The Character and Benefits of Contacts
Complete corporate exclusiveness was impossible and undesirable, and controlling publication in order to enhance the institutional reputation was only a small aspect of the Academy's relations with outsiders. Academicians depended on outsiders for information, inspiration, and practical assistance, and they reported weekly what they had gleaned from collaborative work, discussion, or reading. The Academy had an exclusive character but many external interests. As a rule, it controlled its contacts with outsiders so as to preserve its own advantage whenever possible.
As a body, the Academy interacted with nonmembers in several ways: it received unsolicited communications, employed assistants, admitted visitors to meetings, solicited information, and kept abreast of the literature. The content of these official exchanges, the stature of the persons contacted,
the flow of raw data to the Academy and of publications from it, the motivations for contacts, and the way such relations influenced it reveal a Company at once dependent on and isolated from contemporary savants. Since only a fraction of the information about contacts between the Academy and the rest of the scientific community survives, however, conclusions cannot be pushed too far, especially when they depend on negative evidence.
Unsolicited communications between academicians and those outside the Company were plentiful. Nonacademicians approached the Academy personally and through letters or intermediaries. They offered information, inventions, observations, and experiments. Some dedicated books to the Academy or its members. These scientists and amateurs of uneven capabilities were not reimbursed, and their motives varied. Some hoped to become academicians, while others sought official approval of an invention or techniques, and still others were disinterested and simply wished to help the research of academicians. Sometimes these outsiders believed that the Academy had taken advantage of them by stealing their ideas.
Unsolicited letters were primarily disinterested and had the least important content of the many forms of intelligence received; they contained reports of medical remedies or, more often, observations of eclipses, and accounts of curious phenomena and experiments. Occasionally correspondents sent data directly pertinent to the Academy's work on plants. Materials submitted unasked announced friendship or support; many were self-interested ploys. These unsolicited communications were also part of ordinary scientific discourse and reflect genuine public interest in scientific novelties and natural curiosities. But they were often of little value to academicians and do not bespeak real collaboration between the Academy and the larger community.
Academicians hired and trained scientific practitioners whose special skills — from dissection, taxidermy, distillation, and illustration to surveying and astronomical observation — were required for certain projects. They also commissioned scientific instruments and models of new inventions and machines from instrument makers, artisans, or others. The natural philosopher Nicolas Hartsoeker established his career as a result of his close association with the Academy during a twelve-year sojourn in Paris. He made lenses for the Observatory and supervised the production of scientific apparatus for the Jesuits who represented church, king, and Academy in the Far East; in 1699 he became a foreign associate of the Academy. The instrument maker Michael Butterfield made the expensive
silver planisphere which on one side showed the Tychonic and Copernican systems, and on the other the stars in the latitude of Paris. At the end of the century, when he was a royal engineer and had lived in Paris so long that he wrote English awkwardly, Butterfield passed information and books between academicians and Lister.
When academicians' assistants were scientists or instrument makers of independent reputation, the prestige of being an academician may well have been blurred for the student or other lesser members. Academicians Niquet and Couplet, for example, fell into "an inferior category and … were there only to listen and to carry out whatever was decided by the Company, and especially to make the observations it needed." Compared with David du Vivier, who collaborated in the preparation of academicians' maps and became royal geographer in 1680, their opportunities for advancement or even to contribute to the Academy's work may well have been limited. Couplet's name figures along with Dalesme's among those who were paid for constructing models and instruments; Claude Perrault and his brother thought of Couplet as merely "the usher of the Company and then … caretaker of the Observatory." Some assistants got paid more for their work than did some academicians. The distinction between lesser academician and hired assistant was further weakened when assistants like Chazelles and Dalesme became academicians.
The contributions of these hired assistants were more important than most of the unsolicited communications, since the assistants actually participated in the research of the Academy. But these were usually not instances of cooperation between intellectual equals, but rather were associations of teacher and pupil, master and assistant. Practitioners supplied specific skills and the extra hands necessary for carrying out certain tasks, and they were not expected to display the theoretical insights or breadth of interest that characterized academicians. Thus, as was the case with the suppliers of data, the ensuing collaboration was more often between unequals than between peers.
Occasionally outsiders were invited to attend a meeting, usually to read a paper or to demonstrate an invention. The privilege was extended on very few, for academicians and their protectors understood that their effectiveness depended on freedom from intrusions. Cassini told Francis Vernon that no one "of what quality soever" who was "not of their own body" was admitted to their conferences, but the rule was relaxed for those who could contribute something scientific. Some visitors eventually became academicians. Homberg, appointed academician in 1691, had demonstrated experiments with an air pump and made phosphorus for the
Academy in 1683 and 1687. Papin became a corresponding member in 1699; he had visited the Academy when he was working with Huygens on the air pump. But because secrecy was a rule of the Academy, it closed its doors to nearly everyone.
The common feature of all these contacts with outsiders — via unsolicited communications, hired assistants, and visitors — is that academicians received useful information, aid, and demonstrations. This trait is further epitomized in the information submitted in response to requests. Academicians convinced the public to share information with them. Fontenelle reported that by 1686 the Academy had
adopted some Correspondents who learned from it how to question Nature correctly, and to study things with the eyes of Philosophers; very often the Academy has been enriched by Foreigners who have hastened to share the rarities and curiosities that Nature has sown in their province.
Among the fields that profited most from this kind of support was astronomy. Many of Cassini's informants began their association with the Academy through unsolicited communications. As a result of his encouragement letters flowed to him from the provinces whenever there was an eclipse; the data were recorded in the minutes and published in the eighteenth-century annual Histoire et mémoires .
Dodart exhorted his readers to convey botanical observations, experiments, and criticisms to the Academy. He hoped "to stimulate the Public to cooperate" with the Academy "to the advancement of" its natural history project. For the sake of the public good, Dodart appealed to all persons who understood botany and the chemical analysis of plants "to communicate their thoughts" to the Company; in return he promised that future publications on plants would acknowledge by name those whose ideas had been helpful, even when academicians had to be content with anonymity behind the corporate name. He also signaled academicians' intentions to send "Memoirs to the medical doctors with whom we have dealings and to give an account to the public of what they inform us." Dodart followed this practice in writing about the remède des pauvres and ergot. Indeed, his article on ergot published what a few other physicians already knew, for the Academy mainly tested and verified the hypotheses of its informants, acting as a clearing-house of information about the disease and its cause.
Other botanists in the Academy obtained information and samples from travelers. Thus, before departing for China the Jesuits visited the Academy in order "to learn what matters of natural history the Academy would like them to correspond about," especially with respect to plants. As in the
case of ergot, accounts of the Jesuits' scientific observations were published by the Academy, with the justification that this was its own work, since the authors "wrote it in concert with the Academy, and in accordance with the instructions they had received." Academicians and their protectors put requests to French diplomats, and letters describing the flora of Smyrna, drawings of plants, animals, and other objects seen in the Straits of Magellan, and a paper on ginseng were among the prizes obtained from travelers.
Nicolas and Jean Marchant, with the help of Huygens, Justel, and others, fostered contacts around the world in order to obtain rare seeds and cuttings. Flora came from Portugal, the Americas, Italy, the south of France, Holland, and England; the Academy's suppliers included Vespasian Robin (of the Jardin royal), Pierre Magnol (professor and director of the botanical gardens at Montpellier), the academician Jean Richer (who brought plants from Cayenne), and Bishop Compton of London. Such success seemed to justify Nicolas Marchant's confidence that nonacademicians would communicate information, advice, and materials in response to the requests published in the Mémoires des plantes .
Academicians pointedly sought help in two ways from outsiders: they paid for skilled assistants and they solicited information. In both cases, the Academy absorbed the contributions of outsiders into its own research and publications. The royal institution transformed raw data into hypotheses, verified theories, and took part of the credit for the labors and observations of outsiders.
Finally, since an important part of scientific research consists in keeping abreast of current literature, the Academy corporately reviewed recent books. Fontenelle later explained:
It was one of the Academy's occupations, and not the least useful, to examine books that appeared on subjects it had undertaken, especially those which merited particular attention because of the reputation of their Authors. Whether we adopted their views or surveyed their errors, we always profited.
Journals were especially important for keeping abreast of the latest books, inventions, or ideas. Indeed, for a short period the Academy arranged for extracts from the Philosophical Transactions to be translated so that it could stay current with English developments. Huygens valued the Philosophical Transactions and the books his English acquaintances sent, and he followed the Journal des sçavans so intently that his colleagues kept it from him when he was ill, to prevent him from overworking.
