Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey
Human Element
Deaths in British Army Hospitals: 1812-1815
Life in the British Navy
Napoleonic Surgery
Medical Hygiene
Medical Evacuations
"The Flying Ambulance"
Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey
Bonaparte's Demise
British Medical Services

Baron Dominque-Jean Larrey was a French military surgeon during the Napoleonic times.  A man of great will and compassion.  His devotion to his men led to great improvements and change in patient care.  He created the first purpose built ambulances and invented the triage system.  He is regarded by many to be the founder of modern surgery. 

Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey



The son of a shoemaker, Larrey was born on the 8th of July 1766 in the French village of Beauden, in the Pyrenean Mountains.  He left home to at the age of thirteen to study medicine in the city of Toulouse.  Six years later, Larrey went to Paris to continue his studies, and later, enlisted as a ship's surgeon in the French Navy.


    On the brink of the French Revolution, Larrey, who cared about human rights joined forces with the people, which revolted against King Louis XVI and the aristocracy.  Larrey was with the mob of people who stormed the Paris prison, known as the Bastille.  An event that sparked the beginning of the French Revolution.


    From this violence, Larrey developed many of his ideas.  When treating the wounded from the storming of the Bastille.  He noticed that patients who waited long periods for amputations after being wounded had a higher rate of mortality.  During this time, it was a common practice for surgeons to wait a while before the amputation.  This theory was that if you waited to operate, the patient would have plenty of time to recover from the shock of the wounds and be able to reconcile to the inevitable loss of the affected limb.   Larrey realized that many people died during the wait and it was a painful recovery for those who survived.




    In 1792, when France was at war with most of the major European powers, Larrey enlisted as a regimental surgeon-major with the French Army.  During combat, Larrey was forced to remain at least three miles behind the front line in order to receive the wounded from battle.  Soldiers were carried either by comrades, or left to find their own way back to the hospitals.  Since most of the medical resources and treatment was reserved for officers, ordinary soldiers would have to wait for days for treatment or receive none at all.


Those soldiers who survived the day’s fighting were often too exhausted to search for signs of life in the corpse strewn battlefields, or respond to the calls of help from their hurt comrades.  The wounded would often law in agony before medical teams could reach them.  Then they had to go to the hospitals in big, cumbersome wagons called Fourgons.  These slow moving vehicles could take up to three days to reach the battlefields.  Even more horrible was that fourgons lacked any type of shocks, so the ride back was often full of agony for the pure victim.


Larrey, even though regulations made him stay behind the front lines, he would often go to the battle and in the midst of it, go help the wounded.  Even operating in the middle of the chaos, right where the fallen comrade lay.  Even though he was brave, he knew that not all the wounded could be evacuated to proper surgical stations in the rear.  In an effort to solve the problem, he came up with the idea of using a light transport vehicle to reduce response time and increase survival.  Larrey decided that what he needed was a horse drawn carriage that would be light, swift, and very robust so that it could rapidly and efficiently attend and evacuate causalities from the battlefield.  This wagon would also need sufficient padding and suspension for a comfortable ride for the wounded man.  This wagon latter became known as the “Flying Ambulance”.


Larry and his fellow medics knew of the danger involved.  They would often have to go into the battle to rescue the wounded.  This was before the Red Cross symbol or the Geneva Conventions and on several occasions, his colleagues were killed.  On many occasions as a military surgeon, he would be forced to defend himself and his patients.  Armed only with a light sword and pistol he fought bravely.  These acts of courage resulted in much respect for him from the wounded, the soldiers, and even the Enemy.  He was sort of a celebrity status to his patients.


During these early battles, Larrey adopted a new system in treating the wounded.  This system was to become the Triage system still used by the EMS today.  This system worked based on the severity of injury, not rank.  It also emphasized that the critically injured should operated first and as soon as possible.  Larrey correctly theorized that operations should be done within an hour of receiving the patient.  This is because when the patient is still in shock, the muscles are relaxed, there is lower blood pressure, and the area around the wound is numb.  If you were to operate within this hour, the amputation would be shorter, easier, cleaner, safer, and less painful; plus, it would led to speedy recovery. When the wounded was destined to die, to save valuable resources, they would be given alcohol to comfort them to they passed away; whilst resources were spent on those with a chance of living.  Larrey was a humane and skilled surgeon who knew if the patient had a good chance of living or not.


In February 1794, Larrey returned to Paris and married his 21 year old sweetheart, Charlotte Elisabeth Laville.  They both had two children.  Larrey was a devoted father and husband to them and wrote constantly.  Soon after he was ordered to serve under Napoleon Bonaparte who commanded the French army in Italy.


In May 1798 Larrey left Italy and continued with the French Army to Egypt, returning to Paris in January 1802 where he continued teaching at the Val de Grace.  In May 1804, after taking control of France, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor.  He then instituted the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) medal, France’s highest military award.  Larrey was then made an Inspector-General of the Army Medical Services and Chief Surgeon to the crack Imperial Guard, Napoleon’s elite troops.




