A name that seems etched into the collective consciousness of La-Teste-de-Buch, on the southern ridge of the Bassin d’Arcachon, is that o...

Jean Hameau: the La Teste doctor who paved the way for Pasteur

A name that seems etched into the collective consciousness of La-Teste-de-Buch, on the southern ridge of the Bassin d’Arcachon, is that of Dr Jean Hameau, whose research paved the way for the scientific achievements of Louis Pasteur.

Hameau was born in La Teste itself on October 5th 1779 in a small house located on what is now Rue du 14 Juillet. His father, André, was a local tailor who had married Jeanne Labouroir from Dax, further south in the Landes area. Aged just 16, Hameau began his medical studies under the guidance of one Dr Desquives in Ychoux, a few kilometres to the east of Biscarrosse. Two years later, in 1797, he departed for Paris, pursuing his studies at École de Santé de Paris where he spent four years and contributed to an initiative known as the “Centre de la Vaccine”.

Come February 1801, Hameau was headed back to La Teste given that “the land which witnessed my birth is the land where I must practice medicine”. (C’est le pays qui m’a vu naître, c’est le pays où je dois exercer la médecine.) In his hometown and beyond his reputation rapidly grew: while there he administered smallpox vaccinations, identified and described the first transmission of disease (glanders) from horse to man, defined an effective treatment for malaria, and discovered an illness which was hitherto unknown in France: the vitamin deficiency disease pellagra.

Jean Hameau's birthplace, complete with discreet grey plaque. Not sure whether the stars were already in position in 1779!
Hameau’s greatest achievement was still to come: his research into the nature and transmission of germs or viruses. In 1837, he presented his findings (summed up in a publication entitled “Réflexions sur les virus”) to the Royal Medical Society of Bordeaux. As such he described contagious illnesses, contagion and incubation phases, symptoms and developments. He suggested conceiving vaccines to prevent viruses, illustrated how they could be treated and demonstrated how the human body went about defending itself against relapses. His immediate audience was unconvinced.

In 1843 his theories were presented to the National Academy of Medicine, again with limited results. The seeds were sown though and Hameau’s ideas began to make gentle headway, resulting in articles in medical journals and a formal presentation of Hameau’s thesis “Mémoire sur les virus” before the Académie in 1950, this time by one Professor Londe.

This time the Académie formally acknowledged the importance of Hameau’s work which, over the following decades, would provide a blueprint for more extensive, elaborate and heavily-funded research. It was to culminate in the achievements of chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and his breakthroughs in the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and (what became known as) pasteurisation.

Statue in central La Teste. The monument is a 2011 replica of a work by the sculptor Gaston Leroux, first erected in 1900 but which was melted down during the Second World War.
Beyond his status as a respected doctor and physician (also known for his passion for philosophy, geography, sociology and poetry), Jean Hameau was an influential political figure in La Teste.  During his short tenure as Mayor of the town, from 1844 to 1848 (at which stage he was relinquished of his duties after refusing to renege his loyalty to King Louis-Philippe), Hameau had been involved in projects such as the road between La Teste and Arcachon, forestry initiatives, maintenance of the new railway line, and the construction of the town’s first hospital. Earlier, in 1824, he had married Hélène Marguerite Fleury with whom Hameau had three children, including Gustave, who went on to follow in his father’s footsteps as a doctor and as Mayor of La Teste and Arcachon.

Hameau died aged 72 in August 1851 following an operation for an ingrowing toenail which led to a generalised infection and ultimately septicaemia. He was buried in the municipal cemetery in La Teste.

Forty-five years passed before the local tributes to La Teste’s illustrious son began to flourish. In 1896, his name was given to one of the town’s central squares. Four years later, a bronze statue depicting Hameau was erected there although this was melted down by the German forces in 1942. In 1962, a more modest bust of the physician was installed in a small park known as Parc Jean Hameau to one side of the square.

Parc Jean-Hameau.
This bust was recently moved to a new hospital complex which has been built in La Teste, replacing the 1978 hospital structure known as Centre Hospitalier Jean Hameau (soon to be demolished to make way for an “éco-quartier” estate of residential buildings).

What used to be La Teste's Hôpital Jean Hameau, soon to be demolished to make way for housing in a similar vein to the designs pictured right.
In 1979, 200 years after Hameau’s birth, a small plaque was added to the house where he was born. Finally, the homages came full circle in September 2011 when a full-scale replica of the 1900 bronze statue was unveiled on Place Jean-Hameau. The 56,000-euro Mark-II statue, which had been commissioned by an active association known as “Les Amis de Jean Hameau”, was originally the project of local sculptor Patrick Lesca, who sadly passed away before the work was complete. The project was then picked up by Rennes artist Annick Leroy.

Finally, in the coming months, an additional paragraph may have to be added here because a permanent museum celebrating Hameau’s life and achievements may take shape in a section of La Teste’s mairie building. If so, Invisible Bordeaux will be there, notebook in hand!

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