Tronchin, Théodore

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Tronchin, Théodore (1709-1781): Genevan doctor.


Théodore Tronchin was a Genevan doctor who gained fame across Europe as an advocate for the smallpox inoculation. Tronchin’s influential family included the Genevan magistrates Tronchin, François and Tronchin, Jean-Robert. Although Tronchin’s father wanted his son to enter the clergy, while attending school in Cambridge, England in the 1720s, Théodore decided to pursue a career in medicine. In England, he trained with Richard Mead, who was the personal doctor of George II. In 1728, Tronchin relocated to Leiden, Netherlands and studied under the famous physician Boerhaave, Hermann. Tronchin earned his medical degree in 1730 and moved to Amsterdam. He served as President of the College of Medicine in Amsterdam before returning to his native Geneva in 1754. There, he held the position of Chair of Medicine at the Academy. In 1766, he moved to Paris, where he served as the personal physician for the Duc d’Orléans.

Tronchin’s approach to treatment heavily emphasized preventative care. He encouraged patients to exercise, practice dietary moderation, and increase air circulation in their homes. The weight that Tronchin gave to exercise led to the coining of the term “tronchiner,” which members of fashionable society in eighteenth-century France used to indicate a walk taken specifically for its health benefits.

Tronchin was not a prodigious writer, publishing one treatise on colic in 1757 and penning a short article on inoculation for the Encyclopédie. Tronchin earned his reputation not from his writings, but rather because of his famous patients, which included the salonnière Mme d’Épinay, Voltaire, and Philippe Egalité, duc d’Orléans. In 1756, Tronchin was invited by d’Orléans to Paris to inoculate his two children against smallpox. Unlike England, where the smallpox inoculation was generally accepted, France resisted the new practice. Tronchin’s success in inoculating the two royal children solidified his fame across Europe.

Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de was another of Tronchin’s famous patients. Voltaire moved to Geneva in 1754, which was the same year that Tronchin resettled in his patrie. Voltaire frequently praised Tronchin’s medical abilities to his correspondence, which significantly contributed to Tronchin’s international reputation. While the two men were in Geneva, they maintained a friendship, though Tronchin did not attend or approve of the theatricals that Voltaire frequently hosted in his homes in and around Geneva.

It was also while both men lived in Geneva that d’Alembert’s article on Geneva appeared in the Encyclopédie. The article was controversial in Geneva because it claimed that the city’s clergy were Socinians and that Geneva would benefit from the establishment of a theater. Tronchin served as secretary for the commission established to respond to the article, and he wrote to both Diderot, Denis and Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’ to request a retraction. Both men refused.

Although Théodore, along with other members of the Tronchin family, supported Voltaire’s efforts during the Calas affair, his involvement in Genevan politics was less welcomed. During the 1760s, the city’s citizens and the Natifs (permanent residents who did not have citizenship) launched separate struggles against Geneva’s oligarchic government. As a member of the ruling patriciate, Tronchin’s resented Voltaire’s support of the citizens and Natifs. By the 1770s, their friendship had ended.

Tronchin also briefly maintained a friendship with Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Tronchin met Rousseau while he was treating the latter’s patron, Mme d’Épinay, in Paris in 1756. A year later, Tronchin arranged for Rousseau to be offered the position of librarian at the Bibliothèque de Genève; Rousseau politely refused. The relationship between Tronchin and Rousseau began to sour when the latter broke off his relationship with d’Épinay. Rousseau’s role in instigating the political troubles in Geneva in the 1760s permanently severed the relationship.


Further Reading:


Martine Deschamps, Voltaire et les Tronchin, 2005.


Franks and Serena Kafker, eds. The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie, 1988.


Henry Tronchin, Un médecin du XVIIIe siècle: Théodore Tronchin, 1906.


Carol L. White


Clayton State University

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