What explains this abrupt abandonment of the natural history of plants? Academicians had overcome editorial rivalry, discouragement about chemical analyses of uncertain merit, theft of manuscripts, and parsimony prompted by the Dutch Wars. Despite all of these discouragements, they researched and wrote for publication. But in the mid-1680s a new and more dangerous impediment arose. What jealousy, controversy, theft, or economy had not accomplished, ministerial interference did. The Academy's botanical work was injured by misguided enthusiasm on the part of its patron.
When a patron's own interests interfere with the conception or execution of a creative project, the quality of work suffers. Interference from a patron who does not understand the technical language and skills or the theoretical assumptions of the work can be especially damaging. This is precisely what happened. In 1686 Louvois intervened, upsetting the delicate
balance between theoretical and practical expectations. Academicians had hoped that their natural history of plants would benefit medicine and add to basic knowledge about the nature of the world. They disputed among themselves as to whether sound theory was a basis for or an outcome of practical advance. But no academician advocated choosing between utilitarian and abstract goals; rather they debated the precise relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge. Into this scholarly discussion was injected a ministerial command to obtain practical benefits at the expense of theoretical research.
Louvois took an interest in natural history and preferred it to the other sciences partly because he thought it promised the quickest utilitarian results. He became especially impatient when the king's life was endangered by a serious illness that his physicians had been unable to treat effectively. Looking for a scapegoat, resenting an Academy that could not save its monarch's life, needing more funds for Louis's wars, and expecting scientific inquiry to lead inexorably and swiftly to improvements in the quality of life, Louvois lost patience. He told the Academy how to do its work.
At the meeting of 30 January 1686, Henri Bessé de La Chapelle, Louvois's spokesman in the Academy, read a short paper to academicians. Willfully insulting and openly disdainful of the Academy's chemical research, La Chapelle warned academicians that they must move in new directions. He exhorted academicians to eschew "curious" research, which he called "a game" or "an amusement of the Chemists," and to apply themselves instead to "useful research that has some connection with the Service of the King and of the State. La Chapelle recommended that academicians study medicine, improve and republish Duclos's book on mineral waters, try to desalinate sea water, and analyze wines. He also discussed the relationship among medicine, natural philosophy, and the natural history of plants:
The other research more appropriate for this Company and which would be more to the taste of Monseigneur de Louvois is anything that can illustrate natural philosophy and serve medicine, these two things being practically inseparable, since medicine takes consequences and profit from the new discoveries of natural philosophy.
La Chapelle believed that the Academy's chemical analyses were worthless because they belonged not to the practical realm of botany and medicine but to the abstract and theoretical realm of natural philosophy. The Academy's natural philosophers controlled chemistry and the natural history of
plants, and they stood accused of subverting these subjects by seeking the underlying causes of things.
While La Chapelle agreed that practical results followed from theoretical discoveries, he noted that chemical research at the Academy seemed to make little progress in either direction. For that reason he warned the Academy to concentrate on empirical matters. In singling out Duclos's book on French mineral waters for praise, La Chapelle cited a work that perfectly blended science, medicine, and chauvinism to please a royal patron interested in practical accomplishments. Furthermore, Louvois and La Chapelle unerringly criticized the most vulnerable of the Academy's projects, the one that had stirred personal and theoretical controversy and whose publications were few by comparison with its cost. Whatever Louvois's motivation — Louis's nearly fatal illness, some behind-the-scenes influence, or impatience with a project much discussed but showing few practical results — his instructions were clear. Academicians were to spend more time on medical research. He would continue to support the natural history of plants only so long as the Academy adjusted its contents to his expectations.
Since Louvois never repudiated his spokesman or his instructions, he must have been content with La Chapelle's speech. Other academicians perhaps agreed, for only eighteen months later La Hire explained La Chapelle's role to Huygens, to whom he sometimes complained about Louvois's policies. Louvois, he said, had "entirely committed the care of our academy" to La Chapelle, who "does us the courtesy of attending our meetings and of communicating to us his good ideas (belles lumières ) in the sciences." La Chapelle's place in the Academy was assured and his harangue of January 1686 was heeded by academicians, up to a point.
La Chapelle's speech is a curious blend of criticism and advice, of general statements about method and specific suggestions for research, of familiarity with and ignorance about the Academy's chemical research. Many of his suggestions were superfluous. Duclos, Dodart, and Bourdelin had already studied the tastes of plant distillants, analyzed earths, and tried to desalinate sea water. Academicians had always sought medical applications of their work and planned to include the medical uses of plants in the natural history. La Chapelle named specific vegetable and mineral substances — mercury, antimony, quinine, laudanum, poppy, tea, coffee, and cocoa — for study, but academicians had already examined them. Perhaps, in his awkward double role as ministerial spokesman and as colleague of the academicians, La Chapelle was trying to soften Louvois's criticisms implicitly by proposing work he knew his colleagues had already
performed. Louvois's motives are clearer than La Chapelle's, but the effect of the speech, no matter what its genesis, was unmistakable.
