Marie Colinet

Marie Colinet von Hilden (c1560 – c1640) was a Swiss midwife and surgeon.

In 1587, Marie Colinet was a midwife in Geneva when she married Germany’s foremost 17th century surgeon Wilhelm Fabry. She became his pupil, then collaborator, becoming proficient in surgery and managing his practice and patients during his frequent and prolonged periods of his absence.

Marie was a true inspiration. Mother of eight, she was a physician in her own right managing a large part of the Fabry’s obstetric practice; performing surgical operations and administering medical procedures.

She introduced the use of heat to dilate and stimulate the uterus during labour; set fractures; performed the first successful caesarean section (1603); performed the first recorded extraction of metal from a patients eye with a magnet (1624); and created complex herbal plasters to prevent infection and promote healing.

  • Born 1560 in Geneva, Switzerland daughter of the printer Eustache Colinet
  • 1587 – Married the German surgeon Wilhelm Fabry (1560-1634) in the Church of St. Gervais in Geneva
  • 1588 – Left Geneva with Wilhelm and travelled through France and Germany to Hilden, where they stayed for three years, living in the ‘Haus auf der Bech’ (the house on the stream).
  • 1602-1611 Moved to Payerne (Peterlingen) in the Vaud Canton between Fribourg in Uchtland and the Lake of Neuchatel.
  • 1613 – Survived an outbreak of the plague, to which she lost three children
  • 1616 – Granted citizenship of the town of Berne.
  • 1618 – Survived another outbreak of the plague, to which she lost another two children
  • 1624 – Marie used a magnet to extract steel from a patient’s eye. Although Wilhelm credited her with inventing the technique, medical historians usually attribute the procedure to him.
  • 1638 – First publication: Alphabet nouveau et chrestien pour les jeunes apprentis
  • Died 1640 in Bern, Switzerland survived by one son, Johannes

Key Medical Contributions

Fabry, in many passages of his works, praises the skill of his wife and speaks with admiration of her presence of mind.

On December 19, 1622, a man named Michel Dilberger fell backwards on the hilt of his sword and broke the ninth and tenth left ribs near the spine with protruding fragments. I was absent, so my wife was called…After preparing everything needed for the operation, my wife returned the broken bones to their natural position. Then she anointed the whole side with rosacea oil, applied a poultice of barley flour mixed with rose powder, wild pomegranate flowers, cypress nuts and root, powdered tormentil and a whole egg, put on wooden ribs and a pad to hold the fractured bones in place, and wrapped a moderately tight bandage around it…My wife prescribed sloe and berry water in equal parts (one sip twice a day) on a fairly severe diet, and changed the bandage every three days. On the tenth day I returned home and found the patient out of danger. Four weeks later, he was cured

De felicissima curatione fractur ae Costarum, in qua nonnulla Annotatione digna occurrunt. Centuria V, Observatio; LXXXV: 1682: 474

The first extraction of a metal particle from the eye is attributed to Fabricius’ wife. The story is told by Fabricius:

A countryman bought some iron and was striking two pieces together to prove its quality when a splinter flew into his eye and stuck in the cornea, causing him great pain. The local surgeons tried everything for many days but to no purpose and the pain and inflammation so increased that he came to see me (in Berne) on March 5 1624. I used all the means I could think of for some days but the splinter was so small that it could not be removed by instruments; when my wife hit on the very thing. I kept the eye open with both hands while she held a magnet as close as possible to it, and after several trials, for he could not stand the light long, we saw the iron leap from the eye to the stone.

De scoria Chalybis corneae infixa, ejusdemque ingeniosissima curatione. Centuria V, Observatio XXI. 1682: 401

Marie was a skilful obstetrician and often present at difficult cases. The commonest obstetric manoeuvre was the extraction of a dead foetus. Up until to 1623 Fabricius had performed this forty times and his Marie thirty times. Often the foetus had been dead in utero for some time, even as long as three months. On 29 April 1629 Marie extracted a dead foetus instrumentally after failing to do so manually; it was the first occasion for this to be performed in Berne.

In a letter written on June 9, 1629 to his friend Jacques Hagenbach, a doctor in Basel, Fabry praised Marie’s obstetrical skills as he described the case of a very difficult childbirth

My wife, who had performed this operation in Lausanne, Paternac and elsewhere many times, performed it in my presence. She anointed the patient’s genitals, and introduced a small, warm bag. Having thus awakened the tone of the uterine muscle, she gradually extracted the child, assisted by the efforts of the parturient. In half an hour it was all over

De Extractione foetus mortui, Exemplum Singulare, Centuria VI, Observatio LXIII. 1682: 577-578

Marie was also recorded as successfully treated a woman at Lausanne who had a compound fracture of the tibia which had penetrated through skin and stockings. Only nine weeks later the patient was walking at home without a stick.



Also known as Marie Colinet von Hilden; Mme de Hilden; Maria Colinetaea; Marie de Hilden; Mme Fabri de Hilden;



Dr Ruth Heledd Morgan LITFL author

Studied Physiological Sciences BA (Hons), followed by Medicine at the University of Oxford BM BCh. British doctor currently working in emergency medicine in Perth, Australia. Special interests include acute internal medicine and emergency medicine.

BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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