Born on the Spanish island of Minorca, Orfila was educated by French and English tutors before studying science in Valencia (where he fell afoul of the Inquisition), Barcelona and Paris. Well received in Parisian society, he eventually earned a professorship in chemistry at the Athénée of Paris and became royal physician to Louis XVIII. His emphasis on the medical applications of chemistry led to the publication of his seminal Traité des poisons tirés des règnes minéral, végétal et animal; ou, Toxicologie générale as well as Secours à donner aux personnes empoisonnées ou asphyxiées, suivis des moyens propres à reconnaître les poisons et les vins frelatés et à distinguer la mort réelle de la mort apparente.
Beginning in 1830, as dean of the Faculty of Medicine, he reorganized the medical school including instituting more rigorous testing. He also established a dissection center, botanical gardens, hospitals, museums and a medical school in Tours. Through the use of analytical chemistry and his own clinical trials, Orfila made significant advances in forensic science and, just as importantly, published his findings making them widely available to “his colleagues in the provinces, doctors, officiers de santé and chemists, who could help spread his ideas on poison among the general population,” (“Mateu Orfila i Rotger (1787-1853): Science, medicine and crime in the nineteenth century,” Contributions to Science, Bertomeu Sanchez).
However, it was as an expert in criminal cases that he became best known, frequently traveling to testify in court. As a result, his name was frequently in the press and “the views he maintained in these trials were passionately discussed for a considerable time, provoking a long debate in and outside academic circles that lasted until after his death,” (ibid.). His monarchist opinions as well as the polarizing nature of some of his experiments and hypotheses led to his removal from his post as dean after the 1848 revolution, but he was reinstated in 1851 and elected president of the Academy of Medicine.
In 1843, Orfila served as an expert before the Court of Assizes of the Loire and subsequently published his “Case of poisoning by a compound of lead, brought before the assize court of Haute-Loire, August 22, 1843, then before the assize court of Puy-de-Dôme, November 29, 1843.” The court case that is the subject of our letter was another case of poisoning, this time by iron sulfate, in which he testified on June 13, 1851 and which he cited in his work on the subject published in the Annales d’hygiène et de mèdicine légale.
Folded into quarters. With scattered foxing. In very good condition. Rare.