Arconville, Marie Geneviève Charlotte Thiroux D’
ARCONVILLE, MARIE GENEVIèVE CHARLOTTE THIROUX D’
(b Paris [?], France, 17 October 1720; d. Paris [?], 23 December 1805),
chemistry, anatomy, translation
Madame d’Arconville was one of the very few eighteenth-century women who not only undertook translations of scientific works, but also carried out her own long-lasting program of experiments. A prolific author, she wrote or translated anonymously dozens of texts on scientific matters, as well as literature, morality, and history.
Life and Education. Marie Geneviève was daughter of André Guillaume d’Arlus or Darlus, a wealthy farmer-general. When she was only fourteen years old, she married Louis Lazare Thiroux d’Arconville, a councillor— later a president—at the Paris parliament, and brought him a 350,000-French-pound endowment. The eldest of their three sons, Louis Thiroux de Crosne, became an intendant—a royal administrator in the province—then the Paris lieutenant general of the police; he was eventually beheaded during the Terror (in 1794), while his mother spent a few months in jail.
Being disfigured by smallpox at age twenty-two, Madame d’Arconville chose an austere life thereafter and professed Jansenist morals. She also founded a charitable institution close to her country house at Meudon, near Paris on the road to Versailles. But she mainly devoted her time to reading—including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—and attending courses, as well as to writing and conducting experiments in botany and chemistry. Not only was she able to translate English and Italian, she also learned several sciences, notably those taught in public courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and she practiced botany, agriculture, and chemistry. In her thirties, she took up the pen and started publishing translations; from the 1760s, she produced original works as well. She translated numerous novels, plays, and poems, and she wrote essays on morals, then biographies of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century French figures, including Cardinal Arnaud d’Ossat, King Francis II, and Queen Marie de Médicis. She is even said to have written the Essai sur l’amour-propre envisagé comme principe de morale (Essay on Self-respect as Principle of Morals), which King Frederick II read at the Berlin Academy in 1770. At her death, she left a twelve-volume manuscript of miscellanea, which was lost and then rediscovered at the end of the twentieth century. Although she avoided Parisian society, she received into her home and met many of the great authors and scientists of her time, including Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Bernard de Jussieu, Guillaume-Chrétien Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Pierre-Joseph Macquer, and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.
Scientific Writings. In 1759 Madame d’Arconville, in collaboration with anatomist Jean-Joseph Süe, published a French edition of Alexander Monro’s Anatomy of the Human Bones (1726). She added a few personal observations in footnotes and a preface, which reveals a profound admiration for Jacques Bénigne Winslow, and, most significantly, a volume of plates (Monro’s original was not illustrated, and the author stated that illustrations gave a wrong idea of reality). One of her illustrations is the first published engraving of the female skeleton: the figure showed a smaller rib cage than the male skeleton, due to the long-term use of a corset, and a smaller head-to-body ratio, which the legend of the plate connected with the inferior capacity of women. Sixteen years later, she published a new volume of Mélanges (Miscellanea), including two other papers by Monro, in addition to fifteen texts of anatomy, medicine, and botany that she translated from the Philosophical Translations of the Royal Society of London for 1720.
Despite her extensive writings in other fields, Madame d’Arconville’s keenest interest was chemistry. In 1759 she also translated Peter Shaw’s Courses of Chemistry into French. In addition to correcting his errors, she added an original 94-page preliminary discourse on the origin and progress of chemistry, which stressed the “revolution” carried out by Joachim Becher, Hermann Boer-haave, Georg Ernst Stahl, Wilhelm Homberg, Nicolas Lemery, Étienne-François Geoffroy, and others. For the first time, she referred to her own experiments—some of which were replications, some original—which she published seven years later, in Essai pour servir à l’histoire de la putréfaction (Essay for the History of Putrefaction; Paris, 1766).
