Daubenton, Louis-Jean-Marie

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(b. Montbard, France. 29 May 1716; d. Paris, France, 1 January 1800)

medicine, anatomy, mineralogy, zootechny.

Daubenton was the son of Jean Daubenton, a notary, and of Marie Pichenot. Intended for the priesthood by his family, he became a novice at the age of twelve and studied at the Jesuit collége in Dijon, then with the Dominicans in that city. Sent to Paris to study theology at the Sorbonne, he became interested in medicine —apparently without his father’s knowledge —and attended the anatomy lectures at the Jardin du Roi, as well as the botany lectures. After his father’s death in 1736, Daubenton completed his medical training and took his M.D.at Rheims in 1741.

Daubenton then returned to Montbard to practice medicine. But Buffon, also a native of Montbard and attendant of the Jardin du Roi since 1739, summoned him to Paris at the end of 1742 and had him named garde el démonstraieur of the natural history collection at the Jardin du Roi on 12 June 1745. Daubenton lodged there and drew a salary of 500 livres. (His salary reached 4,200 livres by 1790.) Buffon, who was treasurer of the Academie Royale des Sciences, procured several additional sums for Daubenton after having arranged his appointment as adjoint botaniste on 19 March 1744. Daubenton had become known to the Academy the previous year with a memoir on a method of classifying the shellfish. He was promoted to associe botaniste on 13 August 1758, associé anatomiste on 29 May 1759, and to pensionnaire anatomiste on 16 May 1760. He retained the last post when the Academy was reorganized in 1785; and on 20 November 1795 he was named membre résident of the anatomy and zoology section of the First Class of the lnstitut National. During his career he also became a member of all the major foreign academies and of the Société de Medecine and the Sociétéd’ Agriculture.

Besides teaching at the Jardin du Roi, Daubenton held the chair of natural history at the Collège Royal (1778) and of rural economy at the veterinary school at Alfort (1783). (The latter post brought him a salary of 6,000 livres.) Daubenton wrote several articles for the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. He also supervised part of the Encyclopédic méthodique devoted to the animal kingdom. In an III he lectured on natural history at the newly founded École Normale Supérieure.

In 1790, at the request of the Assemblée Nation-ale, the officers of the Jardin du Roi presented a project for the reorganization of their institution: his colleagues chose Daubenton, rather than La Billardière, Buffon’s successor as intendant, to preside over the meeting. After La Billardière’s resignation at the end of 1791, and until the nomination of Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre on 1 July 1792, Daubenton served as de facto intendant. He played a major role in the reform project and, after the creation of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle by the decree of 10 June 1793, he was elected director by his colleagues (9 July 1793). Daubenton chose not to present himself at the end of his term in office; he wished to avoid a precedent for a return to the authoritarianism instituted by Button.

Daubenton married Marguerite Daubenton, a first cousin, on 21 October 1754; they had no children. His contemporaries described him as circumspect and meticulous, living a well-regulated life and keeping his distance from the political dissensions of the age. The time he did not devote to science was spent reading literature with his wife, who enjoyed a certain success as a novelist (Zélie dans le désert, 2 vols. [1786- 1787]. which went through twenty-one reprints by 1861). Daubenton referred to this pastime as “putting his mind on a diet.”1 Although he gave the impression of being physically frail, he enjoyed good health throughout his life, except for attacks of gout in his old age.

Named to the Sénat Conservateur in 1799, Daubenton suffered an attack of apoplexy at the first session and died on 1 January 1800. His colleagues at the museum organized an impressive funeral for him, and he was buried at the Jardin des Plantes.

Daubenton’s work in anatomy consisted mainly in his share in the preparation of the great Histoire naturelle. undertaken by Buffon at the suggestion of the minister of state, Jean Maurepas. When he came to the Jardin du Roi in 1745, Daubenton’s first task was to organize the natural history collection. which was simply a set of herbal and pharmaceutical samples, to which minerals, rocks, shells, and Tournefort’s botanical collection had been added. Daubenton had to refine methods of preserving the specimens, to prepare and classify them, and to examine the many items sent by correspondents of the Jardin du Roi and by travelers. In addition, as curator he was obliged to be available as a guide twice a week and to provide impromptu lectures for visitors.

