Commerson, Philibert

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Commerson, Philibert

(b. Châtillion-les-Dombes, Ain, France, 18 November 1727; d. St.-Julien-de-Flacq, Île de France [now Mauritius], 13 March 1773),

natural history.

Son of Georges-Marie Commerson, notary and adviser to the prince of Dombes, and of Jeanne-Marie Mazuyer, Commerson went to Montpellier in 1747 and received a complete medical education there, obtaining his bachelor’s degree on 11 September 1753, his licence on 7 September 1754, and his doctorate on 9 September 1754. His dissertation has been lost. Already deeply interested in botany, he established a notable herbarium. At the request of Linnaeus he drafted a description of the principal species of fish in the Mediterranean. That work, although never published, was later used by Lacepéde for his Histoire naturelle des poissons.

In 1755 Commerson botanized in Savoy, went to Bern to meet Albrecht von Haller, and visited Voltaire at “Les Délices,” near Geneva. In 1756 he returned to Châtillon-les-Dombes and established a botanical garden there in 1758, enriching it through his frequent excursions in the provinces of central France. On 17 October 1760 Commerson married Antoinette-Vivante Beau, daughter of a notary from Genouilly (Saône-et-Loire). She died in 1762, a few days after giving birth to their son, Anne-François-Archambaud. Following the death of his wife Commerson yielded to the urgings of the astronomer Lalande, his friend since childhood, and of Bernard de Jussieu. He left in August 1764 for Paris, where he took lodgings near the Jardin du Roi, which he visited constantly for almost two years.

On the recommendation of Pierre Poissonnier, Commerson was appointed naturalist to Bougainville’s expedition. Appointed botanist and naturalist to the king, he boarded the supply ship Éioile, accompanied by his maidservant, Jeanne Barré, who was disguised as a man. Setting sail from Rochefort at the beginning of February 1767, they stopped at Rio de Janeiro, where the Étoile was joined by the frigate Boudeuse (21 June 1767); the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego (December 1767); Tahiti, for a brief stay that has become famous due in large part to Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de M. de Bougainville… (5–14 April 1768); the Navigators’ Islands (now Samoa) and the New Hebrides (May 1768); the Solomon Islands and New Britain (July 1768); the Moluccas, especially the island of Buru, where they stopped for nearly a week (1–7 September 1768); Java (end of September 1768); and Mauritius (10 November 1768).

Bougainville returned to France, but Pierre Poivre retained Commerson and lodged him in his own quarters. After exploring Mauritius, Commerson went to Madagascar (October 1770-January 1771) to study its flora, fauna, and people. He then went to Île Bourbon (now Reunion; January 1771), where he and Jean-Baptiste Lislet-Geoffroy climbed the Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano. Returning ill to Port Louis, Mauritius, he put his botanical collections and his notes in order, while Poivre, his patron and friend, went back to France.

Commerson died virtually alone, attended only by his faithful maidservant. Commerson was never a member of the Academy of Sciences. His was the second name proposed on 20 March 1773 for the vacancy created by the promotion of Adanson. But the king chose the candidate named first, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu. His manuscripts; the beautiful plates executed by his draftsman, Paul Jossigny; his herbarium, containing 3,000 new species and genera; and his collections of every kind, all packed in thirtytwo cases, arrived in Paris in 1774 and were turned over to the Jardin du Roi.


I. Original Works. Commerson’s writings include “Lettre de M. Commerson à M. de Lalande, de l’Île de Bourbon, le 18 avril 1771,” in Banks and Solander, Supplément au voyage de M. de Bougainville ou Journal d’un voyage autour du monde fait par MM. Banks et Solander, Anglois, en 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, Anne-François-Joachim de Fréville, trans. (Paris, 1772), pp. 251–286; and Testament singulier de M. Commerson, docteur en médecine, médecin botaniste et naturaliste du roi, fait le 14 et 15 décembre 1766 (Paris, 1774). Almost all of Commerson’s MSS and sketches are preserved at the central library of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris; a description of them is given by Amédée Boinet in Catalogue général des manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France, Paris, II, Muséum d’histoire naturelle… (Paris, 1914), passim; and by Yves Laissus in vol. LV of the Cataloge: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (supplément) (Paris, 1965), 32, 45.

II. Secondary Literature. On Commerson or his work see the following (listed chronologically): Joseph Jérome de Lalande, “Éloge de M. Commerson,” in Journal de physique, 5 (1775), 89–119; Paul-Antoine Cap, Philibert Commerson, naturaliste voyageur. Étude biographique… (Paris, 1861), extract from Journal de pharmacie et de chimie3rd ser., 38 (Dec. 1860), 413–442; F. B. Montessus, Maryrologe et biographie de Commerson médecin- botaniste et naturaliste du roi… (Paris, 1889), with portrait; S. Pasfield Oliver, The Life of Philibert Commerson, D. M., naturaliste du roi. An Oldworld Story of French Travel and Science in the Days of Linnaeus, G. F. Scott Elliot, ed. (London, 1909); L. Laroche, “Le naturaliste Philibert Commerson,” in Revue périodique de vulgarisation des sciences naturelles et préhistoriques de la Physiophile (Montceau-les-Mines), 13th year, no. 16 (1 Mar. 1937), 249–253, and no. 17 (1 June 1937), 258–260; Henry Chaumartin, Philibert Commerson, médecin naturaliste du roy etcompanon de Bougaincville (n.p., 1967), a special publication in the series Petite Histoire de la Médecine; and Étienne Taillemite, “Le séjour de Bougainville à Tahiti, essaie d’étude des témoignages,” in Journal de la Société des océansites24 , no. 24 (Dec. 1968), 3–54. “Collogue Commerson 16–24 octobre 1973,” in Cahiers du Centre universitaire de la Réunion spec. no. (St. Denis de la La Réunion, 1974),

Yves Laissus

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Commerson, Philibert

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