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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/Philibert Commerson, the King's Naturalist


ONE of the, most successful exploring and scientific expeditions of the eighteenth century was that of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, which, starting from one of the ports of France in the last days of 1766, passed through the strait of Magellan and entered the south seas, still for the most part unexplored; sailed through the Paumotu Archipelago, discovering several islands then yet unknown; visited Tahiti; touched the New Hebrides, passed the eastern coast of Australia, the Louisiade Islands, and the Solomon Islands; stopped at New Ireland to repair the ships; passed the northern shore of New Guinea; visited Booro, in the Moluccas; and returning, reached St. Malo in March, 1769. Not the least among the scientific gains of the expedition were those in botany, and these accrued wholly through the fidelity to science and diligent industry of Philibert Commerson, than whom, says the Edinburgh Review, "no explorer of the globe ever conveyed to Europe so large a number of valuable plants, previously unknown."

Commerson was recognized in Europe, though personally but little known, as one of the first botanists of the age. He was the correspondent of Linnæus, the friend of Haller, and the colleague of the two Jussieus. He was the grandson of a retired nobleman of the days of Louis XIV, who had dropped the de distinctive of his rank, and the second son of Georges-Marie Commerson and Jeanne-Marie Mazuyer, and was born at Châtillon-les-Dombes, in Burgundy, November 18, 1727. He studied while a child under a Gray Friar at Bourg-en-Brosse, who became interested in him, and, taking him on his daily walks, inculcated in him the first principles of botany and a love of plants and of natural history. The district abounded in fish ponds, and wandering among them he gained a familiarity with fresh-water fish to which may be attributed his subsequent skill as an ichthyologist; and "his facility in manipulating, preserving, and drying certain fit specimens of the smaller fry, like plants, between sheets of coarse paper, first practiced by him for scientific purposes," was evidently acquired by him during this period. After two years at Bourg, he was sent to the Benedictine College near Macon, about 1742, to study for the law; but the scientific books of the abbey library had more attractions for him than the law books, and he was fonder of outdoor life than of studying his dry text-books. His father, willing that he should follow in the direction of his tastes, sent him to the University of Montpellier to read for the medical degree in 1747. He had already begun the preparation of a herbarium, and spared no efforts to make it the most complete in existence.

He spent four years at Montpellier after taking his degree, and in botanizing in the Cevennes, the Pyrenees, and Provence, and on the littoral of the Mediterranean. He soon became known throughout Europe as a naturalist of exceptional talent and experience. He was introduced to Linnæus and was commissioned by him to describe the fishes of the Mediterranean for the museum of Queen Louisa Ulrica at Dronningholm, near Stockholm. He prepared a list of all the botanists who had suffered in the pursuit of their calling, entitled the Martyrologie de la Botanique, in which he came near having his own name recorded even thus early, having been poisoned by the saliva of his own dog gone mad, and he wrote to one of his friends that he expected some day to figure upon the roll. This work seems never to have been published, and it is not known where the manuscript is. Coming to Dijon in his travels, M. de Beost, an officer of the states of Burgundy, gave him the privileges of his fine garden, glass houses, and library. Having explored Savoy, he visited the mountains of Switzerland, and, calling upon Voltaire at Geneva, received from him the offer of a secretaryship, which he declined. Then he settled down for a time at Châtillon, his native home, where he put himself in communication with correspondents who furnished him seeds and plants. He studied and explored and experimented with a reckless devotion which called forth from Lalande another prediction that his zeal would some day kill him. His overwork resulted in fever, in the convalescence from which he made the acquaintance of the young woman—"a sensitive plant," he called her—who became his wife: a daughter of M. Jean Beau, who died after two years of happy married life, leaving a son who survived him many years. To the memory of his wife, making a fanciful translation of her maiden name. Beau, he dedicated the genus Pulcheria—a plant not distinctly identified, but which was described as bearing a fruit that inclosed two kernels united in the shape of two hearts.

He removed to Paris in 1704, where, introduced by Lalande and Bernard de Jussieu, he was readily welcomed into the inner circle of learned society and gained the position and recognition he merited. In October, 1766, Commerson was appointed by the French Minister of the Marine, on the recommendation of Poissonier and the Abbé Lachapelle, of the Academy of Sciences, "botanist and naturalist of the king" to Bougainville's expedition of circumnavigation, then in course of organization at Nantes and Rochefort. The title given him was very grateful to him on account of the privileges it brought; that of botanist to the king had been conferred on only two or three men of science, and always led to a pension, while that of naturalist was a distinction which no one before him had obtained. He was first directed to draw up a report regarding the class of observations on natural history which he proposed should be carried out during the expedition. It suggested observations in three kingdoms of Nature, animal, vegetable, and mineral, to which was added a fourth class of physical and meteorological observations. "The class of quadrupeds," he said, "being subordinate to man, that being should always first attract the attention of the traveler naturalist. . . . The first shade after man is that of the anthropomorphic animals or apes with a human figure, of which it would be desirable to know all the series, because they establish an insensible passage from man to the quadrupeds."

