May 22, 2020: Posted by Mohamed Kahna
Adrien Proust (1834-1903) was one of the pioneers of social distancing, quarantine, the modern cordon sanitaire and confinement, which he called “sequestration“. He boasted that he had not contracted any diseases, keeping his distance from patients and washing his hands and face frequently.
Had he lived today, the hygienist Adrien Proust, would have traced the geography of the coronavirus, advised the government, advocated systematic containment and detected some striking similarities with the epidemic crises of the 19th century.
The importance of this learned author (of some twenty volumes ) on epidemics, including his famous essay on international hygiene (1873) – has been overshadowed by the posthumous fame of his son, Marcel Proust, the author of À la Recherche du temps perdu.
In the 19th century, Adrien Proust was one of the major European thinkers on social distancing and quarantine, which he called “sequestration” – at a time when the Asian cholera, the plague and yellow fever were particularly deadly.
This “geographer of epidemics“, as Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust’s biographer and specialist, described him, traced “the new routes of the great epidemics“, travelling from Persia to Egypt, taking an interest in their spread during the pilgrimage to Mecca. He paid a great deal of attention to hygiene in transport, especially maritime transport.
“If he didn’t invent the cordon sanitaire, he reactivated it” explains Jean-Yves Tadié. In particular, he theorized systematic containment.
“Rigorous sequestration, the interruption of communications by land or by sea succeeded in preserving certain places or certain countries” wrote in his essay the man who was to become the general inspector of sanitary services in 1884.
Wash hands and face frequently…
Adrien Proust boasted that he had not contracted any diseases by keeping his distance from the sick people he bravely visited. All he said was to wash his hands and face frequently.
According to Jean-Yves Tadié, “he has a European vision of things”, and similarities can be observed with the current crisis: “Europe’s defense against cholera was, as today, done in a scattered order. »
He attended all the international conferences on epidemics until his death in 1903. There he advocated the creation of an International Office of Public Health, which was established in 1907, four years after his death.
Adrien Proust fought “to impose on the British and the Ottomans a real sanitary control”. The same dilemma as today existed: to privilege the globalized economy or health?
In the name of “laisser faire, laisser passer”, the British “did not want to slow down trade, which was largely based on the road to India. We have seen the same thing happen again with (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson who did not want controls in the first place,” notes Professor Tadié.
Born in Illiers-Combray, near Chartres, the son of small traders, a scholarship-holder who went through the minor seminary, a doctor at 28, this doctor who is also a neurologist, who believes in medicines and specializes in hygiene at the age of 40, will be the prototype of the secular positivist, republican, atheist, interested in the social question.
Admitted to the Academy of Medicine, a man of his time, Adrien Proust is convinced that science will bring fulfillment to humanity, and that hygiene is a national and international cause.
Two visions of containment
He was also a “rather terrifying” father, unfaithful, crushing young Marcel with asthma, whom he called “my poor Marcel”, notes Jean-Yves Tadié.
A character has taken up in the guise of Dr. Cottard in Un amour de Swann. He had developed a closer relationship with his elder son, Robert, who would be a renowned doctor during the First World War.
Although they shared the same capacity for work, many things separated Adrien and Marcel: the father said in his treatise on hygiene that it was necessary to “triumph over dust and air”. Advice that the son, who had confined himself to the last part of his life, would never apply.
“These are his mother’s methods of fighting asthma: covering himself up, locking himself in his room, while his father told him to exercise, go outside, open the window” notes Professor Tadié.
There is containment and confinement: when Adrien advocated open windows, Marcel was so impregnated by the fear of contamination that he had the letters he received disinfected with formaldehyde…