Justifying the Chemical Analysis of Plants
The most controversial aspect of the Academy's natural history was the chemical analysis of plants. This introduced an element of causal explanation that Perrault believed was inappropriate. Even Duclos and Dodart, who approved chemical analysis, disagreed about its usefulness in the project. The results were difficult to interpret, and academicians did not know what precisely they were seeking as causes. Exacting but of uncertain merit, the chemical analyses of plants were debated by academicians throughout the remainder of the century.
The method of analysis was distillation. There was no initial dispute about this choice, for it was the traditional way to define the composition of mineral waters and to extract from animals and vegetables certain ingredients for medicaments. Chemists at the Jardin royal had given public demonstrations of distillations in their course on chemistry, and treatises by William Davison, Christophe Glaser, and Sébastien Matte La Faveur described the methods used there. Employing similar procedures, Bourdelin distilled plants for the Academy until his death. Interpreting his data and improving his method were the concern of several other academicians.
The Academy's chemical research has traditionally been dismissed as a waste of resources, thus falsely obviating the need for a closer examination of its institutional role. The number of academicians involved and the amounts of time and money devoted to the project show that the Academy regarded this work as important. Although academicians argued among themselves or admitted that they could not interpret their findings, they still
persevered with the research and refined Bourdelin's techniques of distillation. Personnel, method, and goals forced the Academy to persist with a project many members found unrewarding.
The Controversy Over Distillation
Distillation — the process whereby plants were placed in a receptacle and heated to obtain liquid and solid products — was the obvious choice for analyzing plants. It was also known to be flawed. Academicians had to justify their choice in the face of well-aired criticisms, but the shortcomings of distillation were most forcefully presented to them by their own research. Its defenders argued not only against contemporary chemical literature but also against objections raised within the Academy itself.
Duclos was the first academician to explain how to distill plants. He described in detail how to extract the chemical constituents of plants, that is, "their distilled waters, their acrid, sulphurous, acidic, and mercurial spirits, their oils, and their fixed or volatile salts." In explaining how distillation worked, Duclos used the kind of old-fashioned teleological language that Perrault and Mariotte sometimes ridiculed: the heat of the fire, he argued, made an impression on the plant and then rarefied it; rarefied matter would rise, but some matter was more disposed to rise than others. Duclos's subsequent dismissal as director of the project, however, meant that others had to defend the method he had chosen, and they did so in very different language. Dodart argued the case in his Mémoires des plantes, Mariotte used the results in his Végétation des plantes, Homberg tried to exonerate Bourdelin, Tournefort studied Bourdelin's method and findings, and Fontenelle summarized some of the arguments for distillation when he wrote the Histoire .
Two analogies seemed to warrant the distillation of plants. Distillation could be considered the equivalent of dissection (with the fire serving as the knife) or as the counterpart of digestion (with the still replacing the stomach). These were variations of ideas that had been current since Paracelsus. Nicolas Lémery, John Ray, and Nicaise Le Febvre, among others, had advocated "anatomizing" plants by distilling them; Le Febvre also emphasized that distillation would show how the heat of the stomach acted on the food it digested. But the analogy with the stomach also drew attention to some shortcomings of distillation: a fire could not transform plants the way the stomach could, did not extract the same nourishing substances, and required higher temperatures. These analogies reveal not only academicians' assumptions but also their motives. They wanted to
anatomize plants in order to understand the secrets of their structure and to know what caused their effects on humans.
Even more revealing than such justifications are the Academy's debates about the shortcomings of distillation. One difficulty was that the products were not necessarily extracted in their purest forms. Because chemists could not always tell when the distillants changed in nature from one substance to another, in any single distillation they would get mixed substances as well as relatively pure ones. Dodart expected that this problem was not serious, because even mixtures would reveal information about the composition of a plant. Obtaining pure distillants was not the original goal: the Academy wanted to discover the constitution of plants.
