Buffon, the King of the King’s Garden


by P. Corsi, United Kingdom

Pietro CORSI, DPhil
Linacre College, Oxford University

Pietro Corsi has taught at various universities, including Harvard, Paris, and Oxford. He is currently Directeur d’études at the EHESS in Paris, and is completing his career at the University of Cassino, Italy. He has published on the history of life and the Earth sciences, the relationship between science and religion, and the methodology of classical political economy. He is the author of the website http://www.lamarck.cnrs.fr/ and coauthor, with Thierry Hoquet, of the website http://www.buffon.cnrs.fr/. His works on the early history of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle include The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790-1830, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988, new expanded edition, and Lamarck, genèse et enjeux du transformisme, 1770-1830, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2001.

Established in 1626, the King’s Garden aroused suspicions and the fierce opposition of the Paris Medical Faculty. Its founder, Guy de La Brosse, achieved much before dying in 1641. Activities continued with difficulty, hampered by strong opposition. Yet, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the central state authorities became convinced that the Garden could do much to help French agriculture, medicine, and pharmacy, and the supply of raw materials from all over the world. The pursuit of natural knowledge was deemed essential to social peace, dynastic ambitions, military needs, and colonial expansion. The decision in 1739 to appoint the Count of Buffon as the head of the institution proved an institutional and public opinion success. Buffon expanded the Garden, attracted top naturalists, and made the natural sciences fashionable. His Histoire naturelle, published between 1749 and 1788, became a world best seller, issued (and pirated) in thousands of copies, translated in all major languages. Buffon was a very independent thinker and a very able courtier. He was a darling of fashionable salons, a master of the French language, and kept at a safe distance from radical philosophers, who on the whole disliked him. At the Revolution, when the King’s Garden risked being abolished as a monarchic institution, officers (all appointed by Buffon, who had died in 1787) denounced him as an aristocratic centralizer, a master of style rather than of knowledge, and made vociferous protestations of Republican patriotism. They succeeded. On June 11, 1793, the King’s Garden became the National Museum of Natural History, one of the most prestigious research institutions in the world.

Uncertain and controversial beginnings

When the Jardin du Roi, the King’s Garden, opened in Paris in 1640, few contemporaries would have believed it was destined to become a major landmark of the French capital, loved by tourists and Parisians alike. Louis XIII established the King’s Garden on July 6, 1626, to circumvent the University’s reluctance to embark upon new subjects and new ways of learning about nature and the health of people. Yet, real work started only in 1635, under the direction of Guy de La Brosse (1586-1641), the true mastermind of the project. He had been pleading for a deep reform of teaching and research within the medical establishment and spared no effort—financial, scientific, or political—to reach his goal. The establishment of the Garden was a victory, but one that did not last long. The Faculty of Medicine silently and openly opposed all its undertakings, and professors and leading practitioners were not unhappy when de La Brosse, a believer in the possibilities offered by botanical and chemical research to improve medical knowledge and practice, died a few years later in 1641. His worst sin—in the eyes of academic doctors—was that he was a follower of Paracelsus and chemical medicine, and showed no sympathy for Galen, who was still considered at that time the most authoritative medical thinker.

For the next half a century the Garden barely survived, though it would be unfair to say that its presence was not felt on the medical scene of the capital. Firstly, de La Brosse had managed to start the cultivation of more than two thousands plants and to initiate the collection known as “The King’s Cabinet,” designed to gather natural riches and curiosities. Secondly, chemical and medical teaching continued; its relative success finds a paradoxical testimony in the repeated attempts by the Faculty to stop it altogether through acts of parliament and public denunciations. In 1673, the Faculty of Medicine even tried to put a stop to the demonstration of the circulation of blood that William Harvey had announced in 1628, a “novelty” that High Medicine throughout Europe spared no energy to silence. Royal protection, though, effectively sheltered the innovative and controversial institution, which clearly served an important function in training chemists, pharmacists, and botanists.

