Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/May 1878/Personal Reminiscences of Some Deceased Savants

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THEY die in such rapid succession! You hardly have time, after returning from a funeral, to think about who is to be the successor of the lamented dead, when you hear of the demise of another illustrious colleague. The members of the Paris Academy of Sciences can scarcely find competent successors for the dead celebrities among the few representatives of the new generation; yet the places of those celebrities must be filled, although everybody knows that the new men will but poorly fill those places. Leverrier, Becquerel, Regnault, Claude Bernard—where are the names among the younger savants that equal them, or that might be hoped one day to eclipse their predecessors?

I was fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with these four men, and hence I may be permitted to add to the numerous notices that have been written of their signal scientific achievements some impressions which I have retained from my personal intercourse with them.

In the years 1834 and 1835 I worked as a very young student of medicine in Liebig's laboratory at Giessen—in the summer of 1834 only now and then, but later continually—with the firm determination of turning my back upon medicine as soon as possible, and of becoming a professional chemist. The former resolution I succeeded in carrying out, but I had to leave the chemical career, originally from want of means. At that time only a few young men worked in the laboratory—among them a mercurial, gay Frenchman, who was known all over Giessen on account of a large yellow spot upon his elegantly-made blue coat. Demarçay—that was the name of our Parisian—refused to remove the spot, which had been caused by some sort of acid, nor would he cast the coat aside. In Giessen, he said, there was no tailor competent to mend or only to imitate a Paris-made garment. One day Liebig entered the laboratory with a slender little Frenchman, who wore the same kind of blue coat, but without a spot, and introduced him to us as M. Regnault, a student of the Paris School of Mines, who was to familiarize himself here with organic analysis, then the hobby of savants. Demarçay was of dark complexion, with raven-black hair, witty, and fond of practical jokes; Regnault was ruddy and fair, with long, light-colored hair, grave, but confiding. He spoke German very well, and, as he had a seat by my side, we were not long in becoming good friends. He was the perfect type of a rather delicate North-German or Scandinavian youth whom you might have almost taken for a boy of fifteen, so slight and fragile was his form, so amiable and pleasing his whole bearing. After a few weeks he disappeared as he had come. "I must go," he said, "but I hope to be back soon." We were surprised to discover now that Demarcay had had his yellow spot removed—it was owing to Regnault's urgent representations—and, at the same time, we learned that the time granted for scientific journeys to every engineer of the School of Mines had expired in Regnault's case, but that Liebig, who had immediately discerned the eminent talents of the young man, had interceded in Regnault's behalf in Paris, in order that another sojourn at Giessen might be allowed to him. The request was granted, and Regnault came back.

Ten years later my destiny brought me to Paris. Agassiz, with whom I had worked five years at Neufchâtel, had emigrated to America, whither I did not want to accompany him. I was indebted to him for letters of introduction to some of the prominent members of the Academy of Sciences, which was then split into two great parties: one, headed by Arago, embraced the few republicans, the mathematicians and physicists; the other, led by the elder Brongniart, embraced most of the naturalists, the chemists, and the Orleanists. I had been recommended to the latter group; with Arago I was brought into closer contact by several radical Alsacians, whose acquaintance I had made partly during my flight from the gendarmes of his royal highness the Grand duke of Hesse, and partly afterward in Switzerland. I was to make my living in Paris by reporting the proceedings of the Academy of Sciences for the Augsburg Universal Gazette. Upon entering the gloomy hall for the first time, I immediately noticed Regnault; he sat with his dreamy gaze before a few papers, as before the retorts in the laboratory; and, after the lapse of ten years, looked as young and fresh as at Giessen. Thus I saw him for three years in Paris, and again after long intervals; and when, during the Franco-German War, he came to Geneva, broken-hearted because of the death of his excellent son, who, in his youth, had caused him many a pang by his mad freaks, but had afterward filled his heart with just pride and joy, the deep furrows of suffering, and the consequences of a dangerous fall several years before at the porcelain-factory of Sèvres, had been unable to obliterate his youthful appearance completely. But his last years were a long, slow agony; death had made the most cruel gaps in his family already, prior to the death of his son; the war had rudely destroyed the instruments which he had patiently collected for many years at Sèvres, and this destruction had affected him the more painfully, as the utmost precision and the most conscientious calculation formed the most essential peculiarity of his labors. Ever studious to detect the most insignificant sources of errors, to reduce miscalculations to their very minimum, to bring his apparatus and instruments to the highest degree of efficiency and technical perfection, Regnault will always be a shining model for those moving in similar paths of experimental physics.