Another problem was that distillation was destructive. Analyzing plants destroyed the very components that produced the effects — nutritive, gustatory, poisonous, or medicinal — academicians sought to understand. Dodart responded that such effects did not necessarily result from "the union of all the principles [that is, chemical constituents]," and, anyway, that effects "which depend on several of these principles joined together often depend on the dominant principle." He did not deny that the fire itself might pass through the apparatus and mix with the plants, but he replied that even so distillants differed from one another. So long as the fire and the vessels were the same, any variations must derive from the plants and not from the distillation.
The most common objection was that, since all plants released the same constituents, these could not account for diversity among plants. Dodart, in reply, pointed out subtle differences in the proportions and strengths of the constituents. He hoped that some of the "more ordinary effects" of plants might thus be explained and that, with more experiments, unusual effects might become understandable. Mariotte, in contrast, granted the premise on which the objection rested but was more interested in why all plants had the same basic constituents. He concluded — using a thought-experiment that resembled an actual experiment described by Helmont and Boyle — that all plants had the same "gross and sensible" constituents because they received their nourishment from the same sources, earth and water.
Where academicians sought diversity — in the products of distillation — they found uniformity. Where uniformity was essential — in the replicability of experiments — they found diversity. They recognized the importance of being able to reproduce experimental results. Bourdelin weighed the plants he distilled and the products he extracted from them; he recorded the exact conditions of each distillation, including, as best he could, the temperature
of the fire. But even with all his precautions, the results of iterated experiments might vary, in some cases dramatically. Dodart tried to minimize this discrepancy by saying that chemists were entitled to ignore small variations and should take only major ones as significant.
Unexpected variations in the results of similar experiments aggravated still another problem — the unmanageability of the data. Even by 1676, when Bourdelin had been distilling plants for only eight years, academicians found the amount of information compiled from his distillations so vast as to defy their analytical skills. The responsibility of interpreting Bourdelin's data fell on Dodart, who did his best to extrapolate a few generalizations from them.
The most threatening objection, however, was that the fire created new substances instead of merely separating substances that already existed in the plant. This view was widely accepted and had been asserted by numerous English scientists throughout the century. Some academicians feared that this was indeed happening, and Dodart had to acknowledge certain disadvantages of distillation in refuting this view. As Fontenelle later pointed out, something as violent as fire must alter the constituents of a plant, especially the fixed salts, which were obtained by lessives only after calcination. Mariotte suspected that distillation might fix volatile salts and make fixed ones volatile; the fire could even create a poisonous substance from a nutritious plant or form new chemical unions from the plant's constituents. On the whole, however, Mariotte believed that fire did not produce the constituents found in plants, because all of them could also be obtained naturally without recourse to fire.
This problem worried academicians, who searched the data for reassurance. Even Duclos changed his mind about the effects of distillation. In 1668 he had believed that the fire assembled similar elements and separated dissimilar ones when heat excited motion in the substance being distilled. By 1676 he came to believe that fire changed a plant's material virtues without making its formal and specific virtues better known. Homberg later wrote that fire united some parts of a plant to form oil. Against such views, Dodart argued that a fire did not often create new products, although he admitted that it might change the structure of the basic particles that compose plants and that some elements might escape through the vessels. Dodart tried to define the nature and limits of any changes that fire could produce and asserted that any loss from the vessels was inconsequential with respect to both weight and character.
Academicians criticized the procedure they had selected, and they disagreed about continuing to use it. Whatever doubts existed when the
project started were not assuaged as it progressed; rather, Bourdelin's research brought to light still more problems. As a result, his colleagues considered abandoning or refining the method, sought a more effective one, and in the meantime changed Bourdelin's procedures.