La Chapelle's talk had marked repercussions. First, academicians no longer presented papers about the natural history of plants. Second, the chemists were more carefully supervised and had to draft new research proposals. Both Borelly and Dodart immediately suggested projects incorporating Louvois's requirements, and Du Hamel turned over the chemical proposals to La Chapelle in April 1686. During January 1688 Borelly was asked to keep a notebook of his chemical experiments, and he presented his findings to the Wednesday assemblies. Third, chemical analyses emphasized the potentially useful natural products of plants, such as gums and materia medica. Fourth, medical remedies became an even more common topic of discussion at meetings. Fifth, fewer plants were described or engravings verified than in previous years. Sixth, only two other papers on plants were read; one was a letter sent to academicians about a deformed pear, and the other was Sédileau's report on the insects that caused galls in the bark of trees in the royal orangerie. Thus the only botanical paper produced by an academician from 1686 until 1690 concerned a disease of Louis's orange trees, not disinterested inquiry but institutional flattery of the patron. The years 1688 and 1689 represent the nadir of botanical research in the seventeenth-century Academy. Only Bourdelin continued his normal research, perhaps because while working at home he could isolate himself from ministerial pressures. When La Hire reported the Academy's activities to Huygens in 1690, he did not mention any work on plants. By the time Pontchartrain took over the Academy from Louvois, botanical research at the Academy had very nearly collapsed.
With the decline in pure botanical research, academicians emphasized the nutritional, medical, and industrial uses of plants and their products. In 1688, 1689, and 1690, they assessed a coffee-flavored beverage brewed from roasted rye, tasted the milky juice in common chicory, considered a remedy for hemorrhoids, and compared methods of treating wood to obtain good charcoal. Only in 1690, when Louvois's health and interest in the Academy were declining, did La Hire revive the study of plant vegetation and Dodart and Marchant again read descriptions of plants. Their example was lauded by Gallois and, oddly, by La Chapelle, both of whom urged a study of roots. Despite this flurry of activity, Louvois's reprimands about curious research and chemical games had both an immediate and a lasting detrimental effect on the natural history of plants; the project temporarily came to a halt and never recovered its full vigor.
The natural history suffered from fiscal exigency and internal difficulties
both intellectual and personal, but ministerial manipulation was decisive. Indeed, theoretical botany revived when Pontchartrain became protector. In 1692 Dodart planned botanical research and read a paper on the structure of the bud of a tree, while La Hire demonstrated that fig trees produced flowers, and Tournefort and Marchant described plants for the Academy's new monthly publication. Observations sent from the Far East fired enthusiasm and broadened the scope of inquiry, so that the Academy inspected drawings of hitherto unknown Chinese plants (fig. 12) and studied the root of ginseng. Dodart reported the growth of leaves and shoots on an elm felled fifteen months earlier. Tournefort examined an unusual mushroom, the flowers of Apocynum maius syriacum rectum cornuti, and the contraction of fibers in certain plants. Morin de Toulon discussed a plant called tartunaire in Provençal, and La Hire fils described how a vine attaches itself to walls. La Hire and Sédileau studied orange trees, and Jean Marchant reported on his and his father's emendations of Bauhin's Pinax . In 1697 Dodart pointed out that the base of a tree's crown was always parallel to the ground in which the tree grew. No longer did botanical presentations emphasize utility.
Finally, Tournefort and Homberg agreed that the natural history of plants should be published, and they cooperated for a time with Dodart, Marchant, and Bourdelin. By 1692 Dodart and Marchant were once again reading descriptions of plants to assemblies almost as frequently as they had before 1686. They also compared plants with engravings, while Bourdelin analyzed plants and Homberg and Tournefort studied his findings. Homberg was initially enthusiastic and his manuscripts confirm that the Academy expected to publish the natural history of plants during the 1690s.
In the number and variety of botanical activities and in the balance of pure and applied research, the 1690s were a period of marked improvement. Ministerial appointments spurred this revival. Unlike Louvois, who named relatively unknown scientists to poorly paid positions and added no chemists or botanists to the Academy, Pontchartrain selected well-known and respected scientists — Boulduc, Homberg, Charas, and Tournefort — and paid some of them decently. At least as important, he and Bignon allowed academicians to control their research, insofar as the royal treasury could underwrite it. Finally, in appointing Tournefort, Pontchartrain injected into the Academy a savant with a forceful intellect and powerful backing who would usurp the natural history of plants and shape it to his own purposes.