The Jardin des Plantes (originally Jardin du Roi) was created in Paris in the 17th century by Dr Guy de la Brosse to grow medicinal herbs.
© F.-G. Grandin/MNHN.

The appointment in 1693 of Guy-Crescent Fagon (1638-1718) to the post of superintendent marked a shift in the fortunes of the Garden. In spite of his questionable practice of bleeding patients to death, Fagon was a respected practitioner, the private physician to Louis XIV and the Royal Family. He had literally been born in the Garden, since his mother was a niece of Guy de La Brosse who enjoyed her uncle’s hospitality. Fagon had taught chemistry and medicinal botany at the Garden since 1665, and had a keen eye for talent. He strongly supported the work of his two demonstrators for botany, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708, appointed in 1683) and Antoine de Jussieu (1686-1758), who took over from Tournefort and continued his work. Antoine de Jussieu, and especially his brother Bernard (1699-1777), started the tradition of excellence in botanical research for which the King’s Garden became famous. Fagon also built a lecture hall with six hundred seats and improved the cultivation beds and the infrastructure of the institution.

Individual dedication and good science, however, would not have been sufficient to make the Garden the model to be followed throughout Europe, and the Natural History Museum (which followed the Garden in 1793) the center of world natural sciences for most of the nineteenth century. Wider social and cultural phenomena made this growth possible and fuelled the boundless ambition of the chief protagonist of the spatial and intellectual expansion of the Garden during the XVIII century: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon (1707-1788).

Jean-Baptiste Colbert presenting members of the Royal Academy of Science to Louis XIV circa 1667 (oil-on-canvas painting by Henri
Testelin [1616-1695]). © Château de Versailles, France/Bridgeman Images.

Individual dedication and good science, however, would not have been sufficient to make the Garden the model to be followed throughout Europe, and the Natural History Museum (which followed the Garden in 1793) the center of world natural sciences for most of the nineteenth century. Wider social and cultural phenomena made this growth possible and fuelled the boundless ambition of the chief protagonist of the spatial and intellectual expansion of the Garden during the XVIII century: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon (1707-1788).

The century of nature

During the eighteenth century, France was the most populous kingdom of the Western world. Its political centralism was a choice inevitable in a country marred by fierce traditions of regional independence from Paris. A strong state required sophisticated administration and imposed on the body politic new tasks, especially as far as defense, public order, and territorial expansion were concerned. France was constantly in a state of war against its neighbors. This entailed growing demands for provisions, armaments, and fiscal support. At the same time, famine recurrently struck towns and villages, fuelling revolt and attack against the aristocratic landowners and state officials. Concurrently, colonial ambitions and the fear of being encircled and outmaneuvered by maritime states such as Spain, England, and Holland imposed new demands on technology and forced broadly scientific concerns to the attention of politicians and the ruling aristocracy.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the powerful minister of finance for the last twenty years of his life, embodied and promoted a new view of the state as the main agent of reform, technological and administrative improvement, and scientific proficiency. Under his aegis, the Académie des sciences he had established in 1666 was increasingly asked to provide expert advice on matters concerning navigation, the application of chemistry to war (for instance, the tanning of leather on a large scale to guarantee a sufficient supply to the military), and the approval of new production technologies and the granting of patents. “Colbertism” became, and still is, a well-known term in economics, indicating state intervention and strong protectionist measures.

Oil-on-canvas portrait of Antoine Parmentier (1737-1813) painted by François
Dumont in 1812. © Château de Versailles, France/Bridgeman Images.

