(b. Besançon, France, 1 March 1744; d. Rome, Italy, 11 May 1794),
Cornette, the ninth child of Pierre-Claude Cornette and Claude-Antoine Sauvin, received his early education in the local Jesuit college. In 1760 Cornette began studying pharmacy with a Besançon apothecary named Janson. In 1763 he went to Paris, where he studied chemistry under Macquer and Baumé and pharmacy under Guillaume-François Rouelle until 1768.
Almost nothing is known of Cornette’s life between 1768 and 1772. In the latter year he came under the powerful protection of the king’s chief physician, Joseph-Marie-François de Lassone. In Lassone’s laboratory at marly-le-Roi he was able to carry on his own research.
He furthered his education by obtaining the title of physician from Montpellier in 1778, after about three years of study. His prominence as a scientist rose when he was named a member of the Academy of Sciences in March of the same year and when, the following year, he joined the Royal Society of Medicine, of which Lassone had been one of the founders. Also in 1779 he became an inspector of the Manufacture Royale des Gobelins. By 1784 he had become physician to the king’s aunts, and in 1788, when Lassone died, he replaced him as the king’s chief physician. Ironically, his success forced him into exile with the royal family because of the French Revolution and he died in Rome in 1794.
Cornette’s works that deal mainly with chemistry were at first solidly in the Rouellian tradition: he followed Rouelle’s theories, as well as several questions that had long interested Rouelle himself. For example, Cornette conceived of chemical union as the adherence (sticking together) of the latus (side) of each chemical component, component, which is what Rouelle also taught. Cornette’s several memoirs on salts and their decomposition by mineral acids are strongly reminiscent of Rouelle’s important memoris on this topic. In this study, Cornette was led to suggest corrections to the affinity tables, and his complaint that these were often too general reflects the staunch empiricism of Rouelle. Finally, his memoirs on the reaction of acids with oils, which were motivated by a prize put up by the Academy of Dijon in 1777, also relied on Rouelle’s study on the inflammation of oils.
Later on Cornette turned his attention to chemical drugs (works on soap, mercury, etc.) at the expense of pure chemistry. This shift in emphasis may have been caused by his refusal to espouse the newer theories of Lavoisier, a refusal dictated perhaps more by personal feelings of dislike than by doctrinal convictions.
Among Cornette’s published writings are Quaestio chemico-medica de diversis saponum generibus, variaque illorum in curandis morbis efficacia… (Montpellier, 1778); and Mémoire sur la formation du salpêtre et sel moyes d’augmenter en France la production de ce sel (Paris, 1779). Many memoirs appeared in the Mémories de l’Académie royale des sciences (1778–1786). Prominent among these are his memoris on salts, which appeared in the Mémoires for 1778, 1779, and 1783; and his memoirs on the reaction between acids and oils, which appeared in the Mémoires for 1780 and 1782. Several of his memoirs also appeared in the Memoires de la Societe royale de medecine, 3–8 (1782–1788). Many of these were done in collaboration with Lassone. MSS in his hand can be found in the Archives de Seine-et-Oise in Versailles, cataloged as rubrique 107, 1 and 2 (E 678–679); rubrique 1089E 689–699); and rubrique 109(E 705).
A more detailed secondary source is André Desormonts, Claude-Melchior Cornette, apothicaire, chimiste, hygièniste, médecin, médecin de cour (Paris, 1933).
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