Students of Plants
Academicians as a group reflected broader trends. But it was as individuals that they made their mark on the Academy and the scholarly world, and it is as individuals that they will become familiar in the present study.
Of the sixty-two academicians appointed before 1699, twenty-two, or 35 percent, contributed to botanical studies, and it will be helpful to focus attention on them at a more personal level. This group included four botanists (Nicolas and Jean Marchant, Denis Dodart, and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort), two natural philosophers (Edme Mariotte and Claude Perrault), five of the Academy's seven chemists (Claude Bourdelin, Jacques Borelly, Moyse Charas, Samuel Cottereau Duclos, and Guillaume Homberg), a mineralogist (Morin de Toulon), and two anatomists (Joseph Guichard Du Verney and Daniel Tauvry). Six academicians whose principal work was in the mathematical sciences (Jean Dominique Cassini, Jean Gallois, Christiaan Huygens, Philippe and Gabriel Philippe de La Hire, and Sédileau) also discussed plants. Finally, both permanent secretaries (Jean Baptiste Du Hamel and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle) wrote extensively about botany in their histories of the early Academy.
The principal designer of botanical research was Claude Perrault (1613–1688). He championed the term "la botanique," and his January 1667 proposal influenced botanical studies at the Academy for the rest of the century. He and his brothers advised Colbert, but the academician was no favorite of Louvois, who had Perrault's house razed to clear ground for a new library. A physician who practiced medicine only for family, friends, and the poor, and an architect who designed several royal structures including the controversial Observatory, Perrault directed the Academy's acclaimed Histoire des animaux and interpreted comparative anatomy mechanistically. The Perrault family, which counted Christiaan Huygens among its friends, was representative of the French upper middle class that supplied lawyers, scholars, and bureaucrats during the reign of Louis XIV.
The second major botanical theorist was the Burgundian prior Edme Mariotte (c. 1620–1684), whose debate with Perrault about the circulation of sap exposed their different methods. While Mariotte was both theorist and experimenter, Perrault mostly speculated in the abstract about plants and borrowed Mariotte's data. Mariotte was a polymath who studied hydrostatics and air pressure, developed a theory of colors, and invented surveying instruments. His work was indebted to Boyle, some of whose writings he translated for the Academy, and to a network of scholarly correspondents from Aberdeen to Warsaw.
The Academy's first chemical theorist was Samuel Cottereau Duclos (1598–1685). He designed and directed the Academy's laboratory in the Bibliothèque du roi. In it he studied mineral waters, analyzed the chemical constituents of plants and animals, and developed the alchemical ideas that
he abjured, along with his Protestant religion, in the last days of his life. One of Colbert's elder statesmen of science, he was disliked by Louvois, who did not pay his pension at the end. Before becoming an academician, Duclos had run his own laboratory in Paris; among his pupils was Nicaise Le Febvre, whose popular chemical textbook owed much to Duclos's methods.
Denis Dodart (1634–1717) directed the Academy's natural history of plants from the early 1670s until the 1690s. Much of Dodart's other work in the Academy — on diseases of the poor, nutrition, and the effects of fasting — was stimulated by his medical, social, and religious concerns. Dodart owed his place in the Academy, won before he was forty, to his connections with the Perrault family. He earned it by reviving the institution during its early slump. Known at the end of his life to the duke of Saint-Simon as a "very learned and quite saintly man," Dodart was a committed Jansenist who used his medical consultations to the king to defend his coreligionists. His friends included Jean Racine, Antoine Arnauld, Pierre Nicole, the duc de Roannez, and others associated with Port Royal.
Perrault, Mariotte, Duclos, and Dodart dominated theoretical research on plants. But they depended on Claude Bourdelin to analyze plants in the laboratory and on Nicolas and Jean Marchant to cultivate and describe them.
Claude Bourdelin (1621–1699) was responsible for nearly all of the Academy's chemical analyses. He refined chemical techniques, especially for analyzing oils, and kept detailed records of his experiments and expenses. The Academy ignored his sole programmatic paper, however, partly because his ideas were too narrowly medical. Born near Lyon and orphaned at an early age, Bourdelin became an influential Paris apothecary and ensured good positions for his sons, in whose educations he enlisted Du Hamel and La Hire. He counted Racine among his friends.
