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.