At the start, to judge by the prospectus2 and the address to the king that open its first volume (1749). Buffon and Daubenton were officially on equal footing with regard to authorship of the Histoire naturelle. It is evident from reading Buffon’s text, however, that he considered his collaborator’s descriptions to be a subordinate undertaking, designed to furnish material for his own expositions. Nevertheless, Daubenton considered his work valuable in its own right, as “the sole means that leads to positive knowledge of the animal economy.”3

The limits of the Histoire imposed certain constraints on Daubenton. Unable to provide exhaustive descriptions, he concentrated on the skeleton, the principal internal organs, the brain, the sexual organs, and the embryo and its enveloping membranes. Each description concluded with measurements of various parts of the organs. In order to facilitate the making of comparisons, the descriptions were set out in a uniform manner-a new procedure at the time. Nevertheless, Daubenton made no attempt to present a general synthesis of his some 200 detailed descriptions, which were published in volumes III through XV (1749-1767) of the work. This reticence prompted Peter Camper to comment, “Daubenton’s modesty did not permit him to know all the discoveries that he made.” Nevertheless, Daubenton’s descriptions constitute an important innovation. Cuvier wrote of their author (upon whose work he drew abundantly in preparing his lectures on comparative anatomy) that he was “the first who united anatomy and natural history in a continuous manner.”4

In dealing with certain parts of the body, particularly the skeleton (thereby laying the foundation for the work of his student Vicq d’Azyr), Daubenton was careful always to use the same terms to designate corresponding parts of the various quadrupeds.5 In this way he made it easier to distinguish the structural similarities and differences among the groups that make up the quadrupeds. Thus, he wrote:

… in describing the horse, we have, so to speak, in large part described the ass: all that is left is to state the resemblances and to furnish evidence of the differences that we have observed between these two animals. But to the same degree that the description of the ass is related to that of the horse, that of the bull is independent of it [,] for the bull resembles the horse only in being a quadruped.6

Daubenton seemed to adhere to the taxonomic definitions established by Buffon but tended to lack the latter’s boldness in making generalizations. While his caution was sometimes justified, some authors have maintained that it verged on a total lack of concern with theoretical questions. For example, in comparative anatomy he did not accord special importance to repeated similarities, being satisfied merely to mention them without drawing the possible taxonomic implications. As a result, he never grasped the principle of the subordination of characters.7

Daubenton did, however, display a degree of intellectual independence from Buffon, whom he sometimes corrected (notably concerning the existence of mammae in the horse). He eventually called Buffon to task for his position on this question, accusing him of having criticized Linnaeus’ method without really having understood it.8

Daubenton’s skill in anatomy was quickly recognized and continued to be admired in the new ways he found to demonstrate his virtuosity. For example, he appears to have been the first to apply the methods of comparative anatomy to fossil forms (1762). Also, with the publication of Mémoire surles différences de la situation du grand trou occipital dans “homme et dans les animaux” (1764), he brilliantly displayed his mastery of the comparative method. He showed not only that the position of the occipital foramen varies among the quadrupeds, apes, and man but also that the angle of inclination of this orifice with respect to a line passing from the root of the nose to the posterior side of the occipital foramen becomes increasingly smaller as man is approached in the series. This, he thought, explained the uniqueness of man’serect posture. Examining transitional types in his “Introduction à I’histoire naturelle des animaux” for the Encyclopédie méthodique, Daubenton cast doubt on certain generally accepted ideas concerning the series of living animals. Specifically, he attacked the notion of the zoophyte and rejected certain transitional forms that previously had been accepted as occurring between various groups of animals.

Daubenton ceased to work in close collaboration with Buffon around 1766, when the latter decided to eliminate Daubenton’ descriptions from subsequent editions of the Histoire naturelle. This decision was perhaps motivated by financial considerations. In 1764 Buffon had bought back the publication rights to the Histoire; and Daubenton’s contributions, which were very technical and rendered the volumes quite large, had little sales appeal to the general public. The reason, however, may simply have been jealousy on Buffon’s part, since Daubenton had received much praise from his fellow scientists. In any case, the volumes on the birds and mineralogy suffered from the absence of Daubenton’s participation.

