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Courvoisier's Law

  • If in the presence of obstructive jaundice the gall bladder is palpable the underlying cause is unlikely to be gallstone.
  • J Courvoisier (1843-1918) Professor of Surgery, Basel, born in Basel where his father was a merchant and his mother was the daughter of an English clergyman. His father developed tuberculosis and at the age of 7 he went with his parents to Malta to live with his maternal grandparents.  He became fluent in English. Just before entering medical school he developed typhus and spent a year recovering from that disorder. He spent some time at the University of Gottingen and then returned to Basel to graduate in 1868. Shortly after he was assistant to Professor Socien who was one of the first surgeons in Europe to sponsor Lister's antiseptic techniques. He studied in London with Sir William Fergusson and Sir Spencer Wells and then spent a year in Vienna with Billroth and Czerny. He served in the Military Hospital in Karlsruthe during the Franco-Prussian War and then returned to Basel where he became surgeon in the small town of Riehen on the German-Swiss border. For the next 30 years this was his main post, although he opened a private clinic in Basel in 1883 which was very successful and in 1888 the University gave him the title of Professor of Surgery Extraordinary. However, it was not until the death of his old master, Socien, in 1899 that he was given beds in the hospital in Basel and became Professor of Surgery at the University of Basel. He was a pioneer in surgery of the biliary tract area and popularised cholecystectomy as an operation as well as being one of the first to remove stones from the common bile duct. Generally regarded as a safe surgeon, he had the reputation for handing over to others patients who had conditions which he considered lay outside his experience. From the time he was a small boy he took a great interest in butterflies and botany, and published over 21 papers on entomology. He gave his collection to the Natural History Museum of Basel and left his Herbarium to the Botanical Institute.



Last updated: 03 January 2011

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