The Method of Distillation
Bourdelin's first technique was to distill a plant and collect the distillant in a single container. He then subjected the product to further operations in order to separate it into spirit, oil, salt, phlegm, and earth. This was plant distillation as Le Febvre had taught it at the Jardin royal, and Duclos recommended the same procedures to the Academy in 1668. Duclos described how to change the temperature of the fire, explained that the ashy residue (the teste-morte or charbon ) in the receptacle containing the plant was to be calcinated and lixiviated to extract salts, and recommended that various distillants be tested with color reactors similar to those he used for mineral waters. The distinguishing feature of this method was that the distillant was collected in one container, to be separated and analyzed later. Forty-two plants were examined this way in 1670.
In 1670, shortly before Dodart joined the Academy, Duclos's method was abandoned for one that obtained more varied products. The new procedure changed the recipient (the glass receptacle that collected the distillant) every time the heat of the fire changed, Bourdelin varied this second method over the next three decades, while other academicians tried to improve it. By the time Dodart wrote the Mémoires des plantes, more than one hundred plants had been analyzed this way.
Dodart described this new technique, which he in fact revised, in some detail. He named the vessels used, told how to regulate the fire, discussed the substances obtained, and described how the ashes were treated. Everything was distilled in a glass or earthenware retort, to which was attached either a balon à tétine or a balon sans tétine, that is, a recipient with or without an udder-like protrusion. Organic matter was placed in the retort, the recipient was attached, and the retort was placed over a fire. Bourdelin regulated the fire and changed the recipient carefully.
We start the fire so slowly that it can scarcely heat the retort. We increase it slightly until some liquid passes into the receiver, and we keep the fire in this state. We increase the heat only when scarcely any more liquid comes out. We increase it slightly degree by degree during a period of fourteen or fifteen days, and we make it as hot as possible. We empty the receiver, not only whenever we
increase the fire, but more often, and we keep all parts of the distillant separated.
Distillation continued until the fire had reached its maximum temperature and no more liquid would come out. Then the ashes remaining in the retort were removed and treated. As many as fourteen different distillants might be extracted from the plant, in this order: sharp (acres ) spirits; essential oils, given by aromatic plants; sulphurous spirits; simple waters; waters with a hidden taste of acid or sulphur; acid spirits; mixed spirits; urinous spirits, either with or without acid; volatile salts; black oils; fixed or saline or lixivial salt; and earth. These products were tested with color reactors and by other means to classify them further. Each watery liquid was characterized as either "insipid, acid, sulphurous, urinous, or mixed." All the insipid liquids were combined and set aside, then all the acid liquids were combined and set aside, and so on. Once all the products had been identified and organized, each was examined for its weight and other observable properties (propriétés sensibles ).
This new method was not an invention of the Academy, but academicians applied it more rigorously than did their contemporaries. Glaser, for example, also changed recipients during distillation, but not so frequently, and as a result he did not obtain so many different distillants. But Glaser and Dodart had different purposes. Glaser simply wanted to extract certain substances that he could use as medicaments, whereas academicians wanted to identify all the constituents of plants.
By the 1690s, when Tournefort studied Bourdelin's research, the chemist had abbreviated his procedures. He removed the branches and juices from a plant and crushed it before distilling it. Then he put five livres of the plant in a tinned cucurbit, covered it with a glass head, and placed it in a water bath or a steam bath for two to three days, with the fire going day and night. Bourdelin next tested the liquid products with his repertory of indicators to determine whether they were acid or alkali. Next he distilled the dry residue in a retort with a large balloon or recipient, increasing the fire gradually. After twelve or fourteen hours he put the distillant in a glass alembic and attached a new recipient to the retort. He increased the heat of the fire and collected further distillants, separating them with a large glass funnel. By this time, the chemist was no longer regulating the fire and treating the teste-morte as he had in the 1670s, and distillations lasted only a few days instead of a fortnight. The changes perhaps reflect his declining stamina.
Bourdelin's procedures never satisfied academicians, who suggested either embellishing or replacing distillation. Dodart was frankly overwhelmed by the data and asked Bourdelin to focus his work. By distilling
more selectively, he would avert interminable research. Thus Dodart abandoned a Baconian search for every possible phenomenon. Instead he adopted a more carefully designed program that chose the objects of inquiry according to some preconceptions. Dodart's stamp was felt on the Academy's choice of plants for distillation thereafter.
