Philippe Charlier: A Scientist Among the Supernatural

Christophe Gattuso

July 21, 2023

PARIS — Three years ago, he said goodbye to his post at the hospital. Nowadays, he has different patients: Jivaro heads, overmodeled skulls, and other mummified body parts. Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is in his fifth year as the director of the Department of Research and Education at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. His research into historical figures' causes of death has brought him into the public eye. Through the numerous books he has written over the years, he shares his fascination with death rituals, phantoms, ghosts, and zombies. Let's get to know the many dimensions of this fascinating and spirited man.

Talking to the Dead

It all started when he was a little boy digging small holes in his family's backyard, trying to find shards of pottery. What he found on this search was a skull. After completing his medical studies, performing a few hundred autopsies, going on archaeological digs in the four corners of the world, researching the deaths of historical figures, and writing some 20 books — including the most recent, Comment Faire L'amour Avec Un Fantôme? [How Do You Make Love to a Phantom?] (Èditions du Cerf), what it all comes down to is that at age 44 years, Charlier has carved out a niche for himself. And he seems to be digging it.

He was destined to wear a white coat: his mom is a pharmacist, and his dad, his sister, and his brother-in-law are all doctors. But that's not all. "From the very beginning, I wanted to study medicine and archaeology," he told Medscape France during a visit at the Musée du Quai-Branly. His office is like a smaller version of the museum itself, with multiple statuettes that one might think came right out of Tintin and the Broken Ear. But, as he pointed out, "They belong to me and are, of course, not part of the museum's collections."

With a baccalauréat in hand at age 16 and a half, Charlier started the first cycle of medical studies at Lariboisière and at the same time took art history classes at the Michelet Center. Then, when he was conducting excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, a light bulb went off in his head. "Seeing those bodies covered with plaster, I realized that I wanted to use medicine and archaeology to have the dead tell me their stories. To reconstruct their everyday lives, their gestures, their movements. To figure out how they died. They can no longer talk, but they still have a lot to say. Their bodies speak through what we have before us." To go about this, the young researcher fearlessly got down in the muck, literally, to explore the latrines of Delos. It's an experience that he looks back on with delight.

2000 Autopsies

A hard worker and more of the type to camp out in the library than "go out drinking beers with friends," Charlier pursued his "ambition to have one foot in the pure sciences and the other in the humanities."

As a young doctor, he trained in anatomic pathology. He became an expert in the use of scanning transmission electron microscopy to make "retrospective diagnoses." He overspecializes in forensics to get "more comfortable with violent deaths" — and with all the wars, epidemics, natural disasters, assassinations, and suicides in ancient times, there were a lot of them. "I had to do over 2000 autopsies. But that definitely helped me get to a point where I'm more at ease when a case involves an ancient corpse."

Famous Patients

The public learned about Charlier through his research into what turned out to be the remains of Agnès Sorel, Diane de Poitiers, and Richard the Lionheart, as well as his findings about a certain relic that he confirmed was likely to be the head of King Henry IV of France. These famous patients did not fail to annoy some critics. "It's not the VIP side that interests me but, rather, the side where all the documentation is," he said. "Unlike an anonymous corpse, the corpse of a historical figure allows you to determine whether history is telling the truth or not." He defended himself from accusations that he's a megalomaniac and a narcissist, attributing the exposure he receives to the media. "There's more for the media to talk about and write about when the research involves a historical figure, as opposed to anonymous skeletons from a Burgundian necropolis," he pointed out, with a touch of bad faith.

As evidence that he is not egocentric, Charlier highlighted his collaborations with historians, art historians, philologists, and epistemologists, all of whom worked together to verify the authenticity of remains. "Sometimes, there are surprises," he noted. "The remains that were assumed to be those of Joan of Arc were probably those of an Egyptian mummy. The death mask believed to be Robespierre's wasn't. The one of Mirabeau, that one was authentic."

Going Beyond Death

Even though he has spent a good deal of his life hanging out with dead bodies, the paleopathologist denies having a fascination with death. Death rituals, on the other hand, do interest him — to the point that they're the subject of many of his works. "The way that humans have of going beyond death, at times brilliantly aestheticizing death with revenants, phantoms, ghosts, vampires, zombies...all these variations on death across civilizations fascinate me. As Bernard Werber says in his novel The Thanatonauts, death is, in all likelihood, the final frontier to explore."

But make no mistake about it, Charlier considers himself a Cartesian. "What I do is medical anthropology, whether it involves historical figures or understanding the rituals around life and death. What interests me — it's not about determining whether or not vampires and phantoms exist. I try to understand why people believe in vampires and phantoms."

