The French med student ‘carabin’ is no longer what he used to be.


Alain Caubet (University of Rennes)


The French med student ‘carabin’ is no longer what he used to be


Paper given at the symposium, ‘Medical training, student experience and the transmission of knowledge, c.1800-2014’ hosted by CHOMI, UCD, October 2014


Members of the Paris Medical Faculty (1904), caricature by Adrien Barrère. Pubilc Domain.

Members of the Paris Medical Faculty (1904), caricature by Adrien Barrère. Pubilc Domain.

The resounding folklore surrounding the French study of medicine was established after the Second Empire and before the Great War. Overly bountiful, it is represented by a chimera of the med student “carabin” and the intern. These two archetypes rival each other in incarnating the freedom from morals, indiscreet salaciousness, and a lack of concern for their suffering patients, who were considered as inferior human material and victims of endless cruel anecdotes. The “Medical Student’s Breviary” is a collection of Gallic songs, bawdy, scatological, indelicate, loaded with extravagant illustrations; for over a hundred years, its verses and choruses have represented the ultimate abomination to mothers who entrusted their innocent daughters to us in order to begin their studies to be a female doctor! These rituals (ragging, rag weeks and forfeits) and these songs had something of the nature of an initiation process, an integration, a clan recognition; in a time stifled by the corset of prudishness, they gave substance to the fantasy of the body and its sexuality without any mystery for those who trod the soil of dissection room.

From then on, no more shame or restraint: the doctor had to hear everything, see everything, smell everything and palpate ad nauseam, as in staff waiting room songs. Few writers have left us autobiographies on their student life in medicine (Dr. Louis Véron (1798 – 1867), Léon Daudet (1867-1942), …). The former educational program plunged teenagers, often from privileged family backgrounds into the cloistered microcosm of common wards where the chronically ill languished. The encounter with the body and the hopeless was deeply moving. The initiation was violent for these boys, lacking armor or support; especially when the most significant and most praised doctors were often eccentric, excessive, and abusive. Today, the hospital is still a place of medical discovery but the shocking aspects have been reduced or conjured away for them. In charge of the PACES (Common first year for health studies) in Rennes, we know by observation and by several surveys of our students that they come up against the inevitable much later, through the prism of technical reasoning that is their bulwark. Often coming from sheltered environments, a good half of our promotions stays away from the excesses of folklore that is usually associated to them (The Breviary!), and many others pretend to be someone else during a year or two, far from the limitless emotional liberation that used to take place.

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