Chemical analyses, like dissections of animals, required painstaking work and could be dangerous or unpleasant. Just as a slip of the knife might cause an infection (like the one that killed Perrault, who cut himself while dissecting a camel), so distillants were risky, for chemists identified many of them by taste. Rotting corpses and distilled plants stank. Anatomists treated decaying flesh with eau de vie, and Bourdelin treated plants by digesting (that is, heating without boiling), fermenting, or macerating before he distilled them. Unfortunately, this treatment altered them. Dodart wanted to assess any changes caused by prior treatment, but other academicians tried to overcome any effects. Perrault thought this could be accomplished by distilling macerated or digested plants over lower heat for a longer time. His idea was to compensate for the diminished force of the fire by increasing the duration of the distillation, a principle of substitution that he derived from mechanics.
The quest for a more satisfactory method of analysis continued well after the Mémoires des plantes appeared, but with few new ideas. By mid-November 1678, Bourdelin was on the defensive. He may well have been resisting pressure to disband his distillations. Borelly reflected on Bourdelin's recalcitrant research in the 1680s (as Homberg would do in the 1690s), probably as a result of a ministerial request. He stressed ways of rectifying distillants and designed a furnace for extracting substances from the testes-mortes . Above all he favored solvents for analysis. Some academicians had high hopes for his work. La Hire, for example, wrote to Huygens that Borelly "is searching as hard as he can for new ways of testing the liquids extracted in analyses." The chemist had discovered "something very curious," but La Hire's ignorance of chemistry prevented him from explaining Borelly's discovery.
For years after Dodart published the Mémoires des plantes, academicians debated distillation. They were so dissatisfied that they nearly abandoned it. Researchers could not be certain that their methods were adequate or that their results were meaningful. Instead of rejecting distillation, however, they refined the process.
Given the pervasive skepticism about distillation by fire, why did academicians not discard it in favor of alternative methods? They could have
tested the natural juices of plants with color reactors, observed the crystals formed by plant juices, studied vegetable dyes, or used solvent analysis. Duclos, Dodart, and Perrault had discussed the first three of these techniques, while Borelly and Duclos promoted extraction by solvents. But two academicians — Bourdelin and Dodart — saw to it that the Academy continued distilling plants, in spite of shortcomings and alternatives.
Bourdelin's influence is surprising, because his role in the institution was so circumscribed. Of all the academicians involved with the natural history of plants only the two Marchants had as little power as Bourdelin. After the 1660s, his contributions to meetings were confined almost entirely to reporting on his distillations. His early papers on chemical research were ignored by the Academy, and his notebooks record experiments made according to the instructions of Duclos, Dodart, Borelly, and others. Yet if he could not initiate research, he could veto it, and he was markedly reluctant throughout the century to use any method of analysis other than distillation. Dodart suggested that soils be lixiviated instead of distilled, but Bourdelin continued distilling them, and when Borelly criticized him for this, Bourdelin stopped analyzing soils altogether. Both Duclos and Borelly wanted to use solvents, but again Bourdelin resisted. Since no other academician was willing to devote all his time to analyzing plants, animals, and minerals chemically, Bourdelin was able by default to perfect his chosen technique.
Dodart, too, favored distillation, and as director of the natural history his opinion carried weight. Distillation seemed appropriate for two reasons: it was a universal method which permitted comparison of all plants according to a single standard, and it promised insights into how food nourished and medicines cured the body. Bourdelin's analyses hence seemed promising to Dodart's own research, and because the natural history could not proceed without Dodart and Bourdelin, their advocacy was decisive.