At almost the same time, as he later reported in Instruction pour les bergers (1782), Daubenton was commissioned to investigate “by a series of wellconceived and carefully executed experiments the most favorable natural arrangement for improving wool. M. M. Trudaine informed me of this project in 1766 and asked me to conduct all the experiments I believed necessary to find a good way of improving wool: I felt prepared to undertake this task…; I was encouraged in this matter by the observations I had been making for twenty years on the structures of animals.” In all his research Daubenton was guided by the hope of using scientific knowledge of nature to benefit mankind. Accordingly, until the Revolution he pursued his research on the sheep with great energy. He traveled in Spain to study the breeding of merino sheep and in France to learn current breeding practices. Beginning in 1767, he presented many memoirs on his research to the Académic des Sciences and the Société Royale de Médecine.

Daubenton erected a sheepfold near Montbard in 1767, and he had a second one built at the Alfort veterinary school when he began teaching there in 1783. He also pursued his wool experiments at the Jardin du Roi. The study of the mechanism of rumination led him to formulate more precisely his ideas on how the flocks should be fed. He studied the resistance of sheep to drops in temperature and insisted on the necessity of continual folding of wool-bearing animals and on the disadvantages of keeping them in sheds. Following the English example, he undertook crossbreeding experiments and recommended the use of rams of higher race. He used the microscope to examine the fineness of the wools obtained and in 1784 published “Sur le premier drap de laine superfine du ctû de France.”

Two years earlier, after fifteen years of research, Daubenton had published Instruction pour les bergers et les propriétaires de troupeaux, which dealt with the physiology, therapeutics, and surgery of wool-bearing animals, as well as with pastures, races, and breeding methods. The book, which made him famous, was soon translated into several foreign languages; and in an III the Convention ordered it to be reprinted at state expense. Excerpts were often published, and it was as a “shepherd” that Daubenton obtained his certificate of good citizenship in 1793. Encouraged by his results, Daubenton decided about 1790 to conduct experiments with a view toward acclimatizing in France a number of exotic animals, such as the tapir, the peccary, and the zebra; but nothing came of this project.

Despite his extensive work on breeding, Daubenton continued his research on mineralogy, a subject that he had been teaching at the Jardin du Roi since 1745. He presented papers on mineralogical questions to the Académie des Sciences and the Société de Médecine, and wrote many articles on mineralogical topics for the Encyclopédic. The first edition of his Tableau méthodique des minéraux appeared in 1784. While they display no great originality, Daubenton’s teaching and writings on mineralogy contributed significantly to the spreading of current knowledge of the subject. It was, moreover, under Daubenton’s patronage that Haüy began his career. Upon the creation of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Daubenton was given the chair of mineralogy, which he held until his death.

Daubenton also taught botany. He published a number of works on this subject and made several discoveries in plant physiology (the way in which the trunks of palm trees grow and the existence of tracheae in the bark of trees). In accord with Buffon’s instructions, he supervised the writing of the “Discours preliminaire” for Lamarck’s Flore frangçaise (3 vols., 1777- 1778), which was written by Lamarck himself and was put into final form by Haüy. Daubenton investigated several medical questions and published Mémoire sur les indigestions (1785). He planned to work with Malesherbes on an annotated edition of the works of Pliny, but the project was never carried out.

Daubenton’s official collaborators at the Jardin du Roi included his cousin Edme Daubenton, who occupied the specially created post of sousdémonstrates (from 1767); Lacepédè, who replaced Edmé in 1784, and, from 1787, Faujas de Saint-Fond, who was in charge of correspondence.


1. P. A. Cap, Le Museum d’histoire naturelle (Paris, 1854). 75.

2. See Journal des sçavans (Oct 1748), 639.

3. See Daudin, De Linné à Jussieu…. 154.

4.Lecons d’anatamie comparée. III (1805). xix.

5. “Description du cheval,” in Histoire naturelle, IV, 338.

6. “Description du taureau.” ibid., 474.

7. Daudin, op.cit., 134-135.

8. See Séances des écoles normales recueillies pur des sténographes I (Paris, 1802), 295.


I. Original Works. Daubenton’s most important publication is the Histoire naturelle, géneraté et particutiére, avec description du Cabinet du Roy, 15 vols. (Paris, 1749-1767), on which he collaborated with Buffon for the part on quadrupeds.

Daubenton’s memoirs published by the Académie Royale des Sciences include “Mémoire sur des os et des dents remarquables par leur grandeur,” in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences… (1762), 206-229; “Mémoire sur le mechanisme de la rumination et sur letempérament des bôtes à lainet” ibid, (1768), 389-398: “Sur le premier drap de laine superfine du crû de France.” ibid., (1784). 76-84; “Observations sur l’organisation et l’aceroissement du bois,” ibid. (1790), 665-675: “Observations sur les caractères génériques en histoire naturelle,” in Mémories de l’lnstitut national des sciences et arts. Sciences mathématiques et physiques, 1 (1796). 387-396: “Plan des expériences qui se font au Jardin des Plantes sur les moutons et d’autres animaux domesliques,” ibid., 377-386; and “Moyen d’augmenter la production du bled sur le sol de la République franûaise par le parcage des moutons et la suppression des jachères,” ibid.f 397-404.

Among the memoirs he presented to the Société Roy-ale de Médecine is “Mémoire sur le régime le plus néces-saire aux troupeaux, dans lequel l’auteur détermine par des expériences ce qui est relatif à leur aliments et à leur boisson” in Histoire de la Société royale de médecine (1777-1778), 570-578. To the Encyclopédic of Diderot and d’Alembert he contributed the articles “Animalcule,” “Botanique,” and “Comaline.” Daubenton also wrote the articles “Quadrupèdes” and “Règne animal,” as well as the “Introduction à l’histoire naturelle” in the part of vol. 1 of Encyclopédic méthodiqueentitled “Histoire naturelle des animaux.” See also “Observations sur la division générate el méthodique des productions de la nature,” in Magasin encyclopédique3 (1796). 5-10.

Daubenton’s books include Instruction pour les bergers et les propriétaires de troupeaux (Paris, 1782)—on the various eds. of this work, see J. B. Huzard. Notice historique ei bibliographique sur les éditions et les traductions de l’lnstruction pour les bergers (an X and subsequent eds.): Tableau méthodique des minéraux, suivant leurs différentes natures et avec les caractères distinctifs. apparents ou faciles à reconnoîter (Paris. 1784 and many subsequent eds.): and Mémoires sur les indigestions, qui commencent à êire plus fréquentes pour la plupart des hommes, à l’âge de quarante à quarante cinq ans (Paris, 1785: 2nd ed., 1798).

MSS by Daubenton or concerning him are mainly in Paris, at the Bibliothëque Centrale du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, the Archives Nationales, and the archives of the Académic des Sciences.

II. Secondary Literature. See A. Albrier, “La famille Daubenton, notice historique et généalogique.” in Revue historique nobiliaire et biographique.11 (1874). 152-181; G. (uvier. “Éloge historique de Daubenton,” in Recueil des éloges historiques lus dans les stances publiques de I’institut royal de France, 1 (Strasbourg- Paris. 1819), 37-80; P.-M.-J. Flourens, “Notice sur Daubenton,” in Recited des éloges historiques lus dans les séances publiques de l’Académic des sciences. III (Paris, 1862), 313-328; E. T. Hamy, “La mort et les funérailles de L. J. M. Daubenton (1800)” in Les débuts de Lamarck(Paris, 1908), 236-254; B. Lacépède. “Discours sur la vie et les ouvrages de Daubenton,” in Daubenton’s Instruction pour les bergers, 3rd ed. (Paris, an X), 1-38; L. Route, Daubenton et (’exploitation de la nature (Paris, 1925); and P. Vang eon, “La vie laborieuse du docteur Daubenton,” in Bulletin de la Société archéologique et biographique du canton de Mont hard, no. 31 (1934), 1-14. and no. 32 (1935), 1-9. The best account of Daubenton’s scientific work is H. Daudin. De Linnée à Jussieu. Méthodes de la classification et idée de série en botanique et en zoologie [1740-1790) (Paris, 1926). esp. ch. 3.

Camille Limoges

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Daubenton, Louis-Jean-Marie

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