The natural philosopher whose books were most thoroughly reviewed in
meetings was Robert Boyle. Duclos reviewed his Certain Physiological Essays during thirteen meetings, and Mariotte read his own translation of the hypothesis on acids and alkalis. The Academy examined portions of Boyle's other works and repeated some of the experiments. Academicians challenged some of Boyle's views. Duclos, for example, criticized Boyle's corpuscularianism, and the permanent secretaries defended their colleague on the grounds that Duclos had "a more chemical cast of mind" than Boyle, perceiving corpuscularianism as a philosophical, not a chemical, explanation. Academicians also developed color indicators for use in their chemical analyses of plants independently of Boyle, whose influence on academic chemistry was negligible.
Despite the availability of journals, important new botanical literature was often neglected, especially by the academicians who studied the natural philosophy of plants. The Marchants had an extensive botanical library, and drafts and notes for the natural history of plants refer to early modern writers, including Ray and Morison. But Grew and Ray were never mentioned in the minutes of meetings before 1699, and only the anatomist Du Verney discussed Malpighi's theories about plants. Before Tournefort's books and articles of the 1690s, it was rare for an academician to analyze contemporary botanical works. This neglect is especially surprising because at the very time (1676) when Dodart expressed bewilderment about classifying plants, Ray's Tables and Morison's Praeludia botanica were available. But Dodart never referred to them, even though Marchant knew Morison personally and Dodart was later to send both Morison and Grew copies of the Mémoires des plantes .
English and French botany developed independently during the latter third of the seventeenth century. Investigations of sycamores and the flow of sap which Ray, Willughby, and others published during the 1660s and 1670s in the Philosophical Transactions seem not to have influenced Jean Marchant's similar studies during the 1680s. Experiments described in the Philosophical Transactions as proving the circulation of sap only rarely resembled those cited by Mariotte and Perrault. Mariotte's and Perrault's studies of germination differ from Grew's report of the germination of white beans and squash, and Grew's terminology was never adopted by French botanists. When La Hire, Charas, and Tournefort considered whether kermes and cochineal were seeds or insects, they never alluded to the evidence Lister had published during the 1670s in the Philosophical Transactions , although they did rely on Plumier's opinion. Perrault and La Hire both stated that there were valves in the vessels of plants — a notion Grew attempted to disprove, as the review of his book in the Philosophical
Transactions pointed out — and neither referred to Grew. The inevitable conclusion is that most academicians who studied plants did not read the Philosophical Transactions . Linguistic ignorance does not explain this neglect, for the Academy could commission translations, and academicians even disregarded the Latin treatises of Malpighi and the French translations of Grew. Their isolation had both positive and negative consequences: although academicians before Tournefort did not benefit from the accomplishments of their botanical contemporaries, they also escaped from their errors and thus did not follow Malpighi and Grew in claiming to have seen air vessels in plants.
In the case of the Academy's botanical research, outside influence was least felt through contemporary literature, visitors to meetings, or hired assistants. More important to both the natural history of plants and the study of medical botany were informal communications, and especially those generated through the personal contacts of individual academicians rather than by the formal agency of the Academy. While few academicians show familiarity with contemporary theoretical treatises about botany, they combed older literature for information about individual plants and were inspired to explore plant physiology by accomplishments, both recent and contemporary, in other disciplines. Finally, although the works of Boyle were frequently debated, chemical studies of botany owed more to continental than to English chemistry.
Where academicians failed to acknowledge outside influence, it may have been due to a habit of mind that preferred to cite experiments and observations rather than literature. Like Thomas Sprat who denounced Samuel Sorbière for imputing to the Royal Society the intention of developing a library, or Oldenburg who criticized the early French societies for discoursing rather than experimenting, academicians emphasized experiment and observation above all. Yet many scientists were avid readers of current literature, and their correspondence summarizes the latest books or requests items for their personal libraries. Academicians owned sizable collections. They also had access to the scientific holdings of other libraries, and they referred to the books of their predecessors. Nevertheless, although their botanical research was in the vanguard of late seventeenth-century efforts, it remained curiously aloof from contemporary influences until Tournefort entered the Academy.