The elder Becquerel, who died about the same time, at an advanced age, after life-long toils, was already a gray-haired man when I became acquainted with him in the Société Philomatique at Paris. His son, who had a seat beside him in the Academy, was then a zealous member of that society, whose meetings I attended regularly, because it was the favorite debating-ground of the younger savants, who displayed more zeal in their discussions than was witnessed in the Academy. The old gentleman frequently accompanied his son, but I never became intimate with him.

Before Haussmann had revolutionized the appearance of Paris, and prior to the Revolution of 1848, there existed a Rue Copeau, leading from the Rue Mouffetard, the headquarters of the rag-pickers, to the small entrance-gate of the Jardin des Plantes, and upon which the grand portal of the Pitié Hospital abutted. Diagonally across the street from this portal there was a house bearing the number 4, where most of the foreign naturalists, who worked for some time at the Jardin des Plantes, had rooms. A well-known anatomist, Strauss-Durkheim, author of an excellent anatomy of the cockchafer, upon which he had toiled for twenty years, presided at the table of the house, and knew how to ingratiate himself with the proprietresses, two spinster ladies, who were as gaunt and slender as Papa Strauss was broad and fat. The rooms had special names, derived from the illustrious zoölogists, anatomists, and botanists, who had inhabited them. For one hundred francs a month I had the two rooms of Johannes Müller on the first floor, overlooking the gardens, together with board. Besides the naturalist boarders, many old friends from the neighboring streets took their breakfast and dinner there. They were mostly quiet people, living on the interest of a small capital, and who attended all lectures at the Jardin des Plantes, at the Collège de France, and even at the more distant Sorbonne, solely because they there found warm rooms in the wintertime. The conversation at the dinner-table was rarely very animated. Papa Strauss, whose bald head emerged from behind a very large green lamp-shade, like the full moon from behind a dark wreath of clouds, grunted discontentedly whenever louder tones fell upon his ears.

But, at times, all Papa Strauss's grunts were fruitless, and such was especially the case when the young medical students of the Pitié Hospital came to visit us, and conversed with the naturalists of the house about the scientific questions of the day. Two of them were remarkably tall. One, a very long, slender, lively, witty, and sarcastic young man, was a nephew of Cloquet, the celebrated surgeon, and, to distinguish him from his uncle, the students called him only "Le Grand Serpent." He went afterward, as physician of the shah, to Persia, and was, during a chase, assassinated by unknown murderers, whom the shah himself had probably hired. The other, by far graver, with a melancholy expression of countenance, was Claude Bernard. Magendie's experiments, Longet's investigations of the physiology of the nervous system, were at that time most eagerly discussed. Claude Bernard said very little, but what he did say was terse and to the point. He only became excited when anybody undertook to question the experiments and achievements of his teacher Magendie, whose assistant he afterward became at the Collége de France.

While he afterward rose step by step from one dignity and distinction to another, ever steadily pursuing those memorable researches which made him the foremost physiologist of our times, I lost sight of him as a personal acquaintance. I came to Paris only in vacation-time, and then Claude Bernard was at his country-seat in the environs of his birthplace, Lyons. If after a youth of terrible privations—very often he did not know in the morning how to get his dinner—he could now feel happy, seeing that everything which the ambition of the savant could wish for was offered to him, the highest positions at the universities and in the learned societies, a seat in the Senate, for which he was indebted to his scientific eminence, and not to any political services, he was weighed down, on the other hand, by serious bodily ailments and by the saddest of domestic misfortunes. At first I did not recognize him when, pleasantly and kindly, as of old, but gray-haired, and with his head inclined on one side, he stepped up to me at a provincial meeting, and reminded me of the old times in the Rue Copeau and the Pitié Hospital. "I have passed through a great deal since that time," he said to me, "which may have left some traces in my appearance—for I notice that you look at me in surprise—but let us chat a little about those times and about our old friends; it does me good!"