The Marchants, father and son, cultivated rare plants for the Academy's natural history. Together with Dodart they also composed descriptions of plants, their cultivation, and uses. As Dodart's role in the project grew, that of the Marchants shrank. Nicolas Marchant (?-1678) had served Gaston, duke of Orléans, and with Perrault encouraged the Academy to model its history of plants after work begun under the duke. Jean Marchant (?-1738) continued his father's work but never brought it to fruition; perhaps that is why Fontenelle wrote no eulogy for him.
By 1689 Perrault, Mariotte, Duclos, and Nicolas Marchant were dead, and Bourdelin could not keep up his previous pace. In 1691 Pontchartrain appointed a chemist and a botanist to revitalize the Academy's botanical
research. The chemist was Guillaume Homberg (?-1715), who had nearly been admitted to the Academy by Colbert. He became an influential member, enlivening meetings with his varied papers and initial optimism about Bourdelin's analyses of plants. Homberg was also interested in mining, astronomy, scientific instruments and machines, history, and languages, including Hebrew. He learned by touring the continent, so that he could meet scholars and trade in scientific novelties. Like many contemporaries, he pursued his scientific interests against the wishes of his family. Happily, the Academy provided him a new family, for in 1708 he married Dodart's daughter. An entrepreneur and risk-taker, Homberg's biography suggests his courage and strong will.
The botanist Pontchartrain appointed was Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (?-1708), the most renowned of all the early Academy's researchers in this field and the first academician to travel abroad for botanical research. Tournefort's brief career was distinguished. Having arrived in Paris from Aix via Montpellier with Guy Crescent Fagon's support, he obtained appointments at the Academy, the Jardin royal, and the Collège royal. He published several influential books and developed the principal botanical taxonomy before Linnaeus. His interest in chemistry took him to Nicolas Lémery's courses and to Bourdelin's laboratory. Tournefort also collected shells, seeds, and fruits. He willed eight thousand dried plants to the king for the Academy's use and left his botanical books to Bignon, whose personal physician he had been.
These academicians collaborated with one another in studying plants, but others made individual contributions. The latter were often more active in the mathematical section of the Academy. Their botanical contributions were episodic and peripheral and developed as a result of reading, observation, and conversation.
Jacques Borelly (?-1689) was interested in the chemical composition of soils and in plant nutrition, and he favored analysis by solvents. Overshadowed by Duclos and director of the laboratory for only a few years, Borelly never came into his own as a chemist at the Academy. Outside the Academy, Borelly attended Montmor's and Bourdelot's scientific meetings and explained chemical vocabulary to Antoine Furetière for the latter's dictionary. Borelly also published articles about astronomy and telescope lenses of his own manufacture. Cassini and Huygens had a low opinion of his lenses, but Louvois raised his pension and moved him into Duclos's apartment in the Bibliothèque du roi after the older chemist's death.
Seventy-three when he joined the Academy, Moyse Charas (1619–1698) worked on poisons, antidotes, opium, and vipers. But he was more an
honored guest than a working academician. Charas had enjoyed a distinguished medical career in England, Holland, and Spain; he lectured on chemistry and published popular works on chemical techniques and pharmaceutics. Like Homberg, he was a Protestant whose appointment to the Academy followed his conversion to Catholicism.
Joseph Guichard Du Verney (1648–1730) was the only academician before Tournefort to discuss Malpighi's ideas about plant physiology. Known for his treatise on the ear, he was the first to teach osteology and the diseases of bones at the Jardin royal, where his lecture-demonstrations were very popular. The son of a provincial doctor, he trained at Avignon and built his career in Paris. There he attended Lémery's course on chemistry and participated in Bourdelot's and Denis's scientific meetings. By dissecting the brain in these private societies, Du Verney earned his reputation as a promising young anatomist. Du Verney later became the dauphin's tutor in natural philosophy and entertained the court with his dissections. He willed a large collection of anatomical preparations to the Academy.
Daniel Tauvry (1669–1701) analyzed resins and gums, plant products that were thought to come from sap. An anatomist who came from the provinces to build a career in Paris, he did not long survive his success, for he died less than three years after his appointment to the Academy. Although he attended meetings regularly and shared Du Verney's skepticism about Jean Méry's views on the circulation of the blood in the fetus, Tauvry contributed few papers to the Academy.
Morin (?-1707), about whom little is known except that he came from Toulon, was appointed with the title of botanist but was more interested in mineralogy and porcelain. He was often absent from meetings of the Academy, but contributed a paper on a plant found in Provence.
The mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), the most highly regarded of all academicians, influenced botany by observing plants with his new scientific instruments. Huygens came from an influential and wealthy family in Holland. Best known for his work on clocks, theoretical mathematics, and light, his very presence dignified the Academy during its early years.
