Letter by J. Bleuland (1756-1838) to G. de Sénégra

Bleuland and Louis Napoleon

It looks like an insignificant piece of paper, a letter of less than ten lines, nothing more than a thank you note for an appointment. However, sender and addressee are not the least in rank: Jan Bleuland, famous physician and twice rector of Utrecht University writing to the Officer of the Royal Household of king Louis Napoleon. Nowadays the later palace of the king in Utrecht houses the University Library City Centre. So this is a letter with some symbolic value, but also containing a number of other remarkable aspects – and written in a period in which a tragic event took place.

Hospital, cabinet and museum

The Groene Hart Ziekenhuis Bleuland at the Bleuland road in Gouda; the Bleulandkabinet in the Utrecht University Museum, containing an extensive collection of skeletons, foetuses in alcohol and wax preparations of body parts; and the similar Anatomisch Museum Bleulandinum in the Stratenum of University Medical Center Utrecht, they are all named after Jan Bleuland. His pioneering preparations were acquired by Utrecht University by Royal Decree of King Willem I and are still popular as teaching material. Bleuland’s talents as a physician and medical researcher were not only recognised by his patients and the learned community, but also the first King of Holland wanted him to be part of his entourage. But here it appears something went not quite according to plan.

The lame king

Lodewijk Napoleon

‘The lame king’ he was called in popular speech, and a month after he became King of Holland in June 1806, he left to go on a cure in Wiesbaden where he was to stay until September (Evers 1941, 20; Van der Burg 2007, 63). Actually, Louis Napoleon had not really felt like becoming king of a cold and wet land. In the winter of 1805/1806 he had visited the Batavian Republic and his health had deteriorated right away. At their wits’ end his physicians had him wear the chemise of a scabies sufferer to urge the evil juices to leave his body. (Kikkert 2006, 66). And as for his wife Hortense: she did not want to wave goodbye to France, her family, friends and court life. But emperor Napoleon Bonaparte knew no mercy, also elsewhere thrones were ascended by family members or confidants, and it was strategically important that Holland should be governed by his younger brother.

Surrounded by physicians

In Holland the court of Louis Napoleon was surrounded by much ceremony. The royal household counted eight departments, including a Medical Service (Service de Santé). In February 1807, apart from French doctor Claude Lafisse, another two physicians and three consulting physicians were appointed by royal decree. The latter were specialists who could be called in when necessary. One of them was the Utrecht professor and twice rector of the university Matthias van Geuns (1735-1817), who is particularly known for promoting public hygiene. Also a head surgeon was appointed, the Frenchman Bruno Giraud (Van Heiningen 2006). For the palace in The Hague a separate house surgeon was appointed. On 18 February 1807 also three consulting surgeons were appointed: : Eduard SandifortSebald Justinus Brugmans en Jan Bleuland (Christiaans 1995, 527).

The three surgeons

Eduard Sandifort

This is an illustrious trio. Sandifort (1742-1814) was Professor of Medicine at the University of Leiden and is sometimes called the father of the pathological anatomy. Also Brugmans (1763-1819) was Professor of Medicine at the same university as well as professor in three other disciplines: Botany, Chemistry and Natural History. But he was most famous for organizing military health care, first in the Batavian Republic, later under Louis Napoleon. Brugmans had already accompanied Louis on his first trip to Holland and had shown him his collection in Leiden (De Munck 1997, 137; Van Heiningen 2004). Jan Bleuland (1756-1838) had been a student of Sandifort and had made a name for himself as a passionate and skilled physician in Gouda. He published his anatomical and tissue research, among other things based on his observations through a microscope, with coloured-in pictures, (Bleuland 1784 to 1797). His pioneering work earned him an appointment of Professor of Medicine at the University of Harderwijk of which he was rector for a period of one year (Meter 1949; Visser 1996).

Bleuland in Utrecht


In 1795 the young professor of Medicine Steven Jan van Geuns died, and his father, the above mentioned Matthias van Geuns, nominated Bleuland as his successor. Bleuland not only used Latin when he taught his students, but also Dutch to teach the surgeons and midwives of the city. In addition to obstetrics he also had surgery and osteology (skeleton skills) as teaching commitment. He also gave public anatomical lectures and was a medical practitioner. In 1799-1800 he also became rector of Utrecht University, which shows that he was held in high regard in the Utrecht academic community. It is in this light that we should consider his appointment as consulting surgeon of the king.

