Madeleine Brès

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Madeleine Brès
Madeleine Brès (1842-1921).jpg
Madeleine Gebelin

(1842-11-25)25 November 1842
Died30 November 1921(1921-11-30) (aged 79)

Madeleine Brès (25 November 1842 – 30 November 1921), born Gebelin, was the first French woman to obtain a medical degree.


Born Madeleine Gebelin, she told in the Medical Chronicle on 1 April 1895 how her medical career was born - "I was barely eight years old when my father, who was a wheelwright by trade - it is not a silly job - drove me to the sisters' home where he carried out his work..." In the hospital of Nîmes, one nun took an affection to her and taught her some small procedures, such as the preparation of herbal teas and poultices.

She was twelve when the Gebelin family left for Paris, and just over fifteen when she married Adrien-Stéphane Brès, a tram conductor. Thanks to the efforts of Julie-Victoire Daubié, French higher education had been opened to women in 1861. She first had to obtain the consent of her husband, as at the time French law judged married women to be the legal responsibility of their husbands. In 1866, she presented herself to the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, Charles Adolphe Wurtz, and asked him for permission to enroll to study medicine. The dean agreed, but on the condition that she first obtain a degree in Arts and Sciences—a task which she accomplished in three years. By then, she was 26 years old and a mother of three. Brès presented herself to the Dean once again and told him there was now no obstacle to her enrollment in the medical course. She also pointed out that three female foreigners - the American Mary Putnam, the Russian Catherine Gontcharoff and the English Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - were holders of nationally known equivalent degrees.

At the time, prejudice against women doctors was still strong in the academic and medical community. In a widely discussed 1868 article in the Hospitals Gazette, Dr. Henri Montanier wrote, "To make a woman a doctor, it is necessary to make her lose her sensitivity, her timidity, her modesty, harden her to the sight of the most horrible and frightening things. When the woman arrives at that, I ask myself, what remains of the woman? A being who is no longer either a young girl nor a woman; neither a wife, nor a mother."

Dean Würtz took Brès's application to the Minister of Education, Victor Duruy, who approved her admission but pre-emptively brought the matter to the Council of Ministers. The Empress Eugénie also interceded on her behalf. Brès's husband formally gave his consent to his wife's enrollment to the mayor of the 5th municipal district of Paris, and she became a medical student in 1869 in the service of Professor Broca at Mercy Hospital.

With the Franco-Prussian War and the departure of a number of hospital physicians for the front, she was made a temporary intern until July 1871, at Professor Broca's suggestion. Strengthened by this experience, Brès decided to pursue a hospital career and sat the external exams, then the internal. Despite the support of Professor Broca, the director of the hospital's Public Assistance refused her authorization to work at the hospital on December 21, 1871.

Eventually, Brès decided against further pursuit of a hospital job. A widow with three children to support, she decided to become a pediatrician. She prepared her thesis, Of Breasts and Breastfeeding -- which covered a wide range of material on the mother/child relationship and infant hygiene -- in the laboratory of Professor Würtz and defended it, on June 3, 1875. She received honors on her thesis and became the first French woman to become a Doctor of medicine (though not the first woman to obtain such a doctorate in France, since Anderson had been ahead of her by five years).

During her career, she worked as a professor of hygiene and taught headmistresses of nursery schools in the city of Paris. She headed the journal Hygiene of the Woman and the Child, and was the author of several childcare books. On a mission for the Internal Minister, she left for Switzerland to study the organization and function of crèches. On 28 May 1893, the first crèche in France was opened by Théophile Roussel, on Nollet Road, in the Batignolles district.

She died at the age of 79, in poverty.

Works and publications[edit]

  • Of Breasts and Breastfeeding (De la mamelle et de l'allaitement) [thesis for the doctorate of medicine, presented and supported on Thursday 3 June 1875]. full text printed by E. Martinet, 1875.
  • Artificial Feeding and the Bottle (L'Allaitement artificiel et le biberon), G. Masson (Paris), part 8, page 77. et al., 1877, available on Gallica


  • Several schools and crèches (Montpellier) in France are named for her[where?].
  • A wing of the centre of the Hospital of Argenteuil (Val-d'Oise), opened in 2013, is named for her.
  • A street in the 13th district of Paris is named for her.
  • A street in Besançon (near the Saint Vincent clinic) is named for her.
  • On November 25, 2019, Google celebrated her 177th birthday with a Google Doodle.[1]


  1. ^ "Madeleine Brès' 177th Birthday". Google. 25 November 2019.