The astronomer Philippe de La Hire (1640–1718) studied the rise of sap and the origins of petrified wood. A Parisian by birth and the son of the painter Laurent de La Hyre, La Hire taught mathematics at the Collège royal and was a member of the Académie royale d'architecture. For the Academy of Sciences, he worked on the extension of the meridian and the map of the kingdom, surveyed for the waterworks at Versailles, edited the
works of deceased colleagues for publication, and kept Huygens informed about the Academy after 1681.
Gabriel Philippe de La Hire (1677–1719), son of Philippe, wrote a paper on how vines grip walls. He entered the Academy as a student astronomer at the age of seventeen and also followed in his father's footsteps by becoming professor royal of architecture.
Sédileau (?-1693), whose first name and biography are unknown, studied orange trees and their diseases. A mathematician influenced by Ignace Gaston Pardies, Sédileau translated and annotated Frontinus's treatise on aqueducts, wrote meteorological and astronomical papers, designed several instruments, and fashioned the terrestrial map on the floor of the western tower of the Observatory.
Even the astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini (1625–1712) contributed to the Academy's work on plants, if only by discussing the medical uses of plant products during the late 1680s, when other botanical research was largely eclipsed. Cassini was also interested in insects and blood transfusion and had visited the Accademia del Cimento. Like Huygens, he was a force to be reckoned with in the Academy: he built a formidable team of astronomers, began mapping the kingdom and the world, and in his seventy-sixth year traveled to the borders of France to extend the meridian. He kept Louis XIV interested in the Academy by stressing the practical applications of astronomical observations.
Jean Gallois (1632–1707) contributed to botany indirectly. He publicized it by mentioning the Jesuits' observations of flora and fauna in a summary of their reports; more important, he encouraged academicians' research and argued for additional engravings of plants. A classicist and a geometer known for his elegant style, he wrote papers on an air gun and on geometry. This Paris-born abbot was member of the Académie française and professor of Greek at the Collège royal; he participated in Bourdelot's conferences, served as Colbert's librarian, and edited the Journal des sçavans .
The two permanent secretaries — Jean Baptiste Du Hamel (1623–1706) and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) — influenced the Academy's research principally through their effect on corporate morale. They wrote scholarly and popular treatises — Du Hamel in Latin, Fontenelle in French — reviewed manuscripts for publication, wrote the Academy's history, and maintained the minutes. Both were Normans.
A lawyer's son who joined the Congregation of the Oratory, Du Hamel was royal almoner and held church posts before becoming an academician. On a diplomatic mission to England, he met Fellows of the Royal Society
and bought a microscope for the Academy, even though he had relinquished his academician's pension.
Educated by the Jesuits and intended at first for a legal career, Fontenelle pursued a literary career. He became a member of the Académie française and the Académie des inscriptions and a popularizer of Cartesianism and the sciences. His history of the seventeenth-century Academy was both more and less than a translation of Du Hamel's Latin account, and he began the custom of issuing annual reports of the Academy's accomplishments and eulogizing academicians after their deaths.
In summary, these academicians made different contributions to plant study. Their work ranged from abstract theory to rigorous experiment and observation, from suggestion to dedicated personal labor, from the traditional to the innovative, from the technical to the general. Although they represent different generations, they had much in common. All but two were French by birth, but only five were born in Paris. Most came from the upper ranks of the third estate, although two (Tournefort and Cassini) claimed to be gentlemen; the fathers of at least two (Perrault and Du Hamel) were lawyers. Several joined the Academy before the age of forty. Two (Jean Marchant and G. P. de La Hire) were the sons of academicians who had also contributed to the Academy's botanical research. Some had close ties to the Jansenists (Dodart, Homberg, and Perrault). Three were Catholic clergy (Mariotte, Du Hamel, and Gallois), three (Charas, Duclos, and Homberg) converted from Protestantism, and the paternal grandmother of one (Tournefort) came from a Jewish family. Two (Tournefort and Homberg) studied the sciences despite their parents' wishes, two (Cassini and Homberg) became naturalized subjects of Louis XIV Bourdelin, La Hire, and Tournefort were orphaned or lost one parent before they were twenty. Most were polymaths and many were physicians. These academicians traveled, especially in France, England, and Italy, but also in Holland, Spain, eastern Europe, and Sweden. Many enjoyed other royal appointments or ties to government, as adviser to ministers, physician to members of the royal family, professor at the Collège royal, demonstrator at the Jardin royal, or royal almoner.