A French ‘Indianist’ Doctor



Professor Jean LAPRESLE, the last of the great French Neurologists and/or Neuro-Pathologists                 

            [Feb. 3, 1921 – Dec. 2, 2000]


Professor Jean LAPRESLE



An Indianist  (Indophile’ is too meek a word for him) in his own right, he visited the Southern States, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, twice a year, for decades and came to love the people and place to such an extent that there was little worth knowing about the place and its history or culture that he couldn’t hold forth upon. He read the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Naipaul and Rushdie, and constantly plied every Indian he happened to come across - clients and callers alike - at every opportunity, with pressing questions about the country right up to his last days. His Indian interlocutors never failed to be filled with admiration for his vast and consuming knowledge of the area. His thirst for Indiana was insatiable. He asked for advice like some novice on what books to read and even gently sometimes tried to defend some book or some author he had read with great care and absorption. He would go to great extents just to find out the right name of a tree he remembered out there – through precise descriptions - in the sub-continent. And yet he was an apt and informed critic of much that passed over the heads of the indigenes.


Professor Marie-Germaine Bousser whose eloquent and touching eulogy of her mentor (on May 4, 2001 at the Société Médicale des Hôpitaux de Paris) featured in this volume talks of his intimate knowledge and appreciation of Asian art and culture.

In love with Asia as a whole, India was nevertheless his country of choice. "Eternal India, Mother of all Wisdom" is how he referred to the sub-continent in his farewell oration as President of the Society for Neurology in 1985. He has been to India some fifteen times: athwart Jaisalmer and Konarak, down Kashmir to Kerala, with a preference however for Southern India where the exuberance he encountered enchanted him." .


Page One of Professor Marie-Germaine's "eulogy"



Page Two of Professor Bousser's "Eulogy"


To corroborate this particular fascination for Dravidians and to testify to his enormous 'neurological and extraneurological' knowledge, she cites an apposite anecdote: "One of his friends, Professor Wadia from Bombay, told me recently: 'I really liked having Jean Lapresle pay us a visit, for I always learnt something more about my own country.'"

       His one wish to serve as a consultant after retirement – without remuneration, of course – in Tamil Nadu never came to pass.


 There’s nothing more restful than to slump into an easy chair along a Kerala beach and listen to the wind rustling the palm fronds,  the distant chatter of fisher-folk mixed with the sound of swooping gulls and tumbling waves - all gently wafting up the hotel verandah.

      A fleeting cataclysmic gasp would slip through imperceptibly parted lips. Then without heaving a longing sigh, his eyes would let escape in that instant – in that infinitely suffering lapse of a moment – a pipe-dream of an experience that might have come true in a distant though then fast-drifting-apart past.

       A towering lifelong bachelor of distinguished bearing and manners and whose perhaps “only” non-professional diversion, one might rightly divine, was Indian !


Professor Jean Lapresle



The Solitary Oak on Mount Kremlin-Bicêtre


                                                        T. Wignesan


On Bicêtre Mount a stately oak did spread its unmeshed 

     boughs to swarms of sparrows beating retreat             

To turtle-doves and flapping pigeon-mates a frolicksome


Where now on thunder-split crutches hop the mocking  


Its black upturned tail uppity down high-domed arches’

     smooth-shorn limbs

Desolate within chilled-threaded casements of fading


Sleek crows guard the sentinel post where gentle souls

      tread lonesome


Once his benign fiery eye caught the tame light in lame

    downcast distress

Novice and apprentis sorciers sought the shelter of his 

    umbrella wing

The charge-nurse at his beck and call

Under the official seal of his high personal chair


Now the lordly craftsman called to lay down his tools in

     honorary quack contempt

By some aging loyal birds    too meek to fly away

Too lame to avoid the headlong charge down tearing fate

Had him appear in white blouson for the nonce’s sake


No nurse to jump at the phone’s end 

No student his ears peeled to every question

No professorial stamp at his command


“You know he takes no new patients…”

The voice trailing hoarse and dead



Carting rough brown bulky dossiers in his failing arms



     A Visitor in his home

Nay  A  thief in his fiefdom

He stalks a room    any room for a moment’s reprieve

The hand now shaky

The date a tussle with memory

Then the long unnoticed wait at the central desk

To ask for his patient the next bi-annual appointment


            Like a patient 

A whole life ministering to other personal needs


“When you no more have the charge of the place…”

His eyes want to plead in lieu of apology


Then abruptly the bi-annual rendez-vous is blocked

No excuse    no reason is proffered

Only by chance you surmise

              The frail fallen oak lies limp in some forsaken lot


Paris, August 1, 2004


P.S. Just to say I wasn’t his patient. I used to accompany someone else to his place.


