The name of Désiré Bourneville is linked with tuberous sclerosis complex, which he documented and named. He also contributed to major hospital reforms, especially in the care of children with intellectual disabilities. His medical and social work with such children made him a precursor in child and adolescent psychiatry.
Bourneville was born in 1840 in Garencières, a small village in Normandy. In 1865 he became resident at the Paris Medical Faculty and 5 years later submitted his doctoral thesis on clinical thermometry in brain diseases. When working at Salpêtriere Hospital, he played a major role in the publication of the Lessons of Charcot, his mentor, and in the studies on hysteria about which he published an important photographic series in collaboration with Regnard. He was a prolific editor of several journals. In 1873 he founded the Progrès Médical, a popular and influential journal that helped in the dissemination of medical science and hygiene.
He developed a consistent hospital policy of secularisation, founded the first nurse school in France and contributed to regulating midwifery in Paris. (Between 1877 and 1881, Bourneville wrote several reports to the authorities in favour of organising separate hospital departments for pregnant women. In part because of his advocacy, a new order of medical practitioners was created for obstetricians in Paris.) Throughout his life, he was devoted to training caregivers and improving their living standards. As a medical reformist, he was interested in politics and was a councillor in Paris (1876) and an MP (1883–1889).
In 1879, Bourneville was appointed as Head of the Psychiatry Department of Bicêtre Hospital, taking care of ‘epileptics and idiots children’. He was a defender of out-patient treatments, breaking with a tradition of confinement. His major achievement was to transform the psychiatric unit into a ‘school asylum’, foreshadowing a medico–pedagogical institute. Bourneville promoted a therapeutic and educational approach, inspired by the work of Seguin, and involved medical and public authorities in his work towards the integration of children with intellectual disability into society.