Throughout the eighteenth century, few believed that industry and technological innovation alone were going to increase the wealth of nations or, more importantly, to feed the masses: public order and the human demands of ever expanding armies required reliable agriculture. Nature, it was repeated by philosophers and economists, was the sole producer of wealth. Industry only reworked nature’s products, and commerce distributed them. Modern agriculture guaranteed food supplies, population growth, and was the pre-condition for dynastic and colonial ambitions. Historians have argued that the “agricultural revolution” that occurred during the middle decades of the eighteenth century in several European countries, especially in France and the British Isles, constituted the pre-condition of the industrial revolution: it created wealth together with a large supply of cheap labor, as farmhands were laid off due to the rationalization of agricultural processes. Whatever the bigger picture, there is little doubt that the popularity of natural pursuits gained enormously from the aforementioned view of a bountiful nature.

Colonial expansion also added to the value of natural knowledge. There was a world of natural riches to be exploited for the benefit of the metropolis. Travel narratives and novels about travels fired the imagination with descriptions of happy islands where food grew on trees, and vegetables and animals provided for all needs. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, great hope was placed on the possibility of acclimatizing the tree of bread in the metropolis; sophisticated greenhouses were built in the Garden to favor the introduction into France of several vegetable species that appeared to be capable of solving all subsistence problems.

The anecdote still told today of a famous dinner wholly based on potato dishes offered to the King, or the popular “pommes Parmentier,” keeps alive in popular culture the name of one of the chief protagonists of the systematic exploration of the nutritional potential of imported species, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737- 1813). Throughout the nineteenth century, potatoes nourished the masses throughout Europe, and research on the tubers was carried out in scientific institutions that later on paved the way for the development of modern genetics.

It was not just food agronomists and politicians who hoped to gain from the systematic exploitation of the natural world. Exotic plants, minerals, and animal products were seen as capable of providing new medicaments. Indigenous knowledge throughout the world had to be canvassed in order to learn more about the wonderful properties of barks, flowers and seeds, stones, and organic compounds. Quinine was a success, whereas other supposed medicaments proved ineffective, if not dangerous. At the same time, the acclimatization of animal species, the merino sheep from Spain, for instance, or of plants such as the sugar beet, contributed to the development of new industries.

It is in this context of needs and demands, of national and global policies directly or indirectly concerning knowledge of nature, that the career of Buffon, the greatest ever director of the Garden, flowered.

The age of Buffon

Early in his career, Buffon shared a contemporary passion for Newtonian physics and mathematics. He had moved to Paris in 1732, after spells in Dijon and Angers, to pursue his studies. Intelligent and well mannered, he soon acquired the social skills that ensured the patronage of Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Count Maurepas (1701-1781). Buffon became known for articles he published on Newtonian calculus and on the calculus of probability as applied to games, two fashionable topics at court. Still, it was thanks to Maurepas that he was elected to the Académie des sciences in 1734. After joining this learned company, Buffon undertook research at the request of his patron on the mechanical resistance of wood, a key issue for the improvement of the French navy that the powerful Maurepas was promoting. In 1739, Buffon was appointed Superintendent of the King’s Garden. Maurepas knew well what he was doing when he entrusted a still politically unstable institution to the hands of a capable and amiable courtier. Buffon’s headship lasted for more than fifty years. In the process, he accumulated wealth and won honors and became one of the most published naturalists of all time. The Garden grew with him.

Buffon was a shrewd entrepreneur and a true man of business. In his hometown of Montbard (Province of Burgundy), he established an iron-smelting factory that generated considerable income. At the Garden, he undertook a vast program of acquisitions and requisition of adjacent property and considerably extended buildings and facilities. Contemporaries commented, as have some historians, that it was difficult to separate Buffon’s private interests from the institution’s. The allegation may have some truth in it, but one has to consider that this was the case for all public offices held under the Old Regime. Moreover, business, institutional responsibilities, and research were never kept in separate compartments. Thus, for instance, his iron-smelting factory was also the appropriate location for the experiments Buffon paid for out of his own pocket to study the cooling of balls of iron of various sizes. This was part of his research program on the history of the Earth.

