Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/November 1886/Chevreul at a Hundred
|CHEVREUL AT A HUNDRED.|
By WILLIAM H. LARRABEE.
THE occasion of M. Chevreul's completing the one hundredth year of his age was celebrated in Paris on the 30th and 31st of August, with appropriate observances and honors. The festivities were begun in the National Society of Agriculture, whose custom it has been to elect M. Chevreul its president every other year. A committee of this society had been formed in April, under the presidency of M. Charles Brongniart, and had collected the sum of fifteen thousand francs for the purpose of striking a commemorative medal for the centenary. Addresses were delivered by Deputy Louis Passy, and, in presenting the medal, by M. Brongniart, who assured M. Chevreul that he was the object of the respect and admiration of all civilized nations. M. Chevreul replied; "All that I have heard causes me much embarrassment. And why? On account of the warmth of the profound and numerous sentiments which you have expressed. I never anticipated the honor that my comrades have paid me."
In the Academy of Sciences, whose regular meeting took place on the 30th, M. Blanchard, in the absence from Paris of President Admiral Jurien de la Gravière, took the chair and made the Academy's address. He remarked upon the session's occurring on that day, as if the hour had been chosen for the event, saying that "in the family it is on the eve of the marked day that the festival is given: was it not fitting that it should be the same in the Academy, our intellectual family, which we love more and more as we grow older?" He referred to the fact that he had, as President of the Academy, predicted this very event three years before, when M. Chevreul was entering upon his ninety-eighth year. Then, having made a general mention of the value of M. Chevreul's discoveries, he said: "The investigator, absorbed in his mission, dreams of nothing but of extending its domain. If he succeeds in unveiling facts of considerable interest, he deserves well of science. If an application capable of furnishing the country a new source of wealth arises out of his labors, it is a glory to him; but the man of science finds his highest recompense when he has succeeded in spreading a comfort through the nation, and procuring for those who are disinherited of this world's goods a little of the luxury which it had seemed could only be obtained with wealth. Master, experimenter, philosopher, Monsieur Chevreul, you
Chevreul at the Age of Fifty.
have known all of these triumphs. Again I tell you, nothing is wanting to the fullness of your life. By your stories of remote events of which you have been a witness, you have charmed those who in age might be your sons, and those, still more numerous, who might be your grandsons. Your memory, yet in its freshness, permits you still to instruct those who might be your great-grandchildren. After tomorrow, you will count the days, weeks, and years of your new century. That the years may be many is the wish of your fellows and admirers." M. Chevreul in reply cited as a proof that a man's reputation depends greatly upon the trial of time, the examples of Newton and Leibnitz, the latter of whom said, "Seek first the demonstration of causes." "Newton preferred the more fruitful idea, 'Seek the cause of phenomena, and when you have found it inquire what is the cause of that cause.' There is a wide gulf between the two formulas. To my mind Newton is greater than Leibnitz. Time has proved it." Representative scientific men of other countries, commissioned to pay their respects to M.Chevreul, were introduced to Lira: M.Van Beneden, from Belgium; M.Broch, from Norway; M. Bosscha, from the Netherlands; and M.Govi, from Italy. A congratulatory telegram, expressing a warm wish for health, rigor, and force, "to that remarkable patriarch of the world," was read from the University of Kazan, in Russia.
M.Pasteur, who was absent in the Jura, sent his compliments to the veteran, who, he said, while he modestly called himself the dean of students, ought to be styled the master of masters.
The Academy of Sciences of Berlin sent a congratulatory commumcation which, after reference severally to the more important results of M.Chevreul's principal researches, concluded: "Having thus represented in all its extent the activity that you have shown throughout your long life, we hold that your name should be inscribed in one of the first places on the list of the great men who have carried the scientific glory of France to the extremities of the earth."
In the evening M.Chevreul attended the opera, to witness a special performance in his honor.
The anniversary day itself was signalized by the unveiling, amid considerable pomp and ceremony, of a statue of M.Chevreul by M.Guillaume, in the hall of the new museum at the Jardin des Plantes. M.Chevreul entered the room leaning upon the arms of M.Bourlois, aged ninety-four, an old soldier of the empire, and of M. Frémy, the director of the museum. M.Frémy delivered the presentation address, a glowing eulogy of M. Chevreul's work. M.Zeller, President of the Five Academies, followed him, and expressed his satisfaction that in that magnificent hall, in which so many friends and foreigners had met, the French "Grand Old Man," who had modestly called himself the decanus of the French students, had been promoted by acclamation as the decanus of the students and savants of the universities and academies of the whole civilized world. M.Goblet, Minister of Public Instruction, spoke next, and, after referring to the fitness of the place for the statue, said M.Chevreul's life "has been one of incessant labor. He has loved work for its own sake, with a conscientious and disinterested affection; and by a just return he has obtained from it all the satisfaction which it could give—health, peace of mind, honor, and the delight of making great discoveries."
