Born Marie-Anne Victoire Gillain on 9 April 1773 at Versailles, Marie was educated by nursing nuns at a nunnery located about 29 miles from the center of Paris in a commune called Étampes. There she displayed medical skill, and, in fact, her skills were strong enough she attracted the attention of Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth. Unfortunately, when the French Revolution broke out, the nunnery was destroyed.
After the nunnery was destroyed, Marie began studying anatomy and midwifery, but then, in 1797, Marie married Louis Boivin, stopped her medical studies, and had a daughter. Unfortunately, Madame Boivin’s husband died, and to support herself, she returned to her medical studies at the Parisian teaching hospital, Hôtel-Dieu, in the Hospice de la Maternité in 1796. Hôtel-Dieu was the largest public hospital in Paris at the time and considered one of the most well-respected obstetric hospitals, renowned for its school of midwifery.
While there, Boivin’s teacher was Marie-Louise Lachapelle. Lachapelle was four years older than Boivin, and Lachapelle was also widowed. Moreover, Lachapelle had given birth to a daughter, but after her husband’s death in 1795, like Boivin, Lachapelle needed to support herself and her daughter, and began working as a midwife. Because Boivin and Lachapelle were close in age, had much in common, including similar misfortunes, they developed a close relationship and friendship.
Boivin graduated in 1800 and began practicing at Versailles. However, misfortune again struck when her daughter was killed. Boivin then returned to La Maternité as chief surveillant to Lachapelle. She worked there for the next eleven years, and, during that time, Boivin developed a close relationship with Dr. François Chaussier. Chaussier was a French anatomist, chief obstetrician at La Maternité, and credited with introducing a procedure to revive “near-dead” newborns.
While at La Maternité, Boivin’s friendship with Lachapelle supposedly dissolved because of Boivin’s jealousy towards her. However, this allegation is questionable. It is true Boivin did resign in 1811 (possibly due to her outspokenness rather than jealousy towards Lachapelle), and, later, in 1822, when Lachapelle died, Boivin rejected the offer from La Maternité to assume Lachapelle’s position. Instead, Boivin accepted a position for low wages at a Paris hospital for fallen women. That position was followed by other various leadership positions at other hospitals, among them the Maison Royale de Santé. A variety of other honors also followed:
“In 1814, the King of Prussia conferred upon her the order of civil merit; the University of Marburg gave her the degree of Doctor of Medicine [in 1827]. Her name was proposed before the Academie de Médicine, but the prejudice again the admission of a woman was too great, and she was defeated.”
During Boivin’s career, she also produced many medical publications and translated several medical works. Boivin was also touted as “the most prolific medical writer who ever lived.” Her first work about the art of childbirth was Memorial de l’Art des Accouchement and was published in 1812. It included notes taken from Lachapelle’s teachings and was used as a handbook for medical students and midwives. Other works, upon various obstetrical subjects followed and included, Noume traité des hémorragies de l’utérus (“Bleeding from the Uterus”), Recherches sur une des causes les plus frequentes et la moins connue de l’avortement (“The Most Frequent and Least Known Causes of Abortion”), and Traité des Maladies de l’utérus et des annexes (“Diseases of the Uterus”).
Over the years, Boivin’s creativity and inventiveness have also been praised. For instance, she was one of the first to use a stethoscope to listen to the fetal heartbeat. She is credited with discovering the causes of miscarriages and determining the cause for certain types of bleeding in women. Boivin also aided medical practitioners by developing a new pelvimeter to assess a woman’s pelvis and a new vaginal speculum, which was used to dilate the vagina and to conduct cervix examinations. In addition, her skill as a gynecological surgeon, encouraged German universities to be more open to the idea of women performing skillful gynecological surgery.
Boivin was always well-regarded. Many people noted that she “was a woman of the most simple and offending manners, and of the most exemplary conduct.” Some people said she was more distinguished than Lachapelle, and those who worked with her appreciated her kind and caring attitude. German professors thought so highly of her they addressed her as vir doctissimus. However, despite all the praise and appreciation, Boivin remained modest of her own abilities. One article from Johns Hopkins Hospital notes this:
“It is evident that she not only understood her subject, but she also knew how to write lucidly. Even if her own modest assurance is true that her works contain little that is original at any rate we owe her a great debt of gratitude for collecting and putting in a readable form the combined knowledge of the majority of the principal authorities of her time.”
Boivin’s declining years brought more misfortune and unhappiness. She suffered bankruptcy and had an apoplectic attack that resulted in permanent paralysis. Unable to work and destitute, she was taken in and cared for by some relatives at Versailles. She also obtained a moderate pension from the governors of the hospitals and the French minister. However, it was reported that her inability to work and her state of dependence, affected her spirits and “she gradually sank under it.” She died on 16 May 1841 at the age of sixty-eight from an apoplexy attack.
- Burton, June K., Napoleon and the Woman Question, 2007
- “Foreign,” in Hertford Mercury and Reformer, 26 June 1841
- Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, Volumes 4-5, 1893
- Maryland Medical Journal: Medicine and Surgery, Volume 10, 1884
- The New American Cyclopædia, 1859