Her researches had been supervised by Macquer, who became her mentor in chemistry and a close friend as she followed his chemical courses. A few years after Émilie du Châtelet had worked on combustion and fire (1737– 1744), Madame d’Arconville equipped laboratories in Paris and Meudon, where she conducted various experiments on gums and resins and above all on putrefaction, which she saw as the key of “physical sciences” and the basis of natural history. She carried out a ten-year series of some three hundred meticulous experiments on human bile and on the conservation of meat, using thirty-two classes of preservatives, including mineral acids and bases (1754–1764). For every observation of the state of decay of her samples, she carefully recorded a few variables, such as time, temperature, and weather. Her results were eventually published in a detailed manner, and she also displayed them through ten elaborate charts in descending order of the preservatives’ effectiveness. Daring to differ with Boerhaave and John Pringle, she showed that putrefaction was involved in animal life as well as in plants. Like Pringle, whose work she often referenced in both her translation from Shaw and her own book, she recognized the good effect of quinquina (cinchona), but contrary to him, she proved that camomilla (chamomile) was not better. At the very moment the book was being printed, she added a brief notice reporting on the recent French translation of David Macbride’s Experimental Essays, which also dealt with this matter.
Madame d’Arconville never signed either her own works or her translations, as she apparently considered the various pitfalls of authorship for women: “Do they display science or pretty wit? If their works are bad, they get a bird; if they are good, one robbed them; they keep merely the ridiculousness of having presented themselves as the authoresses” (Briquet, 1804, p. 13). Nonetheless, her writing did circulate in the 1770s literary reviews, and her secretary Rossel collected her works in a seven-volume Mélanges de littérature, de morale et de physique (Miscellanea of literature, morals, and physics) in 1775. The single volume devoted to scientific and medical matters included her previous three prefaces and several previously unpublished shorter translations in medicine and science.
Despite their anonymity, Madame d’Arconville’s works were referred to by chemists dealing with the chemistry of life, like Macbride (as soon as 1767, in the second edition of his Experimental Essays) and William Higgins in Britain, Macquer and Antoine-François de Fourcroy in France. Fourcroy even referred repeatedly to her work in his publications, ranging from Eléments d’histoire naturelle et de chimie (Elements of natural history and chemistry; Paris, 1786) to his dictionary of chemistry for the Encyclopédie méthodique (Methodical encyclopedia, vol. IV; Paris, 1806).
WORKS BY ARCONVILLE
Translator. Leçons de chymie propres à perfectionner la physique, le commerce et les arts[Peter Shaw, Courses of Chemistry]. Paris: Jean Thomas Herissant, 1759.
Translator. Traité d’ostéologie [Alexander Munro, Anatomy of the Human Bones]. 2 vols. Paris: Didot le jeune, 1759.
Essai pour servir à l’histoire de la putréfaction. Par le traducteur desLeçons de Chymie de M. Shaw, premier Médecin du Roi d’Angleterre. Paris: P. Fr. Didot le jeune [and Théophile Barrois], 1766.
Mélanges de littérature, de morale et de physique. 7 vols. Vol. 4, Discours sur différents objets de physique; Mémoires… tirés des Transactions philosophiques. Amsterdam: Aux dépens de la compagnie, 1775.
Arnault, Antoine-Vincent, et al. Biographie nouvelle des contemporains. 20 vols. Paris: Colas, 1820–1829.
Briquet, Fortunee B. Dictionnaire historique, litteraire, et bibliographique Françaises et des etrangeres naturalisees en France. Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1804.
Girou Swiderski, Marie-Laure. “Écrire à tout prix. La présidente Thiroux d’Arconville, polygraphe (1720–1805).” Available from http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~margirou/Perspectives/XVIIIe/arconvil.htm.
Poirier, Jean-Pierre. Histoire des femmes de science en France. DuMoyen-Âge à la Révolution. Paris: Pygmalion/Gérard Watelet, 2002.
Rayner-Canham, Marelene, and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-twentieth Century. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society and Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1998.
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