At the same time I became acquainted with Leverrier. As I have said already in this article, I had been brought into contact with the leaders of the two great parties in the Academy of Sciences, and had been kindly received by both. In the salons of Brongniart and Milne-Edwards I saw most of the naturalists; at the house of Martin de Strasbourg, as the well-known deputy was called, I frequently met Francois Arago, who was then intent upon learning German in order to be able to distinguish the pronunciations of Encke and Hencke, whom, as official reporter of the Academy, he had often occasion to mention. But that genuine son of La Provence was eminently unsuccessful in that respect, nor did he ever learn to pronounce my own name correctly; but, as his German teacher had him to read Schiller's "William Tell," the vogt[1] of the tragedy became confounded in his head with the living Vogt, and to the great merriment of everybody he called me "Gessler," to which name he obstinately clung.

One day a young man entered my room. From his appearance I should have unhesitatingly taken him for the son of a Westphalian peasant; for he was fair-haired, rosy-cheeked, and solidly built. It was Leverrier, who delivered a sort of address to me, confounding Vogt and Gessler all the time, and finally held out to me a quarto volume filled with figures, with the request to promote his election to the Academy. I stared at him as a cow will stare at a new stable-door, and then burst into loud laughter, which almost dumfounded the young candidate. The idea that I should be able to do anything for the promotion of his candidature seemed as ridiculous as he looked upon it as a matter of course. But, when I told him that I deemed my assistance utterly superfluous, and that I had heard all my friends of the Brongniart party talk about his election as a foregone conclusion, he almost embraced me for joy, and said that his visit to me was the most agreeable he had paid for a long time. He urged me to visit him, to see his wife and his little son, and so on. Thus he left me, flushed with excitement, and, when I told a friend at the Jardin des Plantes that the whole affair seemed utterly incomprehensible to me, he said: "You are a novice in such things. Do you know what a candidate for the Academy is? The unhappiest man in the world. He has to hire a carriage for a month; he rides out early in the morning to pay visits, and comes home late in the evening, fearfully tired. He has no time for eating and sleeping; for of nights he dreams of fresh essays, and finally sinks half dead into his easy-chair. He visits everybody, even the cousin of the dress-maker who sews for the aunt of the wife of an academician; and you are surprised that Leverrier should come to see you? After a while, when I am a candidate, I shall also pay you a visit, although I see you every day at the Jardin des Plantes. Otherwise you might take offense."

Leverrier had, at that time, a very pleasant home. His wife was a handsome, amiable woman, his son was a fat, rosy-cheeked boy, and his daily visitor was Arago, who knew how to interest the smallest as well as the largest circles by his lively and witty conversation. He was a republican, like Arago, to whom he was indebted for everything, and whom he afterward treated in a manner which was justly and harshly criticised. For he became a rabid reactionist, and he whom everybody had taken for a frank, noble character was soon looked upon as the most rancorous man in Paris. People admired the astronomical calculator and the indefatigable student; but they hated and even despised the colleague and the superior. I am inclined to think that all the members of the Academy together were not so cordially execrated during their lifetime as Leverrier alone. I was averse to renew my intimacy with the man who had become repugnant to me.

I do not propose to analyze here the scientific merits of the men whom France has recently lost. If Becquerel and Regnault were known only in professional circles, the name of Leverrier is familiar to all who have heard of the planet Neptune, which he so ingeniously discovered; and Claude Bernard is not unknown to cultivated people, as his fertile pen has popularized physiological knowledge and investigations. Only one of the four, Becquerel, was popular as a lecturer; Claude Bernard was the only one among them whose views reached far beyond his special field of knowledge, and, for this reason, he knew how to adapt the style of his writings to the requirements of cultivated society.

In conclusion, I should like to draw attention to one thing. None of these four men, who achieved lasting fame in so many different branches of science, had been originally destined for scientific pursuit. What they were and what they achieved were due to themselves and to their iron will. Becquerel had left the Polytechnic School in 1808, in his twentieth year, had become a lieutenant of engineers, had been promoted to the command of a battalion in the Spanish campaigns, and left the service after the battle of Waterloo in order to devote himself to the study of physics; Leverrier and Regnault had originally been clerks in stores, and had studied in their leisure hours until they were able to gain admittance to the Polytechnic School; Claude Bernard had come to Paris with hardly anything in his pocket but a tragedy, and he had first dabbled in literature. Hard, indescribably hard work, untold privations, and struggles of all kinds, enabled these men to attain the high position which they will always hold in the history of science. To them may be applied what one of my friends once said in regard to an eminent savant: "Dans sa jeunesse il a tiré le diable par la queue et mangé de la vache enragée; mais il a réussi, parce qu'il avait le feu sacré!"

  1. Governor.