Buffon believed that a collision between the sun and a comet had projected into space masses of melted minerals at a very high temperature. On cooling, these became planets, the Earth included. It was therefore important to know how long it took for the surface to become cool enough to support life. The growth of the Garden, especially of the King’s Cabinet, that Buffon masterminded was essential for the composition of the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière that he published in 36 volumes, plus supplements and additions, from 1749 to 1788.

Buffon started his lifelong publishing venture with a first ambitious broadside of three volumes, discussing the foundations of natural history, the history of the Earth and of life, and the history of man. Concerning the history of the Earth, we have already alluded to his cosmological convictions on the formation of the solar system. What apparently struck contemporaries was the timespan his theory required, though Buffon had kept his cards close to his chest and hinted that the Earth could be several tens of thousands of years old. In 1751 he was duly reprimanded by the Sorbonne, though it all ended with his retraction and promise to stick to more orthodox views.

This story has been repeatedly told as an example of religious encroachment on science. Yet, personally, I am not convinced. If it is true that “officially” the church authorities endorsed the biblical chronology established by Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656)—the Earth had been created at 6 pm on October 23, 4004 BC—a plurality of opinions was still entertained on the subject. After all, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 AD – 430 AD) had already argued that the days of creation probably referred to lengthy periods of time. The late Jacques Roger, the great historian of biology and the leading expert on Buffon, pointed out years ago that the entire procedure looks as if it had been arranged between the naturalist and the theological authorities. After all, Buffon was already a darling at court, and a famous author: it is difficult to believe he could be treated as a simple commoner.

I would like to suggest that what the Church and conservative thinkers feared most was not a debate on a few hundred centuries, but the inroads that eternalist atomism was making in philosophical circles. The Latin work De rerum natura by the poet Lucretius (1st century BC), a favorite author with- in erudite and freethinking circles, effectively promoted the view of the eternity of matter. This was a doctrine that no religion and no biblical exegesis could accommodate. The sacrifice asked of Buffon was purely nominal, an expression of compliance with the theological authorities. The naturalist continued to promote his expanded chronology up to the end of his life, though he always published figures less shocking to pious minds than the ones he had in fact come up with. A true courtier, he had no wish to appear subversive.

Title page of Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by Buffon,
Paris, 1749 (lithograph). © Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France/
Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images.

Colored engraving of the second table of the Linnean plant sexual system
created by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). © Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs,
Paris, France/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images.

If his views on the age of the Earth did not please theologians, Buffon’s critique of classifications shocked naturalists even more. As a matter of fact, the great naturalist did not believe in classifications. He had abrasive words against the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of the system of classification of living beings we basically still use today. Buffon believed that nature takes a step in every direction; species shade from one into another. The claim that it was possible to arrange organisms in a well-defined hierarchical structure (orders, classes, genera, and species) was grounded in the foolish belief that the human mind could impose its own logical rules on nature.

If taxonomy (a word introduced well after Buffon’s death) was epistemologically impracticable, then the description of living nature could only proceed according to man’s needs and interests. The knowledge of man as a natural being was, naturally and sensibly, our most important field of research. The study of man was followed by the natural history of the horse, man’s noblest conquest, as Buffon put it. Then came all the animals indispensable to our survival, as providers of food and clothing or employed in agricultural work, or even studied and collected for amusement and aesthetic reasons, such as birds. If Linnaeus decided to get rid of pageslong descriptions of species, and proposed to call man “homo sapiens,” subdivided into four different geographical subgroups (europaeus, afer, asiaticus, and americanus), Buffon theorized that style and eloquent prose were required to account for the richness of living nature.