Before leaving Paris for his voyage, Commerson made his will, in which he provided for the endowment as a Prix de Vertu of a medal of two hundred livres, bearing on its obverse face an inscription signifying that it was a reward for the practice of virtue, and on the reverse one signifying that the unworthy "P. C." had dedicated it. It was very like the Montyon prizes, afterward established and carried into effect. Having set out from Rochefort, after considerable delay, the expedition reached the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in May, 1767, and remained for some time at Montevideo to repair damages suffered from a storm. Here Commerson was astonished at the superfluity of horses and cattle, and wrote to his brother-in-law, further: "I have not failed to reap a fruitful harvest of plants, birds, and fishes, and I am anxious that nothing should escape me; but what can I do? I am neither an Argus nor a Briareus; a single day's hunting, fishing, or even a walk places me in the embarrassment of Midas, under whose hands everything became golden. Ofttimes I do not know when or how to begin, and I have scarcely time to eat or drink, so that my excellent friend, our good captain, is obliged to forbid my lamp being kept alight after midnight, because he has foreseen that I should deprive myself of sleep all night to gain sufficient time to examine all which is before me. The keen admiration which seizes me in viewing so many varieties, most of them new and unknown to science, has forced me to become a draughtsman."

From Montevideo the vessel, L'Étoile, proceeded to Rio Janeiro. In one of his excursions Commerson noticed some trees having a rosy mauve or magenta tint, which further examination showed him was given them by their brilliantly colored bracts. They were trees of a new genus, which he named Bougainvillea, after his commander. The genus has become familiar in conservatories. Returning to the Rio de la Plata, Commerson declined an invitation from the viceroy, Don Francisco Bucarelli, to go with him across the Andes to Chili and Peru. Proceeding onward again in November and December, 1707, the expedition sailed into the strait of Magellan. Thence they they went northwesterly into the Pacific Ocean; passed the Paumotu, or Low Archipelago; and visited Tahiti, of which Commerson has left a famous description in a letter to Lalande; continued to sail westwardly; sighted Samoa; were perplexed by the Great Barrier Reef, and had to make a back track along the Louisiade Archipelago to the Solomon Islands; between New Britain and New Ireland; along the northern shores of Papua; thence to Batavia; and finally, to Port Louis. Here M. Poivre, intendant of the colony, had orders from the authorities at home to retain Commerson for service under his direction; while Véron, the astronomer, was directed to proceed to India, to observe the forthcoming transit of Venus. Commerson was the first European to ascend the native volcano of Bourbon and to make a complete collection of mineralogical specimens from its hardly accessible craters. His account of a pygmy tribe inhabiting the mountain regions of Madagascar, after having been long contradicted, has recently been confirmed by the Rev. E. O. MacMahon, of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Commerson's career now soon came to an end. Among the results of political changes in the colony and in France were the withdrawal of ministerial patronage from him, the stoppage of his salary as naturalist to the king, and his dismissal. His health had already given way in consequence of the exposures to which he had subjected himself, and he was suffering from dysentery and rheumatism. He gave himself up to the study of the flora of Mauritius, writing to his friend Lemeunier: "My plants, my dear plants, have consoled me for all. I have found the nepenthe, the sweet assuagement of cares." He sought rest in another part of the island, but died, March 14, 1773, at the house of M. Bézac, a planter, near Flacq.

Commerson left his collections of plants, fishes, minerals, and manuscripts, thirty-two cases in all, to the Royal Museum of Natural History in Paris. They included, with two hundred folio volumes of herbaria, five thousand plants, of which three thousand species and one hundred and sixty genera were new to science.


In a collection made by Captain W. G. Thorold in Thibet of plants growing at elevations between 15,000 and 19,000 feet, fiftv-seven, or one half, were found between 17,000 and 18,000 feet, five between 18,000 and 19,000, and one, Sausurea tridactyla, at 19,000 feet. A large majority of the plants hardly lift themselves above the surface, the characteristic type being a rosette of small leaves closely appressed to the ground with a central sessile inflorescenee. Judging from the fact that many of the species are found in the most widely separated parts of the country, there must be very few local species; and the circumstances indicate that the distribution marks the remains of a once probably much richer flora.