(b. Remiremont, France, 10 March 1747; d. Paris, France, 15 February 1784)
Bexon, whose short scientific career was closely linked with that of the great French naturalist Buffon, received his early education from his parents, Amé Bexon, a lawyer, and Marthe Pillement. Having shown considerable intelligence, he was sent north to the seminary at Toul to continue his education and prepare for the clergy. He completed the course of study and received his doctorate in theology at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Besançon in 1766 or 1767, and then returned to Toul to accept a post as a subdeacon. There Bexon spent some time studying canon law; he was ordained in 1772.
Bexon’s first published works appeared in 1773. Catéchisme d’agriculture, written about 1768, was published anonymously in Paris. It was a very simply written book that dealt as much with morals as with agriculture, and was meant to aid and educate the French peasants. In the same year he also published, under his brother Scipion’s name, Le système de la fertilisation.
Although Bexon had announced plans for a two-volume history of Lorraine, and had later expanded the project to a four-volume work that would include one volume on the natural history of the province, he ceased work on the project in 1774. Only one volume appeared (Histoire de Lorraine, Paris, 1777), and was dedicated to Marie Antoinette. Probably as a result of this, dedication, Bexon was appointed canon of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris in 1778 and three years later was elevated to the post of precentor.
From childhood, Bexon had been interested in natural history. He was a keen observer, and knew the mineralogy of the Vosges region especially well. While at Paris for a six-month visit in 1768–1769 he may have tried to meet Buffon, hoping to help with the Histoire naturelle. At that time Buffon’s collaborator, Guéneau de Montbéliard, overworked and in Poor health, was seeking an assistant; and there is an ambiguous reference to “the abbé” in a letter from Buffon to Montbéliard dated 17 May 1769.
Bexon did meet Buffon in 1772. The young man spoke of the influence of Buffon’s works on him and of his desire to be of some assistance, which timely offer the naturalist accepted. Soon thereafter Bexon began to supply information and descriptions for various articles in the Histoire naturelle.
Although he supplied Buffon with descriptions, Bexon did not actually begin to collaborate in the writing of the articles until 1777. From then on, though, his contributions were numerous, appearing ultimately in six of the nine volumes of the Histoire des oiseaux and in the Histoire des minéraux.
When he began to assist Buffon, at the age of twenty-five, Bexon’s writing style was extremely erudite and flowery, but under Buffon’s tutelage it became more concise and exact. He worked hard, inspired by a love of natural history and by the need to support a sick mother and a young sister. Buffon publicly acknowledged his work on the Histoire des oiseaux in the preface to the seventh volume (1780), where he noted not only Bexon’s scholarly researches but also the “solid reflections and ingenious ideas” he had supplied. From this collaboration there developed an increasingly close friendship that ended only with Bexon’s untimely death.
Despite their friendship, Bexon did not agree with the philosophical aspects of Buffon’s system; he regarded it as “an ingenious and learned hypothesis “but not a true system of nature. In an unpublished manuscript on religion in relation to the universe, written about 1773, Bexon said he believed he could use the phenomena that supported the theory to show that nature contradicted Buffon’s views.
The complete Histoire naturelle consisted of forty-four volumes published over a span of fifty-five years, and it proved to be a very popular and influential work. But although it is known as the product of Buffon’s genius and industry, the work could not have appeared had it not been for the aid of Buffon’s collaborators—Daubenton, Guéneau de Montbéliard, and the Abbé Bexon.
I. Original Works. Bexon’s earlier works are quite scarce today. The articles in the Histoire natuelle that P. Flourens attributed to Bexon are listed in Flourens’s Des manuscrits de Buffon(see below), pp. 221–222. Flourens also mentions (p. 58 f.) Bexon’s unpublished manuscript on religion and natural history, which he entitles “De la religion par rapportà l’univers,” Although no letters from Bexon to Buffon have ever been published, several from master to collaborator have been. One group of letters was originally published in the year VIII (1799–1800) by François de Neufchateau in his journal Le conservateur, 1 , 101–146. These were later reprinted by Flourens in Histoire des travaux et des idées de Buffon (Paris, 1850), pp. 307–344, and by Henri Nadault de Buffon in Correspondance inédite de Buffon, II (Paris, 1860). Several letters were added by Lanessan in his edition of the Oeuvres complétes de Buffon (Paris, 1855), XIII and XIV. These letters were reprinted, with Lanessan’s notes, in H. M. J. A. P. de Bremond d’Ars, Un collaborateur de Buffon: l’abbé Bexon(see below).
II. Secondary Literature. Of the several short accounts of Bexon’s life that have appeared in the periodical literature, the most useful are E. Buisson, “Un collaborateur de Buffon. L’abbeé Bexon, — sa vie & ses oeuvres,” in Bulletin de la Société Philomatique vosgienne, 14 (1888–1889), 275–317, and Paillart, “L’abbé Bexon. Étude biographique et littéraire,” in Mémories de l’Académie de Stanislas (1867). 195–230. Flourens discusses Bexon in his Des manuscrits de Buffon (Paris, 1860), Pt. III, ch. 3. Bexon’s mother wrote a sympathetic, motherly sketch of her son after his death, and Humbert-Bazile, Buffon’s secretary, Published it in conjunction with his discussion of Bexon in his Buffon, Sa famille, ses collaborateurs et ses familiers, Nadault de Buffon, ed. (Paris, 1863). Relying on all these sources, Bremond d’Ars published the only extensive treatment of Bexon, Un collaborateur de Buffon: L’abbé Bexon (Paris, 1936).
Alan S. Kay