Bleuland’s letter

Bleuland’s response to his appointment reads as follows:

Utrecht le 30 mai 1807

A M: de Senegra Grand Maitre de la Maison du Roi


Je ne viens que de recevoir le 27 du courant votre lettre gracieuse du 12 Mai, par la quelle il vous a plié de m’informer de l’ampliation du decret de la Majeste en date 19 fevrier 1807 contenant la volonté de la Majesté de me gratifier en ma qualité de chirurgijn consultant d’un traitement annuel de neuv cent florin payable par trimestre a commencer du 19 fevrier; je ne sais à quoi attribuer ce retard, que m’a empêche de repondre plutôt a cette agreable nouvelle.

Je m’empresse donc de vous temoigner toute ma reconnaissance de l’information, que vous aller bien voulu me donner prennant la liberté de vous solliciter d’assurer la Majesté de mes sentiments d’obligation pour cette nouvelle preuve de ses faveurs – me sentant toujours disposé a repondre avec tout le zéle possible à l’obligation que cette qualité et la confiance honnorante de mon Roi m’impose.

J’ai l’honneur d’etre dans les sentiments du plus profond respect


Votre tres humble serviteur

J. Bleuland


Utrecht, 30 May 1807

To mister De Sénégra, grand master of the royal household


It was not before the 27th of the present month that I had the honour of receiving your kind letter of 12 May in which you included the missive to inform me, together with a copy of the decree of His Majesty, dated 19 February 1807, of the wish of His Majesty to reward me in my capacity as consulting surgeon with an annual salary of nine hundred guilders, to be paid by trimester, starting on 19 February; I don’t know what caused the delay which prevented me to respond to this pleasant news earlier.

That is why I hasten to convince you of my overall gratitude for the information you were so gracious to send me and to forgive my boldness in asking you to ensure his Majesty of my feelings of obligation towards this new show of his grace – I am always prepared to meet the obligations with the utmost dedication which such a quality and honourable trust of my King imposes on me.

I have the honour of having feelings of the deepest respect,


Your very humble servant

Jan Bleuland

In the dark

At first sight this may be no more than a formal letter of thanks, but at a closer look a few remarkable things come to light. It looks like Bleuland still had no knowledge of his appointment. A summary of the decree in question of 19 February had afterwards appeared in several local newspapers, however not in the Utrechtse Courant. Or he could have heard the news from his colleagues, for instance from Geuns or Sandifort. But the letter shows that it is an agreable nouvelle for Bleuland, and it is clear that he has not had contact before with Officer De Sénégra about his appointment.

French indifference?

It is not clear why De Sénégra waited until 12 May to inform Bleuland about his appointment and about what was expected of him. Moreover, it took the letter two weeks to travel from The Hague to Bleuland’s address in Utrecht. Bleuland must have been highly pleased with an annual salary of 900 guilders: royal head surgeon Giraud as professor of Practical Surgery at the Athenaeum Illustre of Amsterdam earned 1000 guilders a year (Van Heiningen 2006, 400).Yet it takes Bleuland three days to send his response.

French without an accent

Bleuland writes his letter in a quick but legible hand. He knows how to formulate a correct letter, with longwinded sentences – indeed, the main body of the whole letter consists of two sentences only. But he does occasionally forget his accents, for instance in the case of the receiver’s name De Sénégra, and in décretMajestéagréabletémoigner and être. The spelling of honnoraire is old-fashioned, and neuv is incorrect (cf. Marin 1710 and 1793). Also the Dutch word chirurgijn is remarkable. However, there is no reason to assume that this is a draft letter. In spite of his flowery words of gratitude, this ‘very humble servant’ did not aim at earning a first for language.

Knight Bleuland

In his lettter Bleuland refers to a new show of the king’s grace. Undoubtedly he here refers to the fact that he had already been appointed as knight in the Order of the Union on 1 January 1807. This took place in a veritable rain of titles because on that day no less than 233 knights were appointed – the first group after the Order had been established. Sandifort never had that honour. Apparently Bleuland had such a reputation that Louis already wanted him to part of his staff. Maybe not surprising as his health was a permanent source of concern for the king. His complaints also intrigued his contemporaries and later researchers which led to rather wild theories which include excessive masturbation, obsessive jealousy, syphilis and homosexual tendencies towards his brother. Venereal disease is the most likely theory (Jones 1913-1914; Nieuwenhuijzen 1942).