The most touted but controversial alternative to distillation was solvent analysis. Duclos had originally laid out a narrow sphere for solvent analysis in 1668. Distillation by fire, he argued, was best for separating the chemical constituents of most substances. The exceptions were "fixed substances and those which cannot be burned." These required "dissolving menstruums which break up the mass and render the constituent parts separable." Any substance that a fire could not distill required analysis with solvents. Pure earths, metals, glass, chalk, and minerals were all "fixed" in varying degrees; solvents offered the only hope of analyzing them.
Duclos's interest in the subject had Paracelsian origins, and he supplied the recipe for what he claimed was the true alkahest or universal solvent.
Solvent analysis was one of the issues that alienated Duclos from Dodart. The two argued about solvents in the early 1670s. When Dodart came across Duclos's recipe for the universal solvent, he mocked it as worthless for analyzing plants. In January 1675 he derisively asked the chemist to consider whether the solvent might shed light on the "marvelous effects" attributed to plants. Duclos's recipe, Dodart maintained, was as enigmatic as those of Paracelsus, Helmont, or Deiconti. Even if it was possible to make a universal solvent, it "would not help us understand the nature of plants any better, because each plant would be reduced by the operation of these solvents to a state" in which it would be indistinguishable from any other plant so treated. He derided universal solvents as being as useless as the theories of signatures and temperaments.
This exchange occurred after Duclos modified his view. He now believed that solvent analysis offered
a much better method than that of the fire since a solvent does not alter things, but leaves them as they are and reduces them to their constituent principles while preserving their virtues and their specific properties, something the fire cannot do.
Furious at Dodart's attack, Duclos criticized "the author of the project who always speaks in the name of the Company without being so charged" for having characterized "universal solvents as vain and useless." Dodart embarrassed the Academy, he claimed, by representing it as mistrustful of methods recommended by "famous chemists." Ironically, it was Duclos who discomfited his colleagues by publishing his alchemical Dissertation sur les principes des mixtes in Amsterdam after a committee of academicians had advised against its publication.
Duclos's alchemical interests made him an unconvincing proponent of solvent analysis. Borelly, however, was untainted by Paracelsianism and he too favored solvents over distillation. Like Duclos he collected reports about their use, and the year after Duclos died Borelly proposed that all kinds of solvents be prepared. Perhaps he hoped to convince his wary colleagues that solvent analysis did not necessarily depend on alchemical precepts. But his death in 1689 left the field to Bourdelin and Dodart.
Why did the Academy continue to analyze plants? Members recognized the shortcomings of distillation and its results baffled them, but they mistrusted solution analysis more. Why did they persist? The answer does
not lie merely in the persuasiveness of the method's proponents, who brushed aside problems as due to imprecise observations. Rather, the steadfast analysis of plants by academicians in the face of apparent failure results from the high premium they placed on the basic goals of chemical analysis.
The Goals of Chemical Analysis
Academicians had many reasons for analyzing plants. They hoped to find support for a particular theory of matter, to discover the nature of plants, to ascertain the medical and nutritional uses of plants and their products, to distinguish among the parts and types of plants, and to determine the limits of the method itself. Over a period of thirty-three years, more than half a dozen different goals were enunciated by the eight or nine men concerned with analyzing plants. What induced academicians to justify their research with such varied reasons? Were there differences of opinion, or did opinion change gradually during three decades? The sources indicate that some academicians did disagree about the aims of this research and that their attitudes often changed as the research unfolded, but that they never totally abandoned certain fundamental expectations.
Perrault was the first to articulate goals. Chemical analysis had two objects for him. First, he hoped to obtain some experimental support for the corpuscular theory of matter. Perrault believed that the shapes of salt crystals were related to the shapes of corpuscles, an idea shared by Lémery and Homberg. Although Mariotte later agreed that chemical analysis might prove that corpuscles existed, this view never caught on in the Academy. Perrault's second goal struck a more sympathetic chord among his colleagues: he wished to identify what caused the properties of plants, that is, what made some nutritious, others medicinal, and still others poisonous.