As far as man was concerned, Buffon was a strong believer in the unity of the human species. He was convinced that the original man was white. Climatic conditions throughout the globe had produced different degrees of degeneration from the original perfect form. The unity of the species was confirmed by interfecundity: all individuals capable of producing a viable offspring belonged to the same species. Horses and donkeys were close enough to produce offspring, but mules were sterile. So, donkeys and horses were different species. There was a further criterion Buffon insisted upon: language, and therefore reason. In a page vividly describing the miserable life and demeanor of Hottentots, using a language we would today consider as intolerably racist, Buffon ended the portrait of the poor degraded beings with the affirmation: but they speak. Buffon had no doubt that even more degraded human beings (from his perspective) could improve if transplanted to more favorable climatic and living conditions. During the eighteenth century, the growth of colonialism was slowly and dramatically changing European perceptions of the inhabitants of the regions of the world invaded by white settlers. The good savage turned into the vicious being it was our duty to civilize or exterminate. By the end of his life, Buffon was one of the few naturalists to uphold the biological identity of all human beings.

In his last major work, Epochs of Nature (1778), Buffon joined the debate on the history of the Earth he had helped to launch thirty years earlier. He updated and modified his earlier views, and added his reconstruction of the history of life on Earth. Buffon was not an evolutionist, as some commentators have assumed over the last two centuries. He came, however, to believe that certain species are so similar that they are probably the descendants of prototypes now lost. This assumption explained why several allied species did procreate offspring, albeit infertile. Communality of descent did not impinge upon the biological conviction that species did exist, and they remained stable in their main characteristics.

Colored engravings of a red curlew, turkey, cockerel, and parrot (from left to right and top to bottom)
from Histoire naturelle des oiseaux by Georges de Buffon (1707-1788).
© Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

The popular success of his works did not mean that Buffon had many friends within the circles of the great protagonists of the Enlightenment. True, Denis Diderot admired his biological theories and adopted several of them. But Voltaire lost no opportunity to make fun of him in conversation, and the philosopher’s witticisms were reported with gusto, as gossip always is. Thus, Buffon’s definition of the horse, to which we have alluded, as man’s noblest conquest, was turned by Voltaire into tangible evidence that the naturalist was in fact an able writer who substituted flowery style for lack of knowledge.

Following Buffon’s death, the Marquis de Condorcet launched a stinging attack on his deceased colleague in a vitriolic funeral eulogy delivered to the Académie. Buffon did not understand, de Condorcet asserted, the difference between science and rhetoric; he had been a poet rather than a naturalist, though he indulged in too many fantasies to be good even at that; he had answered the objections of his peers by multiplying the number and daring of his hypotheses; he cared more for his success with the great dames at court than for the approval of his scientific colleagues.

There was some truth in these allegations. Buffon liked to read chapters of his works aloud to his powerful lady friends at court, and kept at a disdainful distance from philosophers: a point de Condorcet insisted upon when he claimed that in a century engaged in breaking the chains of superstition and tyranny, Buffon had been notable by his absence. Still, the personal and intellectual animosity from prominent philosophers cannot and should not hide the fact that tens of thousands of people throughout the Western world read and admired his books, and many authors imitated his style. Not to speak of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who theatrically—as was his habit—kissed the step leading into the small garden house in the Montbard castle where Buffon composed all his works. More importantly, Buffon left a legacy that would be very hard indeed to brush aside: the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle.

Science in revolution: from the King’s Garden to the Natural History Museum

Buffon died on April 16, 1788. He had been ill for a few years, besieged by painful kidney stones. He was, however, proud of his achievements. The King’s Garden enjoyed universal acclaim. He had been very shrewd in ensuring the cooperation of the best botanists, zoologists, mineralogists, and chemists available in the country. Many of them pursued a successful career after the death of their mentor, such as Jean- Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), André Thouin (1747-1824), Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836), Bernard-GermainÉtienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, Count Lacépède (1756-1825), and Antoine-François Fourcroy (1755-1809). Some were more than a good scientific choice, though Buffon could not have foreseen that Fourcroy and Lacépède were destined to occupy positions of considerable power during the Revolution and the Empire, thus assuring the continuation of state patronage for the institution he had done so much for.

