Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/December 1880/Biographical Sketch of Professor Dumas



By A. W. HOFMANN.[1]

THIS able chemist and distinguished man of science, now eighty years of age, and still fulfilling, with almost youthful freshness, the duties of Permanent Secretary to the Academy of Sciences, has been identified with the progress of science in France during half a century, and has gone through an amount of active, diversified labor which has hardly a parallel among his contemporaries.

Jean-Baptiste André Dumas was born at Alais, in the department of Gard, July 14, 1800. His father was clerk of the municipality, and a cultivated man. He early studied Latin in the college of his native town, and became interested in the classical traditions of his neighborhood, which had many imposing remains of Roman antiquity. But the situation was one calculated to foster an interest also in the objects of nature and the processes of science and art. There were coal-mines, glass-works, brick-yards, tile-works, manufactories of coarse earthenware, lime-kilns, vitriol-factories, and mines of iron, lead, and antimony, all in the immediate region of Alais. The lessons of these industries were not lost upon young Dumas, who, at fourteen years of age, had acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the several natural sciences. At this time he was apprenticed to an apothecary. But there was not much opportunity of scientific study, and this, added to the political and military distraction of the time, inspired him with a strong desire to quit his native town.

In 1816 Dumas accordingly went to Geneva. Here he found scope for study and opportunities to begin a career. He attended the lectures on botany by M. de Candolle, on physics by M. Pictet, and on chemistry by M. Gaspard de la Rive. He had the superintendence of a large pharmaceutical laboratory, which was found deficient in apparatus. But a supply was rapidly improvised. To obtain gas-jars, lamp-chimneys were closed with watch-glasses, cemented on with wax. An old bronze syringe was turned into an air-pump, and barometer-tubes bent over a flame completed the stock of apparatus. Gradually the laboratory improved. As the ambition of the young Professor grew, he began to long for a chemical balance. This wish also was satisfied; with the aid of some workmen in a watch-maker's shop an instrument was constructed which enabled him to begin his analytical researches. He here commenced earnestly the study of chemistry, and began at once the work of research. One of his little discoveries had the following result: When analyzing various sulphates and other salts of commerce, he had observed that the water they contained was present in definite equivalents. He had not found this recorded anywhere, and had, therefore, taken great pains to establish the accuracy of his observations. When the investigation was finished, he went one morning early to M. de la Rive, and timidly submitted to him the manuscript embodying the results of his inquiry. While glancing over it, M. de la Rive could not conceal his surprise. When he had come to the end he said to the young student, "Is it you, my boy, who have made these experiments?" "Certainly." "And they have taken you a good deal of time to perform?" "Of course they have." "Then I must tell you that you have had the good fortune to meet Berzelius on the same field of research. He has preceded you, but he is older than you, and so you ought not to bear him ill will on this account." Dumas, not a little embarrassed, was unable to utter a single word. It was, in fact, his first interview with M. de la Rive, whose lectures he had attended, but whom he had never personally accosted. But his perplexity was not to last long. With the utmost good nature M. de la Rive put an end to his gloomy reflections by taking his arm and saying, "Come along and breakfast with me." Before long the conversation had become animated and cheerful. The acquaintance was made, and the kindly feeling of his teacher won by Dumas at this breakfast never subsequently failed him.

This was when Dumas was eighteen years of age. For the next four years he worked with great assiduity in experimental chemistry, and especially, in association with Prevost, upon the problems of organic chemistry, in which they were pioneers.

In 1822 Dumas might have settled at Geneva, and many circumstances led him to think seriously of doing so. An incident, however, which happened at that time, and which at first sight seemed in no way likely to influence a well-matured plan of life, induced him within a few days to change his mind. He made the acquaintance of a man, among whose varied gifts the fascinating sway he exercised over youthful minds was not the least. Let me try to give the story in the very words in which I heard it from Dumas's mouth.

