Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/March 1894/The Founder of the First Scientific Journal


WHEN recently the statue of Theophrast Renaudot, the founder of French political journalism, was unveiled, the literary and scientific journals were alike full of praises of him and his work; but none of them recollected another pioneer in his field, the modest and profoundly erudite Denis de Sallo, the founder of the Journal des Sçavants, who did for letters and science what Renaudot so successfully accomplished for politics.

Without undertaking a full sketch of the history of the French scientific press, I desire only to show here how new in 1665 was that idea, which seems so simple and natural now, of the creation of a scientific journal; how many impediments were raised against its creator by the commonplace authors whom the new tribunal condemned without appeal; what patience, what erudition, what a prodigious sum of labor were required from its founders to surmount all the obstacles, avoid all the perils they met every day, and give their work a vitality strong enough to permit it, rising repeatedly from its ashes, to perpetuate itself till our time.

Denis de Sallo, Seigneur of la Coudray, was born in Paris in 1626, of an old noble family of Poitou. His lessons in early childhood were not brilliant; but after he entered the courses of rhetoric at the Collége des Grassins he obtained all the prizes of his class; became in the next year a distinguished pupil in philosophy, and having sustained in public remarkable theses in Latin and Greek, gave himself up with ardor to the study of law. His advance was so rapid that he was able in 1652 to succeed his father, Jacques de Sallo, in his office as counselor at the Parliament of Paris. Three years later he married Elizabeth Menardeau, daughter of a counselor in the Grand Chamber, by whom he had one son and four daughters. He died on the 14th of May, 1669, of apoplexy. His death, according to Vigneuil Marville, was caused by the loss of all his fortune in gambling in 1665; but, besides that this story has little probability in view of the character of De Sallo, who was industrious through all his life, it is controverted by a letter of Guy Patin's of the 13th of November, 1665, which proves that at that time De Sallo had no thought of dying, and by the testimony of Père Honoré de Sainte Marie, who agrees with Moréri in placing his death in 1669 and not in 1665.

Having given an outline of the principal events of De Sallo's life, which was otherwise quiet enough, we pass to the study of his character and work. "He read all sorts of books," says Moréri, "with incredible care, and kept secretaries continually employed to write down his reflections and the passages which he marked, so that by this plan of studying he fitted himself to compose treatises on every kind of subject, as he showed on several occasions."

It was probably the considerable quantity of material that he collected in this way that suggested to him the thought of giving the public those extracts the utility of which he had recognized in his experiences. He associated with himself in the execution of this work, which was colossal for that time, a number of men of science and letters: De Bourzeis, a distinguished theologian; De Gemberville, chaplain, the famous author of La Pucelle; and the Abbé Gaulois, who, according to Fontenelle, seemed "born for that work"; but De Sallo revised all the articles—not very numerous—which his colaborers furnished, and himself wrote the largest number.

The authorization having been obtained, the support of Colbert assured, and the plan and periods of publication fixed, the Journal des Sçavants appeared on Monday, January 3, 1665, in a sheet and a half quarto, under the pen signature of Hedouville;[1] and it continued to appear every Monday till the 30th of March of the same year, when the authorization was withdrawn. Although its criticisms were always moderate and just, it had made many enemies among men of letters, and among the Jesuits, then all-powerful, "who were not pleased to see a literary and philosophical tribunal that was not set up by them, and who, moreover, detested De Sallo and his friends as Parlementarians and Galileans suspected of Jansenism; these added their complaints to the cries of wounded self-love. They secured the aid of the papal nuncio, and he obtained a prohibition against De Sallo's continuing the publication." The pretext alleged for this act was a passage in the Journal in which De Sallo criticised a decree of the Inquisitors, "whose delicate ears required so great circumspection."

Colbert, however, still retained a friendship for his client, recompensed him for the suppression of his journal with an office in the treasury, and, realizing the full value of De Sallo's work, commissioned the Abbé Gaulois to continue it. The Journal reappeared on the 4th of January, 1666, and was henceforth illustrated;[2] but Abbé Gaulois, who held the direction of the paper for nine years, published it very irregularly; thus there was only one number in 1670, and none in 1673.

In 1675 the Journal passed into the hands of Abbé La Roque, who exhibited in his work a punctuality worthy of praise, but was far from knowing as much of science as his predecessor; then in 1686 Chancellor Boucherat, who declared himself its protector, intrusted its direction to President Cousin. Finally, in 1701, the Journal was acquired for the state by Chancellor de Pontchartrain, who gave the preparation of the numbers no longer to one man, but to a company of students, consisting of Dupin, Rassicad, Andry, Fontenelle, and Vertot, with Julien Pouchard as director. Thus renewed, supported by Abbé Bignon, nephew of the chancellor, the Journal des Sçavants appeared again on the 2d day of January, 1702, and its history till 1792, when political events compelled its suspension again, offered the single noteworthy feature that its period of publication was changed in 1764, and from a weekly it became a monthly, with supplements every six months.[3]

Sylvestre de Sacy tried to resuscitate the Journal in 1796; but his attempt was abandoned after the publication of twelve numbers, from the 16th of nivose to the 30th of prairial of the year V. It was re-established September 1, 1816, on the proposition of Barbé Marbois, Keeper of the Seals, and Dambray, chancellor, on a report of the historian Guizot, then general secretary to the Minister of Justice, and has not been suspended since. The presidency of the editorial committee appertained to the Keeper of the Seals from that time till the imperial decree of May 4, 1857, by which it was transferred to the Minister of Public Instruction, under whose auspices the Journal is still published.

Such has been the checkered career of the first French scientific journal—a career that demonstrates, better than any eulogy can, that the work of De Sallo possessed the qualities of merit and utility which make intellectual work fruitful and durable.

The detailed history of the Journal des Sgavants may be found in Hatin, Histoire politique et littéraire de la presse en France, 1859, vol. ii, p. 151, and those following; and in the Mémoire historique sur le Journal des Sçavans, in the table of the Journal, by the Abbé de Claustre, 1764, vol. x, 595 and following pages.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

    collections of the sets exactly alike. If we add to this that the publisher has sometimes intercalated notes in the reprints without indicating that they were not in the original edition, and that some of the series have been counterfeited in Holland, one may have some idea of the difficulty of the investigation and of the lamentable differences of the editions.

  1. The name of one of his servants.
  2. As a specimen of the illustrations, we mention a superb engraving representing a louse as seen under the microscope; it measures not less than forty or fifty centimetres (year 1666, page 292 of the reprint of 1729). This reprint is a nearly textual reproduction of the original edition, which is now very rare. It is well to remark here that the Journal des Sçavants, like all similar journals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that were successful, was reprinted as the numbers were exhausted; thus in the set that I have consulted at the library of the Arsenal, the year 1665 is of 1733, and the year 1666 of 1729, while the year 1676 was reprinted in 1717. Hence it is almost impossible to find two
  3. There were also supplementary volumes for each of the years 1707, 1708, and 1709, and in 1773, only the five numbers of the first five months were published.