Tissot’s most famous work, the Avis au people sur sa santé, includes a long list of questions that a patient should be able to answer about their ailment. These questions look familiar to us, for they are very similar to those that our own family doctor might ask. Given this, one might wonder why Tissot felt the need to include this information.
A closer look at a letter from Madame La Millière, written in November 1767, might give us some hints. Madame de La Millière had already been in contact with Tissot before writing this letter, but even given the fact that he was likely aware of her case, there are many gaps in her narrative. Even the word ‘narrative’ is itself problematic. Narrative, to me, implies coherence, structure and flow… a crafted piece of work that draws the reader in. This letter, however, jumps from topic to topic, seemingly without reason.
It seems, at first glance to be about arm pain. Then it’s about leg pain and fainting. And suddenly it’s about stomach problems. By the end, we’re back to arms. And in the middle of it all, she takes a moment to pass on her doctor’s regards, noting that he has performed many successful inoculations in the previous months.
The letter is both highly descriptive and frustratingly inscrutable. Thus, we learn that she has lost the use of her left arm and now fears that she’ll lose the use of her other arm. We learn about the pains in her legs and the kind of treatment she has been following. We learn the name of her doctor and hear a bit about his suggestions. We learn when pains began and ended. All of these details correspond to Tissot’s suggested guidelines.
But descriptive vocabulary is decidedly limited, and for a twenty-first century reader, the words ‘soufrante’ [sic] and ‘douleurs’ wear quickly. How many nuances might these words have contained in the mid-eighteenth century? What might Madame have meant when she chose to use them – seven times [douleurs] in the course of a 700 word letter?
Other language, too, is vague, leaving the reader many questions: when Madame states that she has ‘lost’ an arm and is almost at the point of ‘losing’ her legs, what does she mean? Why does she link her digestive problems with physical pain in her arms and legs? And how, if she is experiencing such pain in her arms, is she able to write the good doctor a three page letter?