"One day," he said, "when I was in my study completing some drawings at the microscope, and, it must be added, rather negligently attired, in order to enable me to move more freely, some one mounted the stairs, stopped on my landing, and gently knocked at the door. 'Come in,' said I, without looking up from my work. On turning round I was surprised to find myself face to face with a gentleman, in a bright blue coat with metal buttons, a white waistcoat, nankeen breeches, and top-boots. This costume, which might have been the fashion under the Directory, was then quite out of date. The wearer of it, his head somewhat bent, his eyes deep-set but keen, advanced with a pleasant smile, saying, ‘Monsieur Dumas?’ ‘The same, sir; but excuse me.’ ‘Don't disturb yourself. I am M. de Humboldt, and did not wish to pass through Geneva without having had the pleasure of seeing you.' Throwing on my coat, I hastily reiterated my apologies. I had only one chair. My visitor was pleased to accept it, while I resumed my elevated perch on the drawing-stool. Baron Humboldt had read the papers published by M. Prévost and myself on blood, which had just appeared in the "Bibliothèque Universelle," and was anxious to see the preparations I had by me. His wish was soon gratified. 'I am going to the Congress at Verona,' said he, 'and I intend to spend some days at Geneva, to see old friends and to make new ones, and more especially to become acquainted with young people who are beginning their career. Will you act as my cicerone? I warn you, however, that my rambles begin early and end late. Now, could you be at my disposal, say, from six in the morning till midnight?' This proposal, which was of course accepted with alacrity, proved to me a source of unexpected pleasure. Baron Humboldt was fond of talking; he passed from one subject to another without stopping. He obviously liked being listened to, and there was no fear of his being interrupted by a young man who for the first time heard Laplace, Berthollet, Gay-Lussac, Arago, Thenard, Cuvier, and many others of the Parisian celebrities, spoken of with familiarity. I listened with a strange delight; a new horizon began to dawn upon me. Save the time devoted to some visits, I was allowed to remain the whole day with Humboldt, who darted from point to point over the vast range of his recollections, while I endeavored to keep pace with the uninterrupted flow of his narrative. Sometimes the mountain scenery would remind him of the Cordilleras, though it must be confessed he did not think much even of Mont Blanc. Sometimes he turned to science, and then astronomy and physics, chemistry, and the natural history branches would, in rapid succession, come in for their share in the dialogue, or rather monologue, which, spoken in a low, somewhat monotonous tone, would have scarcely appeared impressive had it not been for some waggish pleasantry which now and then escaped, as it were, involuntarily. But, at any rate, if his voice failed to be effective, the glance of his eye was sufficient to rivet his hearers' attention.

"At the end of a few days Baron Humboldt left Geneva. After his departure the town seemed empty to me. I felt as if spellbound. The memorable hours I had spent with that irresistible enchanter had opened a new world to my mind. I had been more especially impressed with what he had told me of Parisian life, of the happy collaboration of men of science, and of the unlimited facilities which the French capital offered to young men wishing to devote themselves to scientific pursuits. I began to think that Paris was the only place where, under the auspices of the leaders of physical and chemical science, with whom I had no doubt I should soon become acquainted, I might hope to find the advice and assistance which would enable me to carry out the labors over which I had been pondering for some time. My mind was soon made up—'I must go to Paris.' "

The interest with which Dumas recounts this incident, which brought his stay in Geneva to a somewhat sudden termination, leaves no doubt as to the deep impression which the short intercourse with Alexander von Humboldt had made upon his mind. We have here, indeed, one more illustration of the peculiar predilection of the German savant for youthful inquirers, of the sagacity with which he discovered rising talent, and of the irresistible fascination which no one was able to withstand. It is well known what a powerful patron he proved to Liebig, who has left us a charming account of his first acquaintance with the famous traveler; and it is certainly worthy of note that two inquirers, whose labors subsequently carried them to the head of chemical science, should each have been befriended on the very threshold of his career by the same master mind, so that in later years they never ceased to acknowledge in affectionate terms the debt of gratitude which they owed to Alexander von Humboldt. Dumas's removal to Paris took place in 1823.