The death of Napoleon Charles

12 May is exactly a week after 5 May. On the morning of that day the eldest son of Louis and Hortense, Napoleon Charles (Karel) died of croup. He was nearly four and a half years old when a viral infection, probably caused by the measles or diphtheria, caused his death (De Munck 1997, 168). According to Hortense the best doctors of the kingdom were present, but none of them knew what ailed the boy (Hanoteau 1927, I, 287-8). This is confirmed by another source, but it also says that Brugmans was the one who did know what was the matter (Garnier 1823, 75; Coppens 2006, 243). In the 19th century croup was often a fatal disease: the swellings caused by the infection and the viscous phlegm led to suffocation. Even Charles, who was regarded by Napoleon himself as his potential heir (Coppens 2006, 162-3, 180-1, 194), did not escape this fate.

The absence of Bleuland

Hortense and Napoleon Charles

The death of Charles came as an enormous shock to the royal couple. A completely lethargic Hortense left for Laeken in Belgium on 13 May where her mother, the empress Josephine, already was, and next she travelled to a health resort in the Pyrenees. Louis first went to Het Loo, and left for Paris on the 29th, to follow Hortense at a later stage. This means that he was no longer in the Netherlands when Bleuland sent his letter. So it would seem that Bleuland was not present at Charles’ sickbed, and judging from his letter he was unaware of the matter. Probably Bleuland could not have been of any help to the young prince, even though he had been present. But possibly it is no coincidence that De Sénégra only writes to him after the tragedy had taken place. It looks like the Officer of the Royal Household had failed.

The king comes to Utrecht

In the summer of 1807, probably for reasons of health, Louis decided to take up residence in Utrecht. In great haste the houses at the Drift and the Wittevrouwenstraat were bought and joined together to make a palace. As early as 7 August the plans of Johan David Zocher were submitted to De Sénégra who only presented the design, accompanied with his remarks, to the king a month later (Evers 1941, 35). Late October the King arrived in Utrecht, but first he moved in to the Paushuis and it was not until 8 January that he took up residence in the palace. A new court protocol of 146 pages was printed; Etiquette du Palais Royal (Evers 1941, 61-64, 68). The Knights of the Order of the Union were invited for a dinner on 16 February (Evers 1941, 70).

The dismissal of De Sénégra

It looks like Louis’ stay in Utrecht marked a new beginning, and the dismissal of De Sénégra in November 1807 seems in line with this development. Louis thought that the Officer of the Royal Household was a spy for the Emperor (Gosliga 2005, 81) and accused him of embezzlement. Louis had known Gabriel D’Alichoux de Sénégra (1774-after 1814) since the days at the artillery school in Valance where De Sénégra had been captain of the regiment of Grenoble in 1789 (Parijs, Archives Nationale, 112AP, Sénégra).

The Utrecht Medical Service

Now that Louis resided in Utrecht his Medical Service was also reformed and the Utrecht physicians Leonardus C. E. E. van Cooth and Nicolaas Cormelis de Fremery were appointed; the latter had sorted out what was the most healthy drinking water for the king. It looks like Van Geuns became the favourite physician of the king (Evers 1941, 118-121). In September 1809, when the king was long since living in Amsterdam, he is even recognised as the king’s médécin consultant (Christiaans 1995, 527). Again Bleuland is absent in all this. But possibly there are (archive) sources which can shed light on the contacts between Louis and Bleuland,

Cuvier’s judgement

For some time now Louis and Napoleon had not got on, and in 1810 Holland became part of the French Empire. Utrecht University was reduced to an école secundaire. Louis left the Low Countries for good. Commissioned by the emperor, the geologist and pathologist Georges Cuvier and diplomat François Noël evaluated the Dutch education system and submitted a critical report (Van der Burg 2012). However, Bleuland was seen as the only Utrecht professor of international stature and one of the most proficient European anatomists (Visser 1996, 55). After his death, Bleuland was commended as a pioneer in the comparative anatomy (De Fremery 1840, 33).

Coloured-in pictures

It may be called strange that no biography has been published yet about Bleuland, clearly a man of distinction. After all, he led an active and important academic life, and was also active as an art collector. The short studies of Meter (1949) and Visser (1996) put emphasis on his pioneering work as pathologist, of which the results were published in books of which most have now been digitised (see below under ‘Further reading’). Who now looks at, for example, his Otium academicum from 1828 may still be surprised about the exceptional quality of the coloured-in pictures.

Author: Bart Jaski, May 2015