In order to conquer Europe, Napoleon organized his forces into what was referred to as the Grand Army.  Larrey and his ambulance divisions accompanied the army as the primary medical support.  Larrey was an incredible surgeon, being able to cut off an arm in 17 seconds and a leg in one minute.  It was said that during the Battle of Borodino in Russia, he performed over 200 operations in 24 hours!


In October 1809, Larrey was again honored for his contributions and was made Baron of the Imperial French Court.  Later in 1812, Larrey went along with the Grand Army on its long and disastrous invasion of Russia where the French eventually captured Moscow.


As the retreating Grand Army crossed two narrow bridges over the partly frozen Beresina River, one of the bridges collapsed under the weight, creating much panic in those soldiers on the other side who were under attack from the Russians.  As the remaining bridge became jammed with soldiers, cannons, horses, and carriages.  Among those still waiting to cross was Larrey, who had already made to the other side but went back to get more wounded.  Suddenly a voice cried out: “It’s Monsieur Larry.  He must be saved!” The panic was arrested and the Russians ignored as the soldiers realized that their hero was in danger.  “Save him who has saved us” was the catch-cry as Larrey was bodily carried hand over hand above the hands of the French soldiers to the safety of the far bank of the river.


After the Grand Army returned, Napoleon soon abdicated and went into exile on Elba in 1814.  Larrey returned to Paris in 1815 to work at the Imperial Guards Hospital.




Napoleon stayed on Elba for less than a year before he returned to France in March 1815, and retook political control.  This was not to go unknown to the Allies.  An combined British and Dutch army under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshall Prince Gebhard von Blucher stood to the north.  Napoleon marshaled his army, including the Imperial Guard together with Larrey, and marched to meet up with the British and Prussian armies at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium on June 17, 1805.


The French army was defeated and 52,000 soldiers from both sides were killed.  Larrey was known to almost all to be a hero and innocent man.  During the battle, Wellington ordered his men not to fire on Larrey or the ambulances, and even saluted Larrey. 


Nevertheless, Larrey was injured and captured by the Prussians.  Doomed to death by firing squad, an officer about to blindfold him immediately recognized Larrey.  For this officer was a surgeon himself and had attended one of Larrey’s lectures years ago.  So the officer untied Larrey and nursed him back to health.  He was taken before Prince Blucher who also knew of Larrey and had him set free.  The reason for this was that almost two years previous, Blucher’s son was wounded and captured by the French.  Larrey was the one that operated on him and saved his life.  For this, Prince Blucher was in eternal debt to Baron Larrey.


When he returned to France, he was lucky not to be arrested by the new government who was arresting many of Napoleon’s supporters.  Despite Larry’s devotion to his men, many of the medals awarded to him were revoked.  Though he retained his role as chief surgeon at the Guard’s Hospital, where he continued to devote his efforts to the care of wounded veterans.


In 1830, another revolution swept through Paris against the King.  The mob soon turned up the Guard’s hospital to kill all the veterans and still their weapons.  Incensed at this threat to his patients, Larrey stormed to the front gate and faced the impending rioters alone.  He shouted scornfully at them “What do you want?” “My  wounded?” “How dare you threaten them!” “Now clear off!”


There was a moment of stunned silence as the rebels recognized the irate man before them to be one of their most respected and admired heroes of the Napoleonic wars in which many of them had served alongside Baron Larrey.  In no time at all, there was great cheering in the crowds.  Larrey agreed to provide the rioters with weapons as long as they did no harm to the wounded.  Then the crowd dispersed from the gates.


Larrey was later appointed by the King Louis as medical director of a large veteran’s hospital called Hotel des Invalides, where he devoted the remainder of his life to the long term care of wounded veterans. 


During his own time, he was one of the most popular surgeons and wrote many memoirs and important medical texts during his very comfortable and wealthy later life.


When Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena, Napoleon was reputed to have said recognizing his personal physician and loyal friend, “Larrey was the most honest man and the best friend to the soldier that I ever knew.”  In his testament, the Emperor rewarded his courageous surgeon “To the French Army’s Surgeon General, Baron Larrey, I leave a sum of 100,000 francs.  He is the worthiest man I ever met.”


Larrey died on July 25, 1842 and the ripe old age of 74.


Larrey was later buried in a Paris cemetery with thousands of mourners at his funeral.  Larrey’s last wish was to be buried in the gardens of the Invalides, but they couldn’t bury him there since he was only a surgeon, not a soldier.  He was later reburied at the Garden of Invalides with full military honors.


Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey has affected our society in many ways.  He was world-renown during his time and still is in major surgical circles.  His inventions and devotion has made the world we live in a safer and more enjoyable place.
-- Abe Schreier

MARCH 2005
I must recognize the article in JEPHC about Baron Larrey by Phil Nestor for much of this Information and the basic format.

Term Project
Abraham Schreier
Mr. Crowley
Honors World History
March 2005