Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Death of Marie Thérèse Raphaëlle

Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela married the heir to the French throne - Louis Ferdinand - in 1745 and thus became Dauphine. Consequently, her name would be transformed into the French equivalent of her original name: Marie Thérèse Raphaëlle.

The couple were remarkably happy together considering that the marriage had been arranged. However, Marie Thérèse would not have a long life. In the beginning of 1746 the new Dauphine found herself to be in happy circumstances and was expected to go into labour in early July. July came and as the days passed the court became increasingly impatient since the birth of a boy would mean that the line of succession would be far more secure. Finally, the Dauphine went into labour on 19 July and gave birth to a healthy girl.

Billedresultat for marie therese antoinette raphaelle cause a deces
Marie Thérèse Raphaëlle

Louis Ferdinand was absolutely besotted with is daughter although the rest of the court was less enthusiastic. It soon became clear that all was not well, though.

In the days following the birth the Dauphine had been unwell but the doctors had not considered her to be in any danger. On the night of the 21 July her condition suddenly deteriorated. Thanks to the vigilant Duc de Luynes we know that she had a high fever which doubled at about three o'clock in the morning. The physician was sent for and the priest soon followed. She did not improve during the night and when her husband came to see her - he had been wakened at seven - she could not recognise him.
A few hours later she became unconscious and the doctors immediately decided to bleed her. She was bled twice: first at ten o'clock and then at eleven. Naturally, it did nothing but weaken her. Marie Thérèse died half an hour after she was bled the second time. She was just 20 years old.

Her death sparked grief as well as curiosity. Death in childbirth was nothing new and would continue to be a real threat (and still is). The odd thing was that the delivery had gone without complications although it had been a bit long. As a result the doctors were left with a mystery on their hands: since the Dauphine had gone through the birth just fine then why did she suddenly die?

Custom dictated that her remains was to be autopsied. The doctors concluded that her death had not been due to the childbirth since her faculties were normal. They only noted that she had an "abundance of milk". This led the doctors to the - to us - odd diagnosis that she had died from being smothered by the excess of milk! The physicians felt certain about their sentence when they found "milk" in her brain - the white fluid was most likely pus from infection.

Billedresultat for marie therese antoinette raphaelle
State funeral of the Dauphine at Saint-Denis

Today, we know that although a woman goes through labour without complications she is not out of the woods yet. There is a great risk of both haemorrhages and infections following the birth. In our days these are luckily far less dangerous since most births take place in clean environments under the care of doctors with greater knowledge than those who attended to the Dauphine.
It is far more likely that the death of Marie Thérèse was in fact caused by an infection following the birth. Puerperal fevers are known to occur after the birth itself is over and one of the characteristics of this particular fever is an excess of milk "production". The cause of such a fever can be due to either poor hygiene or that a piece of the placenta is stuck in the uterus. It is all but certain the she developed an infection in the blood - called septicaemia - which required urgent medical treatment. It also explains why she could not recognise her husband since the infection had gone to her brain through the blood.

Sadly, Marie Thérèse could have survived if her doctors had known more on the subject. The only consolation is that the doctors are not personally to blame; medical science simply had not gone far enough to shed light on such a phenomena.

The little girl was christened Marie Thérèse by the request of the father who wanted to honour his late wife. Sadly, the infant would die herself just three years later.

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