Delile (or Raffeneau-Delile), Alire

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Delile (or Raffeneau-Delile), Alire

(b. Versailles, France, 23 January 1778; d. Montpellier, France, 5 July 1850)


The son of Jean-Baptiste Élie Raffeneau-Delile, porte-malle ordinaire du Roi, and Marie Catherine Bar, Delile had barely begun his secondary studies at the Collège de Lisieux in Paris when they were interrupted by the Revolution. He completed them in Versailles after having been forced to return there, then became a nonresident medical student in the charitable institutions of the city. At the same time he was introduced to botany at the Trianon gardens.

On 29 Vendémiaire, an IV (21 October 1795) Delile was admitted to the École de Santé in Paris as a result of a competitive examination. At the school he met Desfontaines, who was the deciding factor in his joining the Egyptian expeditionary force organized by Bonaparte. He left France on 19 May 1798 as a botanist attached to the expedition.

Delile was in Egypt until the destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir and then returned to France, with an important herbarium, in November 1801. He sailed for America in April 1803 as an assistant commissioner for commercial relations, representing France in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1806 Delile left that post to work with Benjamin Smith Barton, a physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He resumed his medical studies there and continued them under David Hosack in New York. On 5 May 1807 he defended a thesis entitled “On the Pulmonary Consumption.” Three months later Delile was recalled to France in order to resume the editing of a flora of Egypt.

This work was completed in 1809, and Delile was left without employment. His candidacy to succeed Pierre Broussonnet as professor of botany at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier had been unsuccessful—Candolle received the appointment—and Delile had to return to the practice of medicine. On 6 July 1809 he defended his doctoral thesis before the Faculty of Medicine in Paris and treated patients without renouncing his other projects. After the collapse of the Empire, Candolle decided to leave France, and in July 1819 Delile was appointed to take his place. From then on, he remained in Montpellier.

Among Delile’s published works those relating to Egypt are the most famous, but they represent no more than eight titles out of the sixty that Joly counted in 1859. At first glance the period spent in America seems to have been less fruitful. Only three papers, including his M.D. thesis, were produced. The period in Montpellier, which was the longest, was the one in which Delile published the most; but the works have no definite orientation. There are essays on culture and acclimatization, descriptions of oriental species, and biological observations; none is without importance, yet none is particularly memorable.

However, Defile’s published works represent only one part of his research. At his death he left a great many drawings, observations, and unpublished documents. Joly cites four manuscripts that he himself possessed, but they seem to have been lost since then. However, there is an important piece of evidence of Delile’s activities in America, a copy of Michaux’s Flora boreali-americana, annotated in preparation for a revision. This, together with eight cartons of watercolor drawings representing 332 species of fungi— done during the Montpellier period—may be found in the archives of the Institut Botanique, Montpellier.


I.Original Works. Only Delile’s most important works are listed here; a more complete list is provided by Joly: “Description de deux espèces de Séné...,” in Mémoires sur l’Égypte, III (Paris, an X [1801]); “Note critique sur le Ximenia Aegyptiaca,” ibid.; “Observations sur les lotus d’Égypte.” in Annales du Muséum d’histoire naturelle, 1 (1802); An Inaugural Dissertation on the Pulmonary Consumption (New York, 1807), his M.D. thesis; “Description d’opérations rares et nouvelles d’anévrismes, faites avec succès en Angleterre et en Amérique,” in Journal de médecine (1809); Dissertation sur les effets d’un poison de Java appelé Upas Tieuté (Paris, 1809), his M.D. thesis; “Description et dessin d’une tarière spirale, instrument vulgaire aux Éats-Unis pour abréger les travaux de charpente,” in Mémoires de la Société d’encouragement de Paris (1812); “Description du Palmier Doum de la Haute-Égypte.” in Descriptions de l’Égypte, XIX (Paris, 1824); “Florae Aegyptiacae illustratio,” ibid.; “Flore d’Égypte, explication des plantes gravées,” ibid; “Histoire des plantes cultivéesen Égypte,” ibid; “Mémoire sur les plantes qui croissent spontanément en Égypte,” ibid; Centurie de plantes d’Afrique du voyage à Méroé, recueillies par M. Cailliaud et décritespar M. Delile (Paris, 1826); fragments d’une flore de l’Arabie Pétrée (Paris, 1833); “Nouveaux fragments d’uneflore de l’Arabie Pétrée,” presented to the Academy of Sciences in April 1834; “Première récolte des fruits du ginkgo du Japon en France,” in Bulletin de la Sociétéd’agrkutture de l’Hérault (1835); “Pomone orientale: Designation d’arbres à fruits à importer de Syrie en France.” ibid(1840); and “Correspondance d’Orient: De l’horticulture en Égypte,” ibid (1841).

II. Secondary Literature. On Delile or his work, see N. Joly. “Éloge historique d’Alyre Raffeneau-Delile.” in Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences, inscriptions et belles-lettres de Toulouse, 5th ser., 3 (1859); Jean Motte, “Delile l’Égyptien, un botaniste à la suite de Bonaparte,” in Science et nature, no. 18 (1956); and “Matériaux inédits, préparés par Delile pour une flore de l’Amérique du Nord,” in Les botanistes français en Amérique du Nord avant 1850, Colloques Internationaux du C.N.R.S. no. 63 (Paris, 1957).

Jean Motte