Musing of a Contemporary Pathologist

Medical Trivia #2: Cyrano de Bergerac and microscopy

In 1897 the French poet and dramatist, Edmond Eugène Alexis Rostand (1868-1918) wrote what would be his most popular work, the romantic play Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand was born in Marseille and his father was a renowned economist and poet. Rostand studied literature, philosophy and history at the Collège Stanislas in Paris. Initially devoted to writing comedies, in mid-career he wrote a number of serious plays, including La Princesse Lointaine (1895) and La Samaritaine (1897), both of which starred Sarah Bernhardt.

The drama about Cyrano de Bergerac was a great success, playing for more than 300 nights. In 1902 Rostand became the youngest writer elected to the Acadèmie francaise. He was married to the poet and playwright Rosemonde-Étienette Gerard. They lived, with their two sons, in the French Basque country, where they moved in search of relief for Rostand’s chronic pleuritic pain which may have been due to tuberculosis. Rostand died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and is buried in the Cimitière de Marseille.

In 1950 Stanley Kramer (renowned for directing – The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nurenberg and what is arguably the funniest film ever made, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – and producing – High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, Ship of Fools – films in which strong social themes were emphasized) produced one of the best film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rostand’s play and Kramer’s film tell the (mostly) true story of Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), a renowned novelist, playwright, poet, writer of letters, swordsman and scientist who was born with an improbably large nose.

Cyrano de Bergerac woodcut

Cyrano’s nose was the subject of considerable mockery and, in the 17th century, he defended himself against the unwary few who would laugh at him by becoming a master swordsman, leaving more than one dead Frenchman behind. In legend, he singlehandedly defeated a hundred ruffians who dared to comment on his nose – all in a single street fight!

Cyrano is mostly a love story, at least in Rostand’s play if not in real life. Cyrano is deeply in love with the beautiful Roxane who considers Cyrano her closest friend and best advisor, but whose heart is with the mumbling, incompletely educated, exceedingly handsome and dashing young soldier Christian de Neuvillette. Roxane asks Cyrano for help in wooing Christian and, because Cyrano’s love for Roxane is so great and also because he believes she could never love anyone with a nose as grotesque as his, he agrees. Cyrano encourages Christian to write love letters to Roxane, which Cyrano dictates; they serve as an important part of the beautiful verse that makes up much of the play and the movies.

Despite the fact that the film was neither a popular nor a commercial success it remains one of the great American films, particularly because of the Academy Award-winning performance of the star, José Ferrer, but also for the intelligent and witty screenplay based on Brian Hooker’s 1923 free verse version of the story. Orson Welles also contributed to the writing. In Ferrer’s brilliant rendition the poetry of this action/comedy/romance film is almost mesmerizing and well worth seeing and hearing. There have been at least ten film or TV productions of Cyrano English language film version of Rostand’s play, although there were other European productions, including an outstanding 1990 French-Hungarian version starring Gerard Depardieu, who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for an Academy Award (exceedingly rare for a non-English speaking role). Other distinguished actors who have played Cyrano in English or French versions were James Mason (1938, a pioneering live television production), Claude Dauphin (1946), Christopher Plummer (1962), Peter Donat (1972), Derek Jacobi (1985), and Kevin Kline (2008). The Ferrer and Depardieu depictions are widely regarded as the finest.

Cyrano - Jose Ferrer poster

Cyrano – Jose Ferrer

Cyrano - Depardieu 2

Cyrano – Gerard Depardieu

There have also been a number of derivative, usually comedic

versions of the Cyrano story, only loosely based on the Rostand play, including Roxanne, starring the American entertainer Steve Martin.

Roxanne - Steve Martin

Roxanne – Steve Martin

How does all this relate to medicine and science?

Cyrano is far better known for the activities depicted in the Rostand story than for his scientific efforts but they were significant. He wrote two early classics of science fiction, L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon), 1657, and Les États et Empires due Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun), 1662, both published posthumously. In both works he provides ample evidence of his expertise in the use of the telescope which had only been invented a decade before his birth. There are many descriptions of the topography of the moon in some of his letters as well as a few accounts of his employing lenses to explore the microscopic world almost a half century before the 1675 development of the first reliable and high quality microscope by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) in Delft.

Was Cyrano the first microscopist? Not really. The principles of microscopy were recognized by Al-Hazen (965-1040) who wrote about refractive convex spheres and their ability to make an object seem larger. A thousand years before Al-Hazen, Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), the Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist and humorist, commented on the phenomenon of seeing letters enlarged when seen through a glass globe filled with water. In 1590, Zachariah Jansen and his son Johannes, in Amsterdam, experimented with multiple lenses placed in a tube, forerunners of both the telescope and microsope. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a German Jesuit scholar, once described as “the last man to know everything,” probably recognized bacteria but did not describe well the way in which he saw them. The scientists referred to as the “five classic microscopists were Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), in London; Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), in Amsterdam, who was probably the first to describe red blood cells; Leeuwenhoek, a lensmaker and prodigious and prolific investigator who is usually credited with being the inventor of the simple microscope; Robert Hooke (1635-1703), English inventor of the compound microscope and author of the first great textbook of microscopy, Micrographia (1665), and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), in Bologna, who contributed little to the development of the microscope but came to use it brilliantly to describe red blood cells, the capillaries of the lung, the structure of liver, kidney, skin, and much more, including the pioneering work in embryology; he is known as the ’father of embryology.’

Cyrano’s contributions to the story of microscope were decidedly minor but he seems to have been one of the first to use this wonderful tool – the microscope has been described by the science writer, Margaret Fournier, as one of the two most important ‘inventions’ of the 17th century, along with calculus. In our time the microscope is so commonplace few would think it on a scale with Newtonian calculus but it was as integral to establishing principles of accuracy and precision in the biologic world as the calculus was in mathematics and physics.

Eland CA. The Romance of the Microscope, 1921.
Fournier M. The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century, 1996.
Glassie J. A Man of Misconceptions – The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, 2012.
Harris H. The Birth of the Cell, 1999.
Jardine L. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, 2003.
Keller EF. Making Sense of Life – Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines 2002.
Wilson C. The Invisible World – Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope, 1995.

6 Responses to “Medical Trivia #2: Cyrano de Bergerac and microscopy”

  1. Herb Goldberg says:

    Thorough , enlightening and entertaining!

  2. Herb Goldberg says:

    Thorough, enlightening and entertaining

  3. Gil Simon says:

    I seem to recall a Malpighian something or other in my studies long long ago. Is there or is that another one of my cloudy memories?

    • Gil, you are correct. Malpighi was one of the very greatest scientists who ever lived. In addition to the appellation “father of embryology” he was also called the “father of histology” and the “father of microscopic anatomy.” His name has been tacked on to a number of structures but you probably remember the Malpighian corpuscles of the spleen, or the Malpighian pyramids of the kidneys as well as the Malpighian layer of the skin. He also discovered the capillaries which allowed for a morphologic explanation of how the left-sided (arterial) circulation of the body connected with the right-sided (venous) circulation. Harvey provided a physiologic proof of the circulation and Malpighi provided an anatomic proof.

  4. suha mishalani says:

    Enlightening,as always!
    Thank you for including the list of amazing references.

  5. John Craig says:

    found again and read with great pleasure. Having visited Rostand Basque home some years ago, I was happy to read more about his life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *