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Chapter 1
Portrait of an Institution

This is a book about ideas, an institution, and an intellectual community and about the individuals who participated in the development of all three.

The Parisian Académie royale des sciences was established by Louis XIV on the advice of Jean Baptiste Colbert, his minister of finance, in December 1666. An absolute monarch who saw everything as a potential instrument of statecraft, Louis displayed by this act his support for scholarship. His munificence was also a calculated maneuver for glorifying his reign. He expected the Academy to enhance his regal reputation while providing concrete benefits for commerce, industry, medicine, and warfare. Members of the Academy sought practical gains, but they wanted these to be grounded in correct theories. They welcomed royal financing of their scientific investigations, were honored by their official status, and relied on royal subventions to augment their personal incomes. The Academy thus embodied both royal and scholarly expectations.

The Academy of Sciences has survived to the present day and has played a significant role in the life and thought of the last three centuries, making numerous theoretical and practical contributions to science. Its early history is important, for during the first three decades of its existence the crown secured the Academy's financial base, members learned to balance the conflicting demands of state and of scholarship, and the institution established a corporate identity.

The Academy was founded, furthermore, when science was in transition. Theories were challenged, novel apparatus was devised, and perplexing


new phenomena were observed. Scientific language was inadequate, and the logic of scientific explanation was itself a topic of discussion. Science was scarcely regarded as a profession in its own right: the word "scientist" had not even been coined. Instead scientific savants called themselves "geometers," "astronomers," "chemists," "botanists," and, especially, "natural philosophers." As such, they thought of themselves as practitioners of useful skills or as philosophers of nature. Few supported themselves, however, through their scientific activities. Thus the creation of a scientific institution by a king who paid savants for doing scientific research was a departure from tradition. It made academicians the envy of their contemporaries and affected the conduct of scientific research.

Understanding the Institution

In founding the Academy, the crown created an organization that would foster learning. But like any institution, the Academy evolved a distinctive character that reflected its origins, composition, and accomplishments. It developed written and unwritten procedures, enjoyed acclaim and suffered opprobrium, grew and declined. Its members contributed in different ways to the work — some were more diligent, others more imaginative, and a handful assumed leadership while the rest were made to follow — and a few were highly rewarded or esteemed. The institution became associated with particular sites and molded them to its own purposes, but the sites also affected its work and procedures. It interacted with persons and groups outside it — patrons, savants, aspirants, suppliers, or other organizations — and those exchanges affected it. It existed for purposes — scholarly, political, and utilitarian, for example — that may have changed over time but offer a standard for judging how well it worked.

Institutions usually preserve plentiful evidence, and the Academy was no exception. Some of this was private and intended for internal purposes, such as minutes, financial records, and correspondence. There was also public evidence, including publications and monuments. Members are part of the evidence. Their biographies reveal patterns of recruitment and criteria for advancement. Their interests helped qualify them for membership and then shaped the institution itself.

In analyzing an institution, the historian seeks access to the minds of its members and sponsors. Thus its program is paramount. Goals, methods, and actual accomplishments may be traditional or innovative, can evoke respect or skepticism among contemporaries, and may reveal the values of members or their sponsors. It is not enough to isolate the work of the few


acknowledged "stars," whose work was acclaimed in their lifetimes and since. Nor can the historian concentrate only on the successful projects of the organization. The "dead ends" of history — whether they be failed careers or ideas that fell stillborn into the world — may reveal more about the spirit of a given period than either the luminaries or the ideas that seem to be precursors of modern thought. An institution is the creature of individuals and of society, of deliberate acts as well as accidents, of reasonable assumptions and untenable prejudices. The historian must discover such elements and try to understand how, singly and together, the institution, its members, and its work developed as they did.

Public Image

The most intelligible introduction to the Académie royale des sciences is through published portraits. Sébastien Le Clerc developed the Academy's public image in several contemporary engravings. The best known of these dates from 1671 and shows what seems to be a visit of Louis XIV and Colbert to the Academy (plate 1). Others depict academicians examining objects in microscopes, discussing, performing a dissection, working in the chemical laboratory, and carrying out other scientific tasks. These engravings were intended both for nonscientific audiences — the king-patron, the recipients of presentation copies of engravings commissioned by the crown, and collectors — and for more knowledgeable readers of the Academy's books, which the prints illustrated. Each engraving presents a self-contained portrait, each is a deliberate public image of a royal establishment, and all allude to traits that are essential to understanding the Academy.

Le Clerc's formal portrait of the king, Colbert, and the Academy is both factual and fantastic. The artist at once portrays and misrepresents the Academy in ways that have stimulated and perplexed historians.[1] On the factual level, Le Clerc represents the Academy's experimentalist credo, its accomplishments, and its members. A lavish display of objects suggests the Academy's interests. Skeletons of dissected animals adorn the walls. Scientific instruments are everywhere. Maps, laboratory apparatus, plants, and models of machines reveal that the Academy's research program was broadly defined. The engraver portrayed academicians accurately, differentiating subjects by their garb, so that the viewer can distinguish clerical and lay academicians, identify members of the royal family, and grasp the social status of each person.[2]

It is not surprising that a portrait of the Academy by Le Clerc should reveal such an eye for detail and sensitivity to nuance. Le Clerc himself was


Plate 1. The Academy and Its Protectors. In the front are, from left to right, the
prince de Condé, the duc d'Orléans, Louis XIV, and Colbert. Cassini, gesturing
with his left hand, is between Condé and the king's brother, while Perrault
stands between Louis and Colbert. (Watson, "Early Days"; drawn by Goyton,
engraved by Le Clerc; photograph courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.)


not only a skilled draftsman and engraver but also an engineer who studied mathematics, natural philosophy, and cosmography. Furthermore, the Academy sponsored some of the best scientific illustration of the century, and Le Clerc helped make its anatomical illustrations acknowledged masterpieces of the time.

Le Clerc also portrayed the Academy in ways that are misleading, although even his misrepresentations convey truths about the institution. For example, he stressed the Academy's experimentalist bias at the expense of its fairly cautious theorizing. He did not delineate the entire scope of the Academy's research but rather created the impression of catholic interests and emphasized subjects, especially those with practical applications, on which Colbert spent the largest sums of money. The Academy did not limit its scientific inquiries, but its patrons preferred some fields over others, and they made their preferences evident in material ways that Le Clerc captured.

By grouping academicians and showing them in conversation, Le Clerc conveyed a collaborative spirit at the Academy, where members worked together. What Le Clerc did not show was that personal rivalries and professional disagreements enervated academicians, many of whom found it more productive to work individually than in teams.

The physical setting of Le Clerc's portrait is also misleading. The view outside the room where academicians are assembled shows the Observatory. In fact, no such prospect was possible from any of the Academy's three principal locations — the King's Library, the King's Garden, and the Observatory — none of which could be seen from any other. By including the Observatory in the portrait, Le Clerc sacrificed accurate topography but conveyed royal munificence, for the Observatory was constructed entirely with royal funds.

Finally, the central event did not occur as Le Clerc suggests, for the king did not visit the Academy until ten years after Le Clerc depicted the supposed occurrence. Even then, in December 1681, Louis was a reluctant visitor; although Colbert had long tried to persuade him to see his creation at first hand, the king continually dragged his heels. No scientific amateur, he lacked the knowledge to ask the kinds of well-informed and detailed questions that James II of England, for example, would pose on a visit to the Observatory in 1690. Louis was a patron of science not out of intellectual interest but out of self-interest predicated on the practical advantages that would accrue from his intervention. His appearance in the engraving does not correspond to the facts but is meant to convey, through artistic license, a royal seal of approval.[3]


Le Clerc's portrait of the Academy contributes to a program of royal propaganda. He makes it obvious that the king was the Academy's generous patron, entitled to share whatever acclaim its work received. The resulting public image of the Academy is that of a splendidly equipped royal foundation, dedicated to the experimental ideal and to the cooperative pursuit of broad interests. He makes it obvious that the Academy has a dual function: to make scientific discoveries and to honor the king.

Behind the Public Image

We began with a picture. Now let us turn to the descriptive and theoretical writings of savants, the terse entries of royal expenditure, the secrets preserved in private documents. Where illustration ends, the word begins.

This book makes two kinds of inquiry into the Academy. One is internalist or scientific, the study of ideas. Seventeenth-century savants observed and participated in what has since been called the scientific revolution. It was a time when theories about the world, and ways of seeing and analyzing it, changed fundamentally. The scientific revolution is normally defined with reference to the physical sciences, but the biological sciences were also transformed, partly because savants sought models for the life sciences from biology rather than from physics, mechanics, technology, or mathematics. Academicians were in the vanguard of this trend with their research on the anatomy and physiology of plants, and even their natural history of plants incorporated innovative elements.

The other line of inquiry is traditionally called externalist; it addresses connections between ideas and society. Externalist histories of science usually look for a causal relationship between scientific ideas and underlying social, economic, political, or religious structures. The causal implications of such research have made it controversial, for historians of science can be as reluctant as modern scientists to concede that scientific ideas have any but an intellectual genesis. Yet as contemporary examples show, science is not value free, and neither admission to a scientific career nor status within the scientific community is solely dependent on the quality of one's mind or work. In the seventeenth century, social background was an important determinant of an individual's access to the scientific community.[4]

But externalist inquiries may transcend the correlation of class or religion with career patterns or styles of scientific thought. The relationships among academicians or between them and their ministerial protectors


influenced ideas and the functioning of the Academy. Academicians' contacts with individuals — friends, patrons, savants, or craftsmen — outside the Academy form a distinctive pattern, characteristic of interactions between an intellectual elite and those excluded from the group. The Academy as a corporate entity was under various obligations, and individual members felt personal responsibilities to society; such duties affected the way they selected problems for study. Inquiry along these lines helps clarify the varied strands of thought that molded the Academy.

Botanical research, the internalist focus of this inquiry, serves as a barometer of both scientific thought and the competing interests that affected science in the Academy. Academic studies of plants took their inspiration from discoveries of new flora, from Bacon and Descartes, from the great botanical and zoological compendia of the previous two centuries, from Harvey, and from chemical theories of the composition of the world. If its inspiration was internalist, botanical research was vulnerable to externalist influences. Academicians alternately collaborated and feuded. Ministerial intervention sometimes encouraged and sometimes sabotaged research. Research was generously supported for a while and then funds were withheld. Academicians tried to balance pure and applied science and to define their responsibilities to the wider community. Official protectors encouraged whatever seemed most useful to the king or the kingdom. As both academicians and protectors sought to reconcile their quest for pure knowledge with their desire to improve the conditions of life, they changed the emphasis of their research. Ideas about the purpose of the Academy changed between its foundation in 1666 and its reorganization in 1699, and these changes affected the conduct of research. In the process academicians developed new theories and new methods for studying plants. By the end of the seventeenth century, they and their ministerial partners had redefined the organization and goals of the Academy, and botanical research was instrumental to that redefinition. The interplay of intellectual and external influences in the Academy thus forces the historian to consider both in order to illuminate the ideas and individuals which composed the institution.

Scientific ideas are the product of many influences, not all of which are intellectual. They are created by individuals with friends and enemies, mentors and patrons, acquaintances and unseen strangers, any of whom may induce the savant to ask particular questions or use special methods. Members of an institution like the Academy were a hothouse variety of scientist, for they lived and worked together; they were related by common goals, common patrons, and common sites of scholarly activity. They


affected one another by collaborating, feuding, and advising. They also affected others, who were not admitted to their ranks; they were envied and challenged, and they were called on to referee disputes or to solve technical problems.

The Academy became a resource affecting the entire kingdom. It repaid its debt to the crown by producing new ideas and information, by developing a pattern of scholarly conduct that helped professionalize natural philosophy, by carrying out specific commissions for the crown, and by advising magistrates and royal ministers. Ideas, institutional dynamics, finances, governmental pressure, socioeconomic trends, and demand for science all played a part in the story of that development. This book attempts to unite some of those elements into a coherent whole and thereby to enrich our understanding of both the parts and the ensemble.


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