Paul L. Tessier, M.D.
1917 - 2008
Paul Louis Ernest Tessier died on the 5th of June, 2008 in Paris. He was approaching his 91st birthday.
He was born on August 1, 1917 in Héric, a small town near Nantes in the Loire Valley of Brittany. His father was a wine merchant from a nearby town, and like almost all able-bodied Frenchmen of the time, served in WWI. He was captured by the German forces, and Paul’s mother received a letter from another Frenchwoman who said that he was in the bed next to her husband in a German military hospital. At the time, prisoners of war were often sent for the duration of the conflict to neutral countries, so Ernest Tessier was sent to a camp in Switzerland. In that enlightened era, conjugal visits were permitted, so Paul owed his existence to one of these trips made by his mother, Solange. After the war, Ernest Tessier returned to Héric and joined the firm of his father-in-law, August Clergeau, who was also a wine merchant. The entire family, including Paul and his elder sister, Solange, lived in the large house called Bonne Hygie.
Paul Tessier decided upon medicine as a career and entered medical school in Nantes in 1938. His training was interrupted by WWII, and like his father, he ended up a prisoner in a German military hospital, where he came close to death from undiagnosed typhoid fever. He said that his other near-death experience came during the bombing of Nantes by the American Air Force.
During his intern years in Nantes, he saw a cleft lip repair, which began an interest in plastic surgery. He also formed a close relationship with Gabriel Sourdille, who was one of France’s leading ophthalmologists. For the remainder of his career, he cherished this relationship with ophthalmologists, and they immediately recognized his ability as a superb orbital surgeon.
In 1943, after graduation from medical school, Tessier moved to Paris, since the hospital in Nantes had been destroyed. Here he had training in maxillofacial surgery with Drs. Aubry and Virenque at Hôpital de Puteaux, and later at Hôpital Saint-Joseph with Georges Huc, a pediatric surgeon who he considered his “Maître”.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he began spending several months every year visiting leading plastic surgeons around the world – Gillies, McIndoe, Mowlem and Kilner in Great Britain, Webster, Barrett Brown and Millard in the U.S., and many others. Paul Tessier, on his own, learned what there was to be learned about plastic surgery as it was practiced at the time. He was a true auto-didact.
In the later 1950’s, he became Chief of the Plastic Surgery Division at Hôpital Foch in Paris. He ran the burn unit and some of the burn reconstructions he did still remain the gold standard. He did hand surgery. The Chief of the Maxillofacial Unit, a petty and jealous Army Officer named Gustave Ginestet, sent Tessier a letter forbidding him to do maxillofacial surgery. Fortunately, he ignored this ukase, and in 1958, performed the first successful Le Fort 3 osteotomy on an adult patient named Maurice Anquetil.
The rest is history, which most of us know. In 1967, at the International Meeting in Rome, his presentation shocked the Plastic Surgery world, and in the 30 years that followed. Paul Tessier single-handedly made the subspecialty of craniofacial surgery. Virtually everyone doing craniofacial surgery learned the craft from Paul Tessier.
His honors were well deserved. He was an Honorary Member of the AAPS, ASPRS, and the Royal College of Surgeons. He was a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. He received the James Barrett Brown Award twice.
He was a kind man, and did everything he could to selflessly teach his new specialty. He did more craniofacial surgery in the United States than any American. He was offered a Professorship at Harvard, which he almost accepted.
He is survived by his wife Mireille, and children Claude, Laurence and Jean Paul.
His work remains the Gold Standard of Craniofacial Surgery.
S. Anthony Wolfe, M.D.