Brisson, Mathurin-Jacques

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Brisson, Mathurin-Jacques

(b. Fontenay-le-Comte, Vedée, France, 30 April 1723; d. Brouessy, Commune of Magny-les-Hameaux, near Versailles, France, 23 June 1806)

physics, natural history.

Brisson was the eldest son of Mathurin Brisson, who was named président des traites at Fontenay in 1726, and of Louise-Gabrielle Jourdain. He belonged to one of the most famous families of the legal nobility of the Poitou, particularly known for the jurist Barnabé Brisson, président à mortier of the Parliament of Paris who was executed in 1591 by the Holy League. Brisson was also related to the illustrious naturalist Réaumur; Catherine Brisson, his father’s sister, had married Réaumur’s younger brother.

After completing his early studies at the Collège de Fontenay in 1737–1738, Brisson finished a year of philosophy at the Collège de Poitiers and then turned to theology. He passed his baccalaureate in theology in 1744, and after taking minor orders he was allowed to continue his studies at the St.-Sulpice Seminary in Paris in 1745. But in 1747, just when he was to be elevated to the subdiaconate, he renounced that vocation and soon returned to his family.

Brisson then resumed the study of natural history, which he had begun with Réaumur when the latter spent his vacation on his country estate in the Poitou. In October 1749 Réaumur engaged him as caretaker and demonstrator of his own collection of natural history, as a successor to the Abbé Menou, who had recently died. This position, paying 600 livres a year, was underwritten by the Académie des Sciences, to which Réaumur had donated his collection. This post was a responsible one, for the attendant not only had to classify and care for Réaumur’s collections, but also to help him during his observations and experiments and to be his main collaborator and confidant. Brisson’s first research was thus set in the line of fire of the great rivalry between Réaumur and Buffon.

Buffon had attempted in his Histoire naturelle to give a general description of the animal world based upon the collections in the Cabinet du Roi, and Réaumur desired to launch a similar enterprise in extending the six volumes of his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des insectes by using the innumerable observations he had made or gathered from his correspondents, as well as the numerous specimens in his collection. Brisson was to play the principal role in this project. After having translated J. T. Klein’s Système du règne animal (1754), he published the Régne animal (1756), a bilingual work with Latin and French texts printed side by side. In it he announced the project, presented the classification, and dealt with the study of the first two classes: quadrupeds and cetaceans. He then went on to the study of ornithology, in which specialty Réaumur’s collection was extremely rich. But after Réaumur’s death in October 1757, Brisson had to give up the care of his collection, which the Academy had transferred to the Cabinet du Roi, under the supervision of Buffon and Daubenton. Allowed for a time to continue his research, Brisson soon found himself denied access to the collections, but in spite of this he managed to publish the six volumes of his Ornithologie (1760).

This work, also in Latin and French, contained the descriptions of 1,500 species of birds, grouped into 115 genera, twenty-six orders, and two classes (distinguished by the presence or absence of webbed feet). There were 220 plates by F.-N. Martinet of 500 birds, many of which had never been illustrated before. In spite of its insufficient classification, this work, essentially didactic and written without style or pictorial research, was one of the most complete treatises in ornithology before the Histoire des oiseaux of Buffon, Guéneau de Montbeillard, and Gabriel Bexon.

Brisson, who had continued to receive the payment previously allocated to him as caretaker of Réaumur’s collection, was elected an adjoint fellow in botany of the Academy in 1759 and royal censor in 1760. But forever deprived of any access to direct documentation and being the target of Buffon and his colleagues’ hostility, he understood that it was useless to continue his work as a naturalist. On the advice of the Abbé Nollet he then turned to experimental physics, to which he devoted all his time.

In 1768 Nollet, who had been appointed to the Collège de La Fére, had Brisson named his deputy professor and successor to the chair of experimental physics that had been created for him at the Collège de Navarre in 1753. In 1770, a few months before his death, Nollet also arranged that Brisson be named his successor as “master of physics and natural history to the children of France,” which position put him in touch with the royal family and assured him a comfortable living. In 1771 Brisson translated Priestley’s History of Electricity and took this occasion to defend passionately Nollet’s point of view against that of Franklin. The few memoirs he presented before the Academy concerned physics: the measurement of density, refraction, burning mirrors, barometers, magnetism, and atmospheric electricity.

But it was as a botanist that Brisson was made an associate member of the Academy in 1779 and a supernumerary pensioner in 1782, and it was only upon the reorganization of 1785 that he became a pensioner of the new section of general physics. In the meantime he had published the Dictionnaire raisonné de physique (1781), which was a fair presentation of various aspects of physics at that time but was soon out of date in spite of some additions in 1784, at the time of the first aerostatic experiments. His Pesanteur spécifique des corps (1787) was of more lasting interest, for many rather precise experimental data were included. In 1789 Brisson published in his Traité élémentaire ou Principes de physique the essentials of his courses given both privately and at the Collège de Navarre. The success of these courses is borne out by the testimony of a Russian traveler, P. I. Strakhov, who attended them from 1785 to 1787 and was enthusiastic over the presentation of Brisson’s new discoveries on gases. On his return to Russia, Strakhov organized a course in experimental physics at the University of Moscow and published a Russian translation of the Traité élémentaire.

