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.