of anti-Semitism in France during this period and its effect on medical culture. This is fascinating but not well enough integrated with the rest of the book. This kind of compartmentalization hinders a sustained sense of narrative and character; Henri rather disappears from view just when his biography seems to be reaching its culmination in his final years, when he lived in Switzerland both for his health and to escape the Nazis, and his death in 1947; all of this is compressed into a few paragraphs, and the book ends without fully appraising Henri the man.

What the book really brings to life is the medical culture of the time—what went on behind the closed doors of the consulting rooms or in the corridors of the Faculty of Medicine. There are wonderful anecdotes throughout, such as the one about Fournier entertaining his dinner guests by having his dog gulp down a sugar lump called Charcot, the name of his arch-rival. The book is strongest on the history of medicine, not just the birth of a whole new field of pediatric medicine but the research on and treatments for tuberculosis, syphilis, cancer, arthritis, burns and many other diseases or conditions. In tracing such developments the book helps us understand the increasing cultural significance of medicine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And the chapters on André Pascal’s plays will hopefully revive interest in this long-forgotten and prolific playwright and pioneer of science and theatre.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, St Catherine's College, Oxford