Michel Adanson

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Adanson, Michel

(b. Aix-en-Provence, France, 7 April 1727; d. Paris, France, 3 August 1806)

natural history philosophy.

Adanson belonged to an Auvergne family that moved to Provence at the beginning of the eighteenth century and to Paris about 1730. He was educated at the Plessis Sorbon, the Collège Royal, and Jardin du Roi. Among his maîtres were Pierre Le Monnier Réaumur, G.-F. Rouelle, and Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu. He made his first four-year scientific expedition to Senegal on behalf of the Compagnie des Indes and brought back a large group of natural history specimens; a few of these later become part of the royal collection, then under the care of Buffon. While traveling in Africa, Adanson was elected (24 July 1750)a corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences. His travel journal (1757) was accompanied by a general survey of the living mollusks he had found in Senegal. His classification of mollusks was an original one; based on the anatomical structure of the living animals inside the shells, it appeared the same year as the same year as the work of Argenville, who claimed to have originated such a scheme.

In 1761 Adanson was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, and in 1763–1764 he published Familles des plantes. In this book he proclaimed his contempt for “systems” and proposed a natural classification based upon all characters rather than upon a few arbitrarily selected ones, an attempt that brought him into conflict with Linnaeus. Recent historical studies have shown that Adanson’s views were shared by many Parisian botanists and that he was responsible for the maintenance of Joseph Tournefort’s system at the Jardin du Roi until 1774, when A. L.de Jussieu’s system was adopted. Adanson owed much to Bernard de Jussieu’s plant families as they were developed in his manuscript plan for the Trianon garden in which he arranged the plants in beds in an order corresponding to his system of classification. He soon recognized that his Familles des plantes was only an outline of his general conception, and in 1769 he prepared a new edition that was never published.

Adanson knew Diderot but did not collaborate on the Encyclopédie, although he played an important role in the publication of the supplement (1776) by Panckoucke, to whom he sent more than 400 articles. He had his own views about encyclopedias, and in 1775 he presented a plan for one to the Académie des Sciences. By that time he had amassed a collection of documents, observations of his own, and natural history specimens. Nothing came of this plan, however, and he spent the rest of his life in futile attempts to publish his own encyclopedia. On 23 July 1759 Adanson had been elected adjoint botaniste; on 25 February 1773, associé botaniste; and on 6 December 1782, académicien pensionnaire. Upon the creation of the Institut de France, he was immediately selected a member of the first college. Later Napoleon made him a member of the Legion of Honor.

In many respects Adanson played a hidden role in the development of science, for he was in touch with most of the learned people of Europe. He studies static electricity in the torpedo fish, the tourmaline, and various plants; agricultural problems concerning corn, wheat, barley, and fruits; microscopic animalcules; and the circulation of sap in lower plants. He also experimented on regeneration of the limbs and head of frogs and snails. Although he kept most of his materials for his own use, we know that he was an important contributor to Buffon’s Histoire naturelle générale, where he is quoted more than a hundred times. He had sent several hundred new plant species from Senegal to Bernard de Jussieu, and before his controversy with Linnaeus, he had sent to Sweden a number of African plants that Linnaeus said he included with those of Hasselquist. His general herbarium, now in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, contains about 30,000 specimens, many of which have been studied; the plants he sent to Jussieu were used by A.L. de Jussieu for his Genera plantarum and by later botanists. Lamarck used Adanson’s articles in the Encyclopédie supplement for his Dictionnaire de botanique.

Adanson survived the Revolution without political difficulties, but suffered much from the financial crash. His whole life, however, was one of periodic financial insecurity, alleviated by the patronage obtained for him by his friends and by the life annuity granted in the 1760’s when his natural history collection became part of the Cabinet du Roi. Intellectually, he was perhaps equally insecure, admired by many of his contemporaries and disliked by others for both scientific and personal reasons. It is only recently that his historical influence and his role in introducing modern statistical influence and his role in introducing modern statistical methods into systematic botany have received proper recognition.


I. Original Works. Adanson’s first book was Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal. Coquillages. Avec la relation abrégée d’un voyage fait en ce pays pendant les années 1749... 1753 (Paris. 1757); the travel portion was translated by “an English gentleman” as A Voyage to Senegal, the Isle of Goree and the River Gambia (London-Dublin, 1759), and into German by Martini as Reise nach Senegall (Brandenburg, 1772) and by Schreber as Nachricht von seiner Reise nach Senegall (Leipzig, 1773); a review of the Histoire naturelle is in G. R. Boehmer, Bibliotheca scriptorum historiae naturalis oeconomiae, aliarum que artium ac scientiarum, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1785). His other book is Familles des plantes, 2 vols, (Paris, 1763–1764), reviewed in G.R. Boehmer, op.cit.

See also “Marées de I’lle de Gorée,” in Mémories de mathématiques et de physique, présentés à I’Acadèmie royale des sciences, par divers sçavans, 2 (1755), 605–606; “Plan de botanique,” in Collection académique (Savants français), 8 (n.d. [after 1759]), appendix p. 59; “Description... du baobab,” in Mé;mories de l’Académie des sciences (1761 [1763]), pp. 218–243; “Description d’une nonvelle espàce de vers... “ibid. (1759 [1765]), pp. 249–279; “Remarques sur les bleds appelés de miracle,” ibid. (1765 [1768]), pp. 613–619: “Mémoire sur un mouvement particulier... de la tremelle,” ibid. (1767 [1770]), pp. 564–572; “Examen de la question: si les espéces changent parmi les plantes...” ibid. [1772]), pp. 31–48; “Premier mémoire sur I’acacia des anciens,” ibid, (1773[1777]), pp. 1–17; “Deuxième mémoire sur le gommier blanc …,” ibid. (1778 [1781]), pp.20–35; and observations meteorlogiques …,” ibid., p. 425.

Published after Adanson’s death were Cours d’histoire naturelle fait en 1772, 2 vols. (Paris, 1845), and Histoire de la botanique et plan des familles naturelles des plantes (Paris, 1864), A. Adanson and J.B. Payer, eds.

Manuscripts on botanical subjects and a large part of Adanson’s library, with many annotated books, are in the Hunt Botanical Library of Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pa. Letters are in the Royal Society of London; Wellcome Library, London; Académie des sciences, Paris; Institut de France, Paris; Bibliothéque Nationale, Département des Manuscrits, Paris; Bibliothéque Centrale du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genève: and Bibliothèque de la Bourgeoisie, Berne.

II. Secondary Literature. Although rather superficial in its judgements, Cuvier’s éloge of Adanson, in Recueil des éloges historiques, new ed. (Paris, 1861), I, 173–204, was the basic source used by nineteenth-century biographers. More recent is Adanson, 2 vols., Hunt Monograph Series, G.H.M. Lawrence, ed. (Pittsburgh, 1963–1964), containing several original papers, a biography, and notes, A general review of J.P. Nicolas’s studied of Adanson is the pamphlet “Adanson et les Encyclopédistes,” Lecutre D.104, Palais de la Découverte, Paris (3 April 1965).

J. P. Nicolas

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Adanson, Michel (1727–1806) A French botanist and plant collector, who worked as a clerk to a trading mission in Senegal, where he discovered many plants that were previously unknown. In the 1750s he returned to France with a large collection of plants and seeds. He was the first European to describe the baobab, which he observed in West Africa, although specimens were later found to be more widely distributed. He estimated the age of the tree he saw as about 5000 years; radiocarbon dating has confirmed an age of 1000 years for some specimens and less precise methods have estimated greater ages for others. The baobab genus (Adansonia) is named for him.