Brisson married Marie-Denise Foliot de Foucherolles in 1775. Their son, Louis-Antoine, who had the king and queen as godparents, died when he was only ten. There also were two daughters. Brisson was financially comfortable until the Revolution. In 1792 he became a member of the Academy commission entrusted with preparations for setting up the metric system, but was removed in 1793. He was reinstated after Thermidor and also was on the first list of professors for the new écoles centrales. In December 1795 he was appointed resident member of the experimental physics section, first class, of the Institut National. From 1796 on, Brisson taught experimental physics and chemistry at the Colleège des Quatre Nations and published well-conceived, up-to-date manuals. He also published, but prematurely, several lessons on the comparison between the new and old units of measure, a subject he had studied when on the Commission of Weights and Measures. In 1801 Chaptal saw to it that his salary as professor was continued, but his appointment to the professorship at the Lycée Bonaparte in 1805 was purely honorific. He died only a short time later, following a stroke that made his last months very painful.

Having undergone an involuntary adjustment in his activities, Brisson carried on two successive careers, a short one as a naturalist and Réaumur’s collaborator, and a longer one as Nollet’s disciple and the disseminator of the ideas of experimental physics. His rather considerable influence was due to his teaching and his works, which, although not containing any original or important discoveries, were nevertheless an excellent means of spreading the scientific knowledge of the time. Probably his creative contribution would have been more important had not Buffon opposed the pursuit of his work as a naturalist.


I. Original Works. Brisson’s writings include Regnum animale in classes IX distributum… Le règne animal divisé en IX classes… (Paris, 1756; Leiden, 1780); Ornithologia, sive Synopsis methodica sistens avium divisionem in ordines… Ornithologie ou Méthode contenant la division des oiseaux en ordres…, 6 vols. (Paris, 1760; Latin part reissued, 2 vols., Leiden, 1763, and 1 vol., Paris, 1788); Dictionnaire raisonné de physique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1781; 2nd ed., Paris, 1800); Observations sur les nouvelles découvertes aérostatiques… (Paris, 1784); Pesanteur spécifiques des corps (Paris, 1787); Traité élémentaire ou Principes de physique…, 3 vols. (Paris, 1789; 3rd ed., 1800), translated into Russian by P. I. Strakhov, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1801–1802; 2nd ed., incomplete, 2 vols., 1812), also translated into Georgian (Tiflis, 1812); Rapport sur la vérification du mètre qui doit servir d’ètalon (Paris, 1795), with Borda; Instruction sur les nouveaux poids et mesures (Paris, 1795); Réduction des mesures et poids nouveaux (Paris, 1799), new ed. entitled Instruction sur les mesures et poids nouveaux (1800); Principes élémentaires de l’histoire naturelle et chymique des substances minérales (Paris, 1797); and Élémens ou principes physico-chymiques, destinés à servir de suite aux principes de physique à l’usage des écoles centrales (Paris, 1800, 1803).

Manuscripts are “Dossier Brisson, Mathurin Jacques,” in Archives de l’Académie des Sciences, Paris; and Library of the Institut National, Paris, MS 2041, no. 90: “Principales étapes de la vie de M. Brisson écrites parlui-même,” among the papers of J. M. Delambre, transmitted by J. Bertrand.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Brisson are Roman d’Amat, in Dictionnaire de biographie française, VII (1956), cols. 366–367; H. Beauchet-Filleau and Paul Beauchet-Filleau, in Dictionnaire historique et généalogique des familles du Poitou, 2nd ed., II (Poitiers, 1895), 6, and III (1905), 389; A. Birembaut, “Les liens de famille entre Réaumur et Brisson, son dernier élève”, in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 9 (1958), 167–169, and in the collection La vie et l’oeuvre de Réaumur (Paris, 1962), pp. 168–170; J. B. Delambre, in Mémoires de la classe des sciences mathématiques et physiques de l’ Institut National de France (2nd semester 1806), pp. 184–205; Constant Merland, “Mathurin-Jacques Brisson,” in Biographies vendéennes II (Nantes, 1883), 1–47, partially repr. in Revue de la Société Littéraire Historique et Généalogique de la Vendée (1st trimester 1883), pp. 145–161, and (2nd trimester 1883), pp. 37–46; Poggendorff, I (1863), col. 301; J. Quérard, La France littéraire, I (Paris, 1827), 518–519, in which two notices on B. Brisson are wrongly attributed to M. J. Brisson; R. Taton, ed., L’enseignement et la diffusion des sciences en France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1964), esp. pp. 158, 630–632, 640, 648; J. Torlais, L’abbé Nollet (Paris, 1954), esp. pp. 234–236, and Réaumur, rev. ed. (Paris, 1961), esp. pp. 343–345; and M. G. Th. Villenave, in F. Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale, VII (1863), cols. 437–438.

RenÉ Taton