Perrault's ideas anticipate the three major goals that motivated academicians until the end of the century: to identify the constituents of plants, to improve medicine, and to understand how plants nourish humans. The Academy's chemical analyses of plants promised both theoretical and practical results, with the latter contingent on the former. Duclos, for example, hoped to describe the "constitution" of plants, while Dodart wanted to uncover "what plants are" and thought that chemical analysis might reveal the intimate structure in plants that produces their effects.
The main purpose of analyzing plants chemically was to discover their constituents. But by the mid-1670s, frustrated by distillation, some
academicians became disillusioned about the prospects of understanding the nature of plants. Instead they emphasized more practical purposes, such as improving medicine, without the benefit of an improved theory. Rather than try to put a practical art on a firm theoretical basis, they would operate pragmatically. Instead of deducing the effects of plants from general constituents, they would simply test specific distillants. Bourdelin's reports often prompted discussions of remedies that could be made from the plant in question. Dodart scrutinized Bourdelin's notebooks for any pharmacological benefits, and Homberg told Bignon that he expected to find some medical uses for the distillants that Bourdelin had identified. Dodart also proposed feeding poisonous plants to animals and dissecting the victims to trace the action of the poisons. He even considered carrying practical inquiry to the extreme, reversing the order of the inquiry: he suggested that pharmacological discoveries might clarify what plants were in themselves, that causes could be inferred from their effects. The difficulties of such an approach, however, were daunting.
The third major goal — understanding nutrition — was Dodart's particular interest. Indeed, the experiment for which he is probably best known stemmed from this quest: Dodart weighed himself before and after his Lenten fast, measured his daily intake of food and liquid, compared it with what he excreted, and concluded that the additional weight loss was due to transpiration. Seizing the opportunity to get comparative information when Roemer traveled to England in 1679, Dodart asked his colleague to find out how racehorses were fed and trained, to look into the training and eating habits of men and women who were long distance runners, to find out how patients were fed in hospitals, to discover whether oatmeal was mixed with cucumber or fruit, and to let him know the eating and drinking habits of the Scots and Irish. Furthermore, Dodart hoped that chemical analysis would clarify the food chain linking soil, plants, animals, and humans. Finally, Bourdelin distilled various fruits, grains, and green vegetables for Dodart in the hope of identifying what made them wholesome. But these analyses did not reflect what was already known about plants. Dodart noticed that nourishing fruits, like peaches and apples, seemed to contain only water and yielded little oil during distillation. Because these distillants could not account for the food value of the fruits, however, Dodart concluded that there must be a fixed oil in peaches and apples that only the stomach could extract.
After 1675, when it was clear that the primary goal of understanding the nature of plants would not swiftly be achieved, academicians devoted more attention to the second and third goals. They also posed more specific
questions, about the salts and oils in plants and about the chemical differences between various parts of plants. As a result, Bourdelin no longer tried to analyze every possible plant with utmost thoroughness; instead he selected particular plants or distillants for particular purposes, often those suggested by his colleagues. Dodart believed that in addressing such small questions academicians had made the best of things: while they could not, for example, explain why acidic and sulphurous substances differed, they had at least contributed to knowledge about the two. Furthermore, by concentrating on simpler problems first, academicians might establish a basis for examining the more complex issues.
In summary, the Academy's chemical analysis of plants changed in the 1670s. In the first half of the decade, as before, the principal reason for analyzing plants was to determine their chemical constituents. In the second half and thereafter, Dodart's two practical interests — nutrition and medicine — dominated chemical analysis. When academicians sought to identify the nature of plants, they were propounding an unanswerable question, given their methods and knowledge. This failure consequently forced them to pose more limited, manageable questions and to refine further their methods of analysis. These strategies, however, did not solve the quite different problem of how to present unsuccessful work to the public in a favorable light.