M.Janssen delivered the form.al address of the Academy at the Odeon. He said, "It belongs to the Academy to tell you that if Science to-day lifts you upon that beautiful pedestal, it is because you have constantly loved her for herself, and have never thought of making of her a stepping-stone for your own advantage."
In the evening M.Chevreul attended a banquet which was given in his honor at the Hôtel-de-Ville.
Various testimonials were presented to the centenarian during the days of the festivities. Among them was a volume published expressly for the occasion by M.Alcan, entitled "Hommage à, M.Chevreul,"written by Berthelot, who also presented a copy to the Academy, Charles Richet, Pouchet, Grimaux, E.Gautier, Dujardin Beaumetz, and Demarçay. The inhabitants of the Rue Chevreul sent him a fine nosegay. Another deputation presented him with a nosegay which, according to M.H.de Varigny's description in "Science," "was a masterpiece of art in the choice and distribution of colors. No more delicate allusion could be made to the venerable master's theory of complementary colors; and it was understood by the whole crowd, being exemplified in an unparalleled manner."
M.Gaston Tissandier has published in "La Nature" some incidents relating to M.Chevreul's career, additional to those which we gave in our sketch of him in August, 1885, or which throw a fuller light upon the facts presented in that article.
The life of the old philosopher has been up to this time spent between the Museum of Natural History, the Gobelins, and the Institute of France, and he has very seldom failed to be present at the Monday meetings of the Academy of Sciences. The memoirs which he has presented to his colleagues can hardly be counted. Among them may be mentioned one which he published in 1832 on the divining-rod, and another in 1853 on the tipping-tables, in which he scattered as with a breath all that was mysterious about the manifestations; and he rendered to science the service of demonstrating how the operator is the dupe of a charlatanism of which he is often the involuntary accomplice.
Although M.Chevreul had no taste for politics, he has been a man among his fellow-men, and a true patriot. During the Franco-Prussian War, when he was eighty-six years old, he remained in Paris through all the privations of the siege, and even stuck to the museum while more than eighty Prussian bombs were whizzing through it, making rubbish of the galleries and breaking up the glass cases. More than one of these projectiles burst close to the laboratory in which the brave old man was engaged in his work. He filed an indignant declaration of protest respecting this outrage, in the minutes of the Academy of the 9th of January, 1871, which runs as follows:
"The Garden of Medicinal Plants, founded in Paris by the edict of King Louis XIII, in the month of January, 1626—become the Museum of Natural History by decree of the Convention, on the 10th of June, 1793—was bombarded, in the reign of William I, King of Prussia, the Count of Bismarck being Chancellor, by the Prussian army, on the night of the 8th and 9th of January, 1871. Till then, it had been respected by all parties and by all powers, national and foreign,
It was on the occasion of this declaration that M.Chevreul wrote to the Abbé Lamazon a letter in which he designated himself the dean of students, and thus gave origin to a title which has become famous in connection with his name. He said, "Let the expression of the sympathy you offer be given, not to the man of science, but to one who might call himself the Dean of the Students of France, since it has been given to him to continue without interruption, on the banks of the Seine, studies which were begun at the end of the last century in the beautiful land of Anjou."
M.Chevreul has a considerable library at the museum, which has been regularly increased by the accession of valuable books which his son, a bibliophilist like himself, has helped him to find. His grand life has been engaged in thought, and concentrated upon the studies from which such useful discoveries have resulted. He has kept himself in good condition and happy by work and moderation. His wife, who has now been dead for more than twenty years, attended to his comforts with all the devotion which such superior minds are able to invoke. His only son, a retired magistrate, lives at Dijon. The illustrious old man lives, therefore, alone, with his books for companions, by the aid of which he is able to converse with his brethren, the great ones of mankind, the Newtons and the Galileos. When not among his books, he is at his laboratory in the Gobelins, where he goes on with his experiments with a dexterity still quite juvenile,
M.Chevreul possesses a large fortune, which is augmented from year to year by the rewards of his scientific labors. His life therefore passes along placidly, enlivened by the pleasure of seeing the closing years of his career emphasized by ovations to his merit. He has witnessed the birth of all the scientific discoveries of our century, and has beheld the marvelous spectacle of the development of modern industry.
M.Chevreul is tall, and bears to this day an erect body. Of elegant manners and incomparable affability, he rarely fails to receive you with a smile. His head is a very fine one, with a broad and massive forehead, shaded with white locks. He is a man of wit as well as of genius. Recently, when engaging a new preparator for his laboratory, he said to him: "You must have a good deal of courage to take this place; I have killed four preparators already." We recollect, says M.Tissandier, seeing him at a ball in the Élysée, at midnight of a winter night, fresh and lively, surrounded by ladies whom he was gayly entertaining, with an exquisite and charming grace.
M.Chevreul is very sober. He drinks nothing but water and beer, except that, by the special request of Minister Goblet, he for the first time in his life departed from his abstinence to drink a glass of champagne in response to the sentiment "Vive la France!" at his century-banquet; and to his temperance, with his robust constitution and his prudent, regular, and industrious life, he doubtless owes his survival to 80 high an age.
