Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Jean-Baptiste Dumas

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 5
Jean-Baptiste Dumas

by Thomas O'Conor Sloane


Distinguished French chemist and senator, b. at Alais, department of Gard, 14 July, 1800; d. at Cannes, 10 April, 1884. Like many other distinguished chemists, Dumas began his career as a pharmacist, and at Geneva, where he went when a very young man, he obtained a position in the Le Royer pharmacy. Here in connexion with Prévost he published a memoir on the physiology of the nervous system which attracted attention and is still well known. This led to an invitation to go to Paris, where he became tutor of Thénard's course of lectures in chemistry at the Ecole Polytechnique and was appointed professor at the Athénée. While engaged in these positions his published researches concerning the vapour density of the elements, those on the formulæ of alcohols and ethers, his memoirs on the law of substitution in organic compounds, and his work on chemical types gave him an illustrious position in chemical investigation. The first researches on the replacing of hydrogen by chlorine in organic bodies is due to him; this was supplemented by researches as to the atomic weight of carbon, his labours doing much to establish the relations of the hydro-carbon compounds in organic chemistry. With Boussingault he studied the composition of water and of the atmosphere. With Stas he investigated the composition of carbon dioxide, and later his memoirs on hydrogen and the amide compounds brought him at once into the first rank among the chemists of the nineteenth century.

In 1829 he founded the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures with Péclet, Lavallié, and Olivier. Brilliant lecture courses in the Sorbonne won him further renown. He replaced Thénard as professor at the Ecole Polytechnique, was professor at the Sorbonne and dean of the faculty of sciences. Originally a very poor speaker, by practice and study he acquired elocutionary powers that brought him great celebrity. Dumas also became professor at the Ecole de Médecine, a position he resigned in favour of Wurtz, one of his most distinguished pupils. His scholars included such illustrious men as H. Sainte-Claire Deville, Wurtz, Debray, Pasteur, and others. Turning his attention to politics, Dumas was elected a deputy from the department of Nord in 1849; among the proposed laws in which he was interested were various ones treating the recoining of money, stamped paper, forgery of public acts, taxes on salt, sugar, etc. In 1851 he was appointed minister of agriculture and commerce by Louis Napoléon, and after the coup d'etat was made senator. From 1832 he was a member of the Institute, being elected to the Academy of Sciences, and in 1868 he was made a perpetual secretary; in 1878 he became a member of the French Academy. In 1858-59 he carried on an animated controversy as to the nature of the elements with Despretz; in the course of the discussion Dumas' energetic methods in attacking his opponent's views excited some criticism. His abandonment of chemical research for politics was considered a misfortune by the scientific world, as he ceased his brilliant investigations when in the very prime of his powers.

Dumas was a consistent Catholic, and remained true to his faith all his life. When it was necessary, he never hesitated to defend Christianity against the attacks of materialism. Examples of his views in this regard may be found in his various addresses, as: his address on Bérard; his commemorative address on Farady, and the speech in which he extended the greetings of the Academy to the historian Taine. The Count d'Haussonville, at the funeral of Dumas, gave eloquent testimony to the latter's religious belief. Dumas was a prolific writer. Among his works may be mentioned: "Traité de chimie appliquée aux arts" (8 vols., 1828-45); "Précis de chimie physiologique et médicale"; "Leçons sur la philosophie chimique" (1837); "Essai de statique chimique des êtres organsés" (1841), the last work written in collaboration with Boussingault. Besides the publications just mentioned there were numerous papers in scientific journals and in the transactions of the Academy of Sciences. A list of his papers was published in the "Catalogue of Scientific Papers of Royal Society, London".

MAINDRON, L'OEuvre de Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1886); Dictionnaire Larousse, s. v.

T. O'CONOR SLOANE