Publicity and Discretion
The natural history of plants was plagued by uncertainty. Academicians, therefore, continually modified their goals and research procedures. Neither perfectionists nor pedants, academicians were realistic experimentalists. The blend of tradition and innovation in their project, the too general nature of their first goal, and the unsuitability of distillation for their work, all disrupted their research. So did rivalry among colleagues.
At the very time when the Academy had decided to publish its results, its members were raising the most serious objections to the project. Dodart was dissatisfied about chemical analysis: "Since it scarcely seems that the distillants obtained by the analyses show us what plants are and what they can do, we must at least learn from the analyses what can be done, by any method whatever." This justified persistence but allowed only a small hope that more general conclusions might be reached.
Dodart was desperate because he was editing the Mémoires des plantes for publication. Some engravings and descriptions of plants were ready, but Bourdelin's research evaded all efforts at interpretation. Yet Dodart had to
present the Academy's work in the best possible light. After all, the Company was not ten years old, and savants in England and elsewhere awaited its publications eagerly but with skepticism. Everyone knew of the generous royal funding, academicians' pensions, and the institution's grandiose plans, but there had already been rumors of dissension. The public would judge the fledgling society by its publications. The Academy's natural history of plants seemed to meet a scientific need, and its chemical analyses made it somewhat innovative. But in 1675, the year when he was writing a first installment of the natural history of plants, Dodart was worried.
The Mémoires des plantes reflects Dodart's ambivalence about analysis, but it puts the best possible face on the Academy's work. Dodart addressed the problem directly. In the preface he invited the public to send information to the Academy. In the text he laid out Bourdelin's methods and results, the original goal and its more realistic modifications, and the difficulties encountered. Defending the Academy, Dodart pointed out that its laboratory had extracted several new substances from plants. Furthermore, he asserted that even if the Academy could not demonstrate "what is in each plant," then showing at least what plants are good for
constitutes an important aspect of the History of Nature, and should add considerably to materia medica, as will be seen in the rest of this work. That is the sole certain usefulness which the Company anticipated from this research, leaving the rest to the conjectures of the Natural Philosophers.
Dodart adroitly defended the Academy's failed chemical analysis. Its accomplishments, he argued, were well within the proper limits of natural history, while its failures belonged to the realm of natural philosophy and thus lay outside the scope of the project. Finally, he stressed the practical applications of the Academy's work.
The Mémoires des plantes was a clever smoke screen meant to make a good impression on the public. It emphasized the most plausible aspects of the Academy's work. But a careful reader would have realized that academicians still hoped that distillations might reveal the composition of organic matter. Indeed, Dodart's views were often confused and inconsistent because he was trying to do justice to the more ambitious goals of the Academy without making it look foolish.
The Academy had many reasons for asking Bourdelin to analyze plants. Principally, it hoped to discover the basic chemical constituents of plants, to
develop new medicaments, and to understand what makes plants nutritious or poisonous. These purposes, along with other, secondary goals, explain why academicians persisted with this research on plants. Even though they worried that what they did might be fruitless, their multiple goals made them flexible and optimistic. They could justify distillation on medical grounds, for example, and hope that it would also explain the constituents of organic matter. They continued because what they sought was so important, because alternative methods seemed even more doubtful (to all but Duclos and Borelly), and because they thought they could perfect the one method in which most of them had any confidence at all.
For academicians and contemporaries like Grew and Boyle, chemistry was pivotal because it contributed to natural history, natural philosophy, and medicine. They hoped that chemical analysis would uncover the basic constituents of living matter and perhaps corroborate the corpuscularian theory. Their hopes dashed, academicians had to adopt more limited, practical goals; at worst chemical analysis might help generate medical reforms.
Both editorial rivalry and intellectual disputes undermined the project. Academicians disagreed about its goals and conduct, and several problems stemmed from the attempts to make the natural history innovative and to give it a theoretical foundation. Yet these obstacles were not fatal to the project, which failed for still other reasons, while Bourdelin's work was endorsed in a way that no one had anticipated.