It is a grand and beautiful spectacle, M.Tissandier concludes, that M. Chevreul gives us, like that of an old oak overshadowing generation after generation of younger trees.
A partial conception of the length of M. Chevreul's still useful activity, and of the extent of his contributions to human welfare, may be gained by recollecting that, his first important work having been
M. Chevreul in his Hundredth Year at Work in his Laboratory. (From a photograph by M. David.)
published in 1806, he has been engaged for more than eighty years in fruitful investigations. As early as 1825, or sixty-one years ago, he was spoken of in "The Lancet" (May 28th) as "one of the most able chemists of the present day in France." He was then pursuing his studies in saponification, and had given to the world star or adamantine candles, which were a greater improvement over the tallow-dips and dim lamps which the common people of that day had to get along with than the electric light is over our gas-lights and petroleumlamps.
An item recently appeared in the newspapers saying that the other day his Excellency Tcheou-Meou-Ki, Director of the Chinese Mission of Public Instruction, paid a visit, with the mandarins attached to his person, to M.Chevreul in Paris, He handed to the illustrious chemist a Chinese document expressing in old characters every wish for his happiness and long life. It appears that there is living at this moment in China a Chinese savant who at the age of one hundred years has just passed his examination, and been admitted a member of the highest academy of the mandarins. The interpreter explained to M.Chevreul that his Chinese visitors considered that the fact that two savants a hundred years of age were living, one in France and the other in China, was a link connecting the learning of the two countries.
A correspondent of the "Pall Mall Gazette" recently visited M.Chevreul in his study bedroom at nine o'clock in the evening. He found him in bed, reading a play of Molière's, "and as cheery and hearty as a young man of twenty. He has decidedly an ancient look about him. His skin is well furrowed and wrinkled, and his hand shaky; but his eyes are not dim, nor is bis natural mental strength abated. His memory is something marvelous. He remembered the horrors and bloody days of the Terror as vividly as the struggles and rise of the Third Republic." He talked about the theatres, Shakespeare, and Molière, whom, like a true Frenchman, he preferred, and added: "I don't know if among the English there is the same admiration for the classics as in France. We have always professed a great love for the classics, but the word 'classic' is too often applied to things that have nothing classic about them. Then we have other schools, the romantic and others. But I don't find much in recent writers. They have got a great many new words, but work on the old ideas. They keep on reproducing the old ideas over and over again, and do not give us many new thoughts." And he repeated several times, "It is very easy to give new names to very old things."
The old man, says the correspondent, "prattled on from one subject to another, speaking slowly and distinctly. 'We have in France,' he observed, 'a school that has a considerable number of adherents who say that man was descended from the monkeys. But if you accept that doctrine, you do away with the perfectibility of species.' M.Chevreul does not always lie in bed and read Molière. Until last December he went about as well as he had done fifty years before. Now he goes about the garden and the museums, attends the Academy of Sciences every week, and frequently reads papers; goes regularly to the meetings of the Agricultural Society and the offices of the 'Journal des Savants.' He always enjoys good health, and 'eats more than I do,' says M.Chevreul, fils" His temperance grew out of a repugnance which he contracted in youth to wines and liquors, and extends to smoking.
His favorite topic is colors, respecting which, our correspondent says, "he would insist on sitting up in bed and giving a demonstration on the propagation of colors. His strong point was that the 'colors are in us, and the cause in the things we look at' (de hors). Although he had talked a great deal during the day, there was no stopping him when once the started on the color question, or getting him to change the subject; and when we rose to leave, he protested that we were going away because his exposition wearied us." He is as earnest and enthusiastic a student yet as if he had another hundred years before him. "No man, perhaps, has seen his country pass through so many revolutions, and has lived under so many régimes as M.Chevreul. He remembers Louis XVI. His recollections of the Revolution and the Directoire are clear, though he was not then at Paris. He can call up pictures of the glory and the dignity of the First Empire. He has lived under the First Restoration, the Hundred Days, the Restoration of 1815, the Legitimist rule of 1830, the Republic of 1848, the Second Empire of 1852, and the Third Republic—in all eleven régimes, which is tolerably good for one lifetime."
The lesson has been drawn from M.Chevreul's life of what one writer styles "the physical wholesomeness of sustained labor." Cases of extreme longevity are usually found either among persons who live in almost complete inactivity of mind and are thus subject to no wear whatever from their nervous and intellectual faculties, or else among those who spend their lives in constant, vigorous thought. Persons of the class between these, who learn and pursue some business which in time becomes largely a matter of routine and ceases to call out exertion of the powers, usually die early, or at a moderate old age. Hence, the wonderful brightness and activity which we sometimes admire among very old persons, is not so wonderful after all, but is a part of their old age, and one of the causes that have enabled them to enjoy it. And the general rule is sustained, in the case of M.Chevreul, as in the case of numerous other men who have served the world or are serving it at ages far beyond threescore and ten, that "the harmonious development of all the many-sided aspects of man is the most conducive to the health of the individual, and that the training of the brain may be as valuable as the training of the muscles."