If a legitimate desire to become acquainted with the leading men of science of that day was one of the principal motives in determining Dumas to leave Geneva, his wishes were gratified far beyond his most sanguine expectations. Nothing could have surpassed the kindness with which the young aspirant was received by the very men to whom he had hitherto been looking up with mingled feelings of reverence and awe. As an illustration of the sympathetic interest which the most illustrious savants of the period accorded to the labors of their youthful fellow-workers in the field of science, Dumas is fond of describing his own début in the Academy of Sciences. Having read a joint paper of his and Prévost's on muscular contraction, he had modestly retired into the embrasure of a window (as would become his age), when a member of the Academy—a veteran with white hair and a most dignified countenance—rose on the other side of the table and walked up to him. "Monsieur Dumas, will you do me the honor of dining with me on Wednesday next?" he asked the astonished young chemist in a most formal manner. Nothing could be more natural than to accept so kind an invitation. After an exchange of a few polite words Dumas's new friend gravely retired to his place, receiving everywhere unequivocal marks of the greatest respect. "With whom am I to dine?" asked Dumas of one of his neighbors. "Do not you know M. de Laplace?" was the answer. And not only did Dumas dine, with Laplace, but he learned with lively interest that the illustrious astronomer had retained a sort of passion for physiological inquiries ever since he had jointly worked with Lavoisier on animal heat and respiration.

In 1824 Dumas married Mdlle. Hermine Brongniart, daughter of Alexandre Brongniart, the illustrious geologist, and sister of his friend Adolphe Brongniart. The union was a most happy one. Dumas's career in Paris has been one of remarkable productiveness and brilliancy. His researches in organic chemistry, so thoroughly begun in Geneva, were resumed and pursued with great ardor. He was the rival of Liebig, who so successfully cultivated the same field at the same time. But the two chemists, although often in sharp collision in their views, were ever firm, affectionate friends. Of their relation, Dumas remarked as follows:

"To find our way through these unexplored territories, we had neither compass nor guides, neither method nor laws. Each of us had been led to form ideas and to elaborate views peculiar to himself, which he defended with warmth and even with passion, but without any feeling of envy or jealousy. The discoveries to be made appeared to us without limit, and each was satisfied with his harvest. What we both had at heart was to stake the ground and to open roads, nor have I any doubt that, in reading my papers, Liebig felt the same pleasure which the perusal of his afforded me. If a new step had been taken, it was of little moment whether it had been made by the one or by the other, since it served us both on the road to truth." This generous feeling was heartily reciprocated by Liebig, who dedicated the German edition of his "Familiar Letters on Chemistry" to Dumas with the most cordial expressions of high regard.

It is impossible here even to name his scientific conquests. He early propounded new views of the atomic theory, which time has confirmed; and his experimental inquiries into the compound ethers laid the foundation of that branch of organic chemistry.

Dumas has been both a prolific and an elegant writer. His works present considerable variety, both as to the subjects discussed and to the form of treatment adopted. There are several elaborate treatises and a great many minor pamphlets. His academical notices, his official documents, his municipal reports, his festal speeches, his opening discourses, his commemoration addresses, his funeral orations, are countless, and they are all marked by an unusual degree of literary merit.

When the Republic was established in France, the President, Louis Napoleon, appointed Dumas Minister of Agriculture and Commerce; and when the Empire was established he became a Senator. His talents were now largely devoted to the public service, and he was the active spirit in numerous commissions in which his extensive and accurate knowledge was invaluable. With the overthrow of the Empire he returned to private life, and again resumed the scientific labors which have ever been his chief delight.

  1. Condensed from the excellent "Life of Dumas" in "Nature," February 6, 1880.