This brief article  is a tribute to a very special  Frenchman;  Dr Auguste Ambroise Tardieu,  who was born in Paris in 1818.


Battered Child Syndrome

The French forensic surgeon Dr Auguste Tardieu


Dr Tardieu headed the team of  French doctors who performed a post-mortem on the disinterred body of English schoolgirl Marian Marsden in 1854.  Marian had been laid to rest in Montmartre Cemetery, Paris, a victim of  ill-treatment by her French Governess. The doctors faced a huge challenge in determining the exact  cause of death.

For reasons explained in my book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  the   governess , Mlle Celestine Doudet,  was not charged with manslaughter until more than a year after the child’s lingering  death in 1853.

Celestine Doudet on trial (Frenh film 1960)

The accused in the witness box at her trial. (From a French film, 1960)

Nevertheless, it was determined that the twelve year old had died as a result of  a fractured skull. Tragically, at the time of her fatal injury  Marian’s body  was already  weakened by  whooping cough and malnutrition. The latter had been caused by the strict  homeopathic  diet imposed by order of  her father, Dr James Loftus Marsden,  a wealthy water-cure physician from Great Malvern in Worcestershire.


Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

Staff member at Montmartre Cemetery indicates burial record of Marian Marsden.

Dr Tardieu  was a  clear thinking surgeon  with a  strong grasp of the legal aspects of  medicine.  He was also patient and determined; important traits  in  the often complex cases he was involved in.   However,  his motivation  in investigating and documenting  child abuse can also be explained by the fact that he was  described by his peers as kindly and selfless.   Nevertheless, it was a indictment of 19th century society that even in France,  (a nation recognised for its love of children)  he was unable to foster interest in the social conditions  leading to  child endangerment.

Battered Child Syndrome

In recognition of his early clinical descriptions of abused children,  what is now  called ‘battered child syndrome’  is also known as Tardieu’s Syndrome. In 1860 Dr Tardieu published: Forensic Study on Cruelty and the Ill-treatment of Children, a ground breaking work featuring classic descriptions of battered children. Real cases were documented,  and it is very likely that the case  of  Marian Marsden was included.

Here is a very moving  extract from the doctor’s  book;

I am speaking of the facts of cruelty and brutal treatment of which children are particularly the victims and which derive from their parents, their teachers, from those, in a word, who exercise more or less direct authority over them…..that from the most tender age, those defenceless unfortunate children should have to experience, every day, and even every hour, the most severe cruelty, be subjected to the most dire privations, that their lives, hardly begun, should be nothing but a long agony, that severe corporal punishments, tortures before which even our imagination recoils in horror, should consume their bodies and extinguish the first rays of reason, shorten their lives, and finally, the most unbelievable thing of all, that the executioners of these children should more often than not  be the very people who gave them life – this is one of the most terrifying problems that can trouble the hearts of man.

Doctor Tardieu later became the President of the French Academy of Medicine. He died on January 12 1879, aged 60. During an illustrious  23 year  career his forensic expertise had been called  on in over five thousand cases.

FOOTNOTE:  Current practice among those investigating child abuse  is to avoid asking: ‘Has anyone hurt you? , as the victims may have been coached to respond in the negative.  The preferred question is : ‘Are you afraid of anyone? It is worth noting that  Marian Marsden and her four  siblings had cause be frightened of both their  father and  their governess.

I am not a religious person, but  I have always found the following bible verse very moving;

Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid  them not,  for of such is the kingdom of God….and he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them and blessed them. 


Your thoughts on Dr Tardieu and his work would be both welcome and appreciated.


  1. Doctor Tardieu was a saint. Thank God for people like him. Child abuse is sickening. Its’ been going on since the world began. It is still going on. That a father could abuse his child, any child, beggars belief. I am looking forward to reading, The Water Doctor’s Daughters, with great interest.

    • Pauline

      Yes Maddie, Dr Tardieu was one of the few ‘guardian angels’ in the Marsden case. I should point out that the girls’ father was not a sexual abuser but nevertheless he destroyed the spirits of his children.

  2. Wow Pauline! I’d never heard of this man! 🙁


    • Pauline

      I hadn’t either until I was researching the book Vikki, now he is a real hero of mine. He was definitely ahead of his time, and a great advocate for victims like Marian, who were unable to speak for themselves.

  3. Interesting. I recently read A Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the 19th Century which stands in stark contrast to the attitude of Dr Tardieu and illustrates why he must have found it so difficult to make himself heard.

    • Pauline

      Oh, I must read that Hilda. BTW, It was Alfred Tennyson, friend of the Marsden girls’ maternal uncle, who mesmerised their future stepmother when she was one of Dr Marsden’s water-cure patients.

  4. Even today, most people find it very hard to believe that children get sexually abused,so imagine how hard it was for Dr Tardieu to make himself heard almost 150 years back!

    • How true Sharmila. This is very topical in Australia right now, as a Royal Commission has just been announced into child sexual abuse.

      The Marsden girls were emotionally and physically abused but I hope my book will help give Dr Tardieu the recognition he deserves!

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