Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/René Louiche Desfontaines

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

DESFONTAINES, René Louiche (1751-1833),French botanist, was a native of Brittany, born at Tremblay, in the department of Ile-et-Vilaine, in 1751 or 1752. He was sent to the town school, but made slow progress in learning, and was at length dismissed by the schoolmaster as a dullard and a robber of apple orchards. This treat ment left a life-long painful impression on his mind. At the college of Rennes, to which he was next sent, he applied himself heartily to study, and rejoiced in a success which falsified the judgment of his old master. From Rennes he passed to Paris, to study medicine ; but this soon became a secondary pursuit, his chief attention being drawn to the study of plants. At Paris he acquired the friendship of Lemonnier, physician to the king, and of Jussieu. At the age of thirty he took his degree of M.D., and in 1783 he was elected member of the Academy of Sciences. In the same year he set out for North Africa, and spent two years in a scientific exploration of Barbary. In 1785 he returned to Paris, bringing with him a large collection of plants, animals, and other objects illustra tive of natural history. The collection, it is stated, comprised 1600 species of plants, of which about 300 were described for the first time. His successful labours were rewarded, and a new congenial field of work was opened to him, by his nomination by Buff on to the post of pro fessor at the Jardin des Plantes, vacated in his favour by his friend Lemonnier. The garden, says one of his biographers, now became his world. His life was thence forth marked by few incidents. He devoted himself to his pupils, to his plants, and to the preparation of various botanical works. He purposed to publish a narrative of his African explorations, but the manuscript journal being lent to Lemonnier, and by him to the king, Louis XVI., was lost, and only a few fragments of the narrative appeared. His great work is entitled Flora Atlantica sive historia plantarum quae in Atlante, agro Tunetano et Algeriensi crescunt. It was published in 2 vols. 4to in 1798, and is esteemed for the singular clearness and precision of its descriptions and its nomenclature. Desfontaines, as a recluse student, escaped the perils of the Reign of Terror. On two occasions he courageously quitted his retirement to rescue the naturalists Ramond and Lheritier from prison and from death. He was admitted to the Legion of Honour at the time of its establishment. At the age of sixty-three he married a young wife, but the prospect of happiness thus opened was soon closed by her death. In 1831 he became blind, and was reduced to the recognition of his favourite plants by touch alone. Desfontaines was author of many valuable memoirs on vegetable anatomy and physiology, descriptions of new genera and species, &c., contributed to learned societies and scientific journals. One of the most important was the " Memoir on the Organization of the Monocotyledons," which gave him a high place among discoverers. He published in 1804 a Tableau de I ecole botanique du museum d histoire naturelle de Paris, of which a third edition appeared in 1831, under the new title Catalogus Plantarum Horti Regii Parisiensis. His modesty, simplicity of life, and good humour endeared him to his friends and to his pupils. He died at Paris on the 16th November 1833, a daughter surviving him. His Barbary collection was bequeathed to the museum, and his general collection passed into the hands of the botanist Webb.