Already at the time of Buffon’s death, the King’s Garden constituted the largest and most impressive scientific community of the Western world. A few score families involved in the cultivation of the beds, the classification of animals and plants, and the systematic pursuit of collections from all over the world lived inside the Garden, as did Buffon, during the few months he spent in Paris every year. Provided they did not irritate him by speaking of Linnaeus, the staff at the Garden enjoyed considerable freedom in their work. Distinguished visitors especially sought out botanists, since botanizing was a fashionable undertaking for members of the aristocracy throughout the 1770s and the 1780s. Merchants of naturalia and exotica, very much in demand by wealthy owners of private museums and collections, were also frequent visitors.

The Revolution came as a major threat, and a wonderful opportunity. During 1792 and the first half of 1793, there was much debate concerning the abolition of all institutions linked to the monarchy: the King’s Garden could not be more monarchical. Yet, officers there, and the politicians among them, played their cards very well indeed. Whereas the Académie des sciences, the universities, and other state agencies were closed down early in1793, the officers of the Garden expressed their patriotic and revolutionary zeal in a series of petitions addressed to the National Assembly. The Garden, they argued, was a property of the Nation. It could do much more to educate the people and provide for their needs, if run on a democratic principle and in the name of the Revolution. The scientific personnel thus proposed a reform, following which all of them would become professors, on an equal basis; the position of superintendent was to be abolished; and a director would be appointed on a yearly basis. The riches of nature, properly investigated in the patriotic institution, were going to benefit the entire nation.

For the first time in Western history, a Museum of Natural History, endowed with twelve professorial, specialized chairs, was established on June 10, 1793. Posts of gardeners, demonstrators, and keepers of collections were filled; a librarian and a painter to illustrate the collections were also envisaged, continuing a long-standing tradition. As soon as the Revolution- ary armies repelled attempted invasions and moved on to conquer neighboring countries, and even more so during the Napoleonic Empire, major natural history collections throughout Europe were requisitioned and brought to Paris. The Muséum became the largest repository of natural history collections of the Western world. Naturalists from all over Europe, and North and Latin America, had to spend time in its galleries and in the library, even if they wished to study the fauna and flora of their own countries. The Muséum hosted precious comparative material, indispensable for species determination and identification. At the same time, the Muséum favored natural history expeditions, drew up instructions for travelers, and taught them how and what to collect. As Georges Cuvier—who became a professor only in 1802— pointed out, the Muséum became the major hub for merchants of specimens, at a scale much larger than Buffon could ever have imagined.

Much was still to be achieved. A zoo opened in 1794 to study animal behavior; the amphitheater had been enlarged and could now seat two thousand people; new, magnificent galleries were built during the whole of the nineteenth century. The St Victor Quarter, where the Muséum was located, was not as elegant and posh as it is today. Visitors complained that to reach the Muséum one had to go through narrow and miserable streets, which were rather unpleasant at night. The urban developments that Paris underwent during the nineteenth century much benefited the Muséum: no late eighteenth or early nineteenth century visitor would today recognize the surrounding areas.

And where was Buffon in all this? Since the start, the professors of the Muséum kept fighting against amateurs and the practice of natural history as a literary exercise. They wanted to demarcate themselves as a professional body of experts, using a technical vocabulary hardly accessible to the ordinary cultivated reader. They were mostly writing for their peers, not necessarily for the general public. Many of them openly dissociated themselves from Buffon. During the Revolution, he was represented as a corrupt courtier, a lover of privilege and despotism. His son Georges Louis (1764-1794), nicknamed “Buffonet,” was executed a few days before the fall of Robespierre.

When the revolutionary decade was over, “official” science continued to disdain Buffon’s works, as too speculative and too literary. Yet, the presses of France and of Europe continued to print edition upon edition of Buffon’s works. Up to the Second World War, anthologized excerpts from his works were compulsory reading for French high school students, as among the best examples of French prose. Yet, ultimately, the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle undoubtedly remains the lasting monument to his work and his long career. ■

Another view of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution. © Emmanuelle Blanc/MNHN.