A Family Affair

Charlier shares the love of his profession with his family. His three kids beg him to take them to the Musée du Quai-Branly every weekend. His wife, Isabelle, is a radiologist at the Pitié-Salpétrière University Hospital in Paris. She regularly performs scans and takes x-rays of museum objects and of historical figures as well. These days, Charlier's patients are museum objects, from shrunken Jivaro heads and overmodeled skulls to voodoo fetishes from Haiti, of which there are many at the Musée du Quai-Branly. "Museum objects are patients like no other," he said, "but they are patients all the same."

At night and on weekends, when he's not at the museum, Charlier can be found reviewing and studying historical medical cases. On his agenda are the embalmed hearts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. But even more intriguing is the study of a relic from the Shrine of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in southeastern France: a piece of skin purported to be that of Mary Magdalene. Charlier is to report his findings to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He is a persevering man who has already spent 3 to 4 years looking into the so-called relics of Mary Magdalene — relics that can be found at the aforementioned shrine, as well as in Vézelay, in Paris, and in the Vatican. "The goal is to figure out whether all of these relics belong to a single body. And whose body."

Sleepless Nights

Charlier sleeps very little, if at all. He writes at night. "Give me a piping hot pot of freshly brewed Lapsang souchong or matcha, and I'm good to go. I take some books, spread them all out, and the ideas and the words just bubble up." If he hadn't gone into medicine, he would have been a French teacher. "I have a strong desire to inspire a love of reading. Writing is humankind's most beautiful invention." Charlier has sipped a lot of tea, seeing what a prolific author he is: 20 books and counting — and that doesn't include all the journal articles he's written.

He shares his love of the arts with another physician who, like him, looks with a curious eye on all the world has to offer: Jean-Christophe Rufin. Charlier refers to him as his "mentor," the person he seeks out "for sound advice, for inspiration." Before he puts pen to paper on a new book, Charlier says he reads Un Léopard Sur Le Garrot [Seized at the Nape by a Leopard], an autobiographical collection of stories chronicling Rufin's time as French ambassador to Senegal and to The Gambia. "It's become a ritual, something I need to do to get guidance, to orient the style I'm going to use."

A Great Mentor

Fate seemed to have a hand in bringing these two men together. Since February 2021, Charlier has been the director of the Terre Humaine collection at the French publisher Plon. The previous director was Rufin.

The two physician-writers immediately hit it off. Medscape France spoke to Rufin about Charlier, whom he summed up as follows. "He's a man open to things other than medicine. And medicine is not just a technical profession. Medicine is a humanism!" He went on to praise his confrère's originality. "Philippe is not an academic in the narrow sense of the term. He's like one of those men who lived in the 18th century, those kind of scholars who had a wide-ranging curiosity." Rufin believes that "ambition is not a bad thing." And so, he simply brushes off the critics who say that Charlier is too focused on seeking the spotlight and wanting to shine. Personally, he thinks that Charlier will ride his curiosity to horizons far and wide. With a chuckle, Rufin said, "I would not at all be surprised if tomorrow someone tells me that Philippe is going off to become an astronaut."

Philippe Charlier in Ten Dates

  • Born on June 25, 1977, in Meaux, France.

  • 2003: Medical dissertation on individuals with malformations in Greco-Roman antiquity, defended at the Lille 2 School of Medicine, Lille, France. Evaluation earned: "Very Honorable With Unanimous Jury Congratulations."

  • 2006: Publication of "Qui a Tué la Dame de Beauté ? Étude Scientifique des Restes d'Agnès Sorel (1422–1450)" [Who Killed the Lady of Beauty? Scientific Study of the Remains of Agnès Sorel (1422-1450)].

  • January 2010: Refuted the authenticity of the so-called relics of Joan of Arc.

  • December 15, 2010: Signed on to a BMJ article confirming, with 99.99% certainty, that an embalmed head is that of Henry IV. Beginning of a long scientific controversy.

  • Until summer 2013: Member of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Raymond-Poincaré University Hospital in Garches, France.

  • 2013–2015: Cowrote and hosted the Arte channel's documentary series, Enquête D'ailleurs [Investigation By the Way], focusing on "the discovery of the great myths of humankind," ancestral cults, and funeral rites.

  • October 2018: Appointed director of the Department of Research and Education at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.

  • May 12, 2021: Awarded the insignia of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of France.

  • October 2021: Released Comment Faire L'amour Avec un Fantôme ? Anthropologie de l'invisible [How Do You Make Love to a Phantom? The Anthropology of the Invisible], published by éditions du Cerf.

This article was translated from the Medscape French Edition.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.