He studied medicine in Paris, and worked as interne des hôpitaux at the Salpêtrière, Bicêtre, Hôpital Saint-Louis and the Pitié. During the Franco-Prussian War, he served as both a surgeon and an assistant medical officer. From 1879 to 1905 he was a physician of pediatric services at Bicêtre. In Paris, he founded a day school for special instruction of children with mental disability.
In 1866, during a severe cholera epidemic in Amiens, he volunteered his services, and after the siege had passed, was presented with a gold watch as an expression of the city's gratitude. During the Paris Commune (1871), when revolutionaries wanted to execute their wounded enemies, Bourneville intervened and saved the prisoners' lives.
During the 1870s, he became a member of the French Parliament (1873) and the Paris city council (1876). In both positions he advocated reforms of the health system.
In 1880, he provided an early description of a multi-symptom disorder that was to become known as "Bourneville's syndrome", now known as tuberous sclerosis. This genetic condition may lead to mental retardation, epilepsy, a disfiguring facial rash and benign tumors in the brain, heart, kidney and other organs. The condition was also studied by the British dermatologist, John James Pringle (1855-1922), leading some historical texts to refer to it as "Bourneville-Pringle disease".
Bourneville was skeptical of mystical and supernatural claims. Between 1882 and 1902, he published a series of volumes known as La Bibliothèque Diabolique, in these he re-evaluated historical cases of possession and witchcraft in favour for pathological explanations.
- De la sclérose en plaques disséminées (1869)
- Études du thermométrie clinique dans l'hémorrhagie cérébrale (1872)
- Science et miracle: Louise Lateau, ou la stigmatisée belge (1878)
- Sclérose tubéreuse des circonvolution cérébrales: Idiotie et épilepsie hemiplégique. Archives de neurologie, Paris, 1880, 1:81-9l.
- Encéphalite ou sclérose tubéreuse des circonvolutions cérébrales. Archives de neurologie, Paris, 1881, 1: 390-412.
- Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière. Service de M. Charcot. (with Paul-Marie-Léon Regnard 1850-1927). three volumes, Paris 1876-1880.
- Assistance, traitement et éducation des enfants idiots et dégénérés. Paris, 1895.
- Le Sabbat des Sorciers, with E. Teinturier (1882)
- Porter, Dorothy; Porter; Roy. (1993). Doctors, Politics and Society: Historical Essays. Rodopi. pp. 120-121. ISBN 90-5183-510-8
- Hustvedt, Asti. (2011). Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Bloomsbury. p. 279. ISBN 978-1-4088-2235-7
- Lachapelle. Sofie (2011). Investigating the Supernatural: From Spiritism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France, 1853–1931. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-4214-0013-6
- Bourneville-Pringle disease @ Who Named It
- Ole Daniel, Enersen. "Désiré-Magloire Bourneville". Who Named It?. Retrieved 2007-01-23.