Professor Lapresle’s brilliant career-data: [I owe the details of his bio-data to his twin brother Dr. Claude Lapresle and to his brilliant student Professor Marie-Germaine BOUSSER, Head, Department of Neurology, Hôpital Lariboisière, 2, rue Ambroise Paré, 75010 Paris. I’ll also be including in the near future “a memorial oration” by Dr. Bousser in this volume.]


Born in Paris on February 3rd 1921, together with his twin brother Claude, both of them finished their last four years’ of schooling at the prestigious Lycée Louis Le Grand, France’s elite lycée. And both went on to qualify, like their younger brother Pierre, as doctors at the Sorbonne’s renowned medical school. Dr. Claude Lapresle, an eminent specialist himself, is at the moment serving as Professeur Honoraire à l'INSTITUT PASTEUR and Médecin Honoraire (Honorary Doctor) des Hôpitaux de Paris (of the Hospitals in Paris).


Professor Jean Lapresle passed away on December 2nd 2000 in harness.


After graduating in 1946, he went on to obtain his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1950. His dissertation, La porphyrie aiguë intermittente. Etude anatomo-clinique was published in the same year by the Librarie Arnette, Paris. Even as a young internee, he was regularly contributing scholarly research papers in collaboration with other French medical greats, such as, Jean Bernard and Raymond Garcin.


By 1961, he became Professor (agrégé) of Neurology and Psychiatry and was made a full professor without a chair in 1969. In 1972, he was appointed Professeur Titulaire à Titre Personnel at the Faculty of Medicine of the South. Head of the  Department (Service) of Neurology at the Centre Hospitalier de Kremlin-Bicêtre, in Paris, where he continued to serve as a Consultant right up to his demise, though in the final year his visits to the hospital continued to diminish.


 Among his distinctions:


Médaille d’Honneur (Medal of Honour)  des Epidémies (1948)

Médaille d’Argent (Silver Medal) of the Faculty of Medicine, Paris (1951)

Prix Pierre Marie (Pierre Marie Prize) of the National Academy of Medicine (1954)

Prix Robert Bing of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (1968)


General-Secretary of the VIth International Congress of Neuropathology, Paris (1970)

Member (1970-74) and Vice-President (1974-78) of the Executive Committee of the International Society of Neuropathology


Visiting Fellow in Neurology, Columbia University, New York (1950-51)

Visiting Professor of Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine New York (1969)

Visiting Professor at the Veterans General Hospital and the National Yang-Ming Medical College, Taipei (1982)


He also undertook Technical Cooperation Missions to MALAYSIA (1971), TUNIS (1964, 1975, & 1976), and SINGAPORE (1976).



By 1984, he had already published, both under his own signature and those of his collaborators, some 196 research papers in scholarly journals, with a predilection for the Revue Neurologique.  Cf. Notice sur les Titres et Travaux Scientifiques du Professeur Jean Lapresle. Paris : Masson, 1984, 16p.



Professor Lapresle’s contributions to his specialties, according to his own classification, come under three headings:


1.  Thoroughly researched themes (etudes approfondies):

a)                          his inaugural dissertation, followed up by neuro-psychiatric manifestations of porphyries;

b)                         cerebral lesions of intoxication oxycarbonée;

c)                          neuro-muscular and psychiatric determinations of maladies de collagèneé périartérite noueuse, dermatomyosite et polymyosite, lupus érythémateux aigu disséminé and more generally neuro-muscular pathology, especially taken on from the biopsy of muscles which is his very special contribution in neurological practice;

d)                         atrophies cérébelleuses,  dégénérescences spino-cérébelleuses, névrites hypertrophiques primitives.


2.  Articles based on clinical and /or anatomical observations which form a corpus of didactical material.

3.  Articles which constitute a field of personal research which contribute towards a better understanding of certain facts, such as, in the realms of

a)                          classification of méningiomes;

b)                         les douleurs médullaires de type spino-thalamique observées après cordotomie antéro-latérale ;

c)                          le syndrome thalamique à topographie chéiro-orale et les syndromes thalamiques focaux ;

d)                         la dystasie aréflexique héréditaire de Roussy-Lévy ;

e)                          les ramollissements de la moelle ;

f)                           pathologie du fuseau neuro-musculaire ;

g)                         étude ultrastructurale des lésions élémentaires du muscle et du nerf périphérique ;

h)                         le couple olivo-dentelé et la voie dento-olivaire ;

i)                           l’hypotrophie musculaire en clinique neurologique ;

j)                           pathologie vasculaire des nerfs crâniens.  


T. Wignesan – August 1st., 2004 – Paris



Text Box: The Asianists’ Asia, Vol. III (August-December 2004) Paris, France: ISSN 1298-0358 (Assn. n° 0941011951)
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Edited by T.Wignesan for  Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques
© T.Wignesan 2004: Paris - France
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