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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 4.

Week 4 – Curious

This deliberately ambiguous prompt took me back to a very strange entry in a burial register we found while researching my husband’s family in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. The minister of the village church at Les Ponts-de-Martel had been forced to revise his burial schedule and, rather than just crossing out the details he had already recorded, added an intriguing explanation:

"Un fils d'Auguste Perrenoud et de sa femme, Augustine née Huguenin, mort le 15 janvier 1816 âgé de 8 heures, enseveli le 20 dit.

PS: Le fils d'Auguste Perrenoud qui devait être enseveli aujourd'huy 20e Janvier ne le sera pas, parce que Monsieur de Pury, Docteur en médecine, est venu l'enlever en suite d'un ordre du Gouvernement, à cause des difformités remarquables de son corps."

Translation :

"A son of Auguste Perrenoud and his wife Augustine née Huguenin, died on 15th January 1916 aged 8 hours and was buried on the 20th January.

PS: The son of Auguste Perrenoud who should have been buried today, 20th January, will not be, because Monsieur de Pury, doctor of medicine, took him away in accordance with an order from the government, on account of the remarkable deformities of his body.”

The destiny of the little corpse is unfortunately easy to imagine: to be preserved in a glass bottle as a teaching aid, or - more likely - to be dissected in order to learn more about his body. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw major advances in anatomy and pathology throughout Europe using human dissection, but although the practice was authorised under certain conditions, corpses were in short supply, leading to the exploitation of any possible loopholes - not to mention the far more sinister practice of grave robbing. I learned that infant corpses were particularly valued because they could be used to illustrate child development or to show the nervous and vascular systems to students, and some doctors consequently paid poor families for the bodies of children who were stillborn or died in infancy.[1]

In this instance, the doctor had an order from the local government allowing him to take the child’s body, which seems surprising on the face of it. However, after a little investigation, I believe it was case of him using his position and influence for his own (and medicine’s) benefit.

I believe that “Monsieur de Pury” was Henri de Pury (b. 1776 in Neuchâtel), who studied medicine at Erfurt in Germany before returning to his home town where his family formed part of the local elite. By 1813 he held the post of Town Surgeon, served on the boards of various hospitals and charities, and was a member of the “Grand Conseil” – the cantonal parliament. It’s hardly surprising that a man in his position would be able to obtain an authorisation to take a “suitable” body for study.

I have no idea whether this was a common practice locally at the time, as without the minister’s fortuitous note in the register there would have been no obvious record of the child’s existence. We haven’t come across any other annotations of this type at Les Ponts-de-Martel or anywhere else in the canton to date.

The short-lived boy was Auguste and Augustine’s third child, and they would go on to have a further ten, only one of whom died in infancy, and who this time was buried in the regular fashion. From this I take some comfort in deducing that the baby's malformations were not genetic, and that the family only went through this situation once.


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