Dodart, Denis

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Dodart, Denis

(b. Paris, France, 1634; d. Paris, 5 November 1707)

botany, physiology.

Dodart was the son of Jean Dodart, a notary public who loved belles lettres, and of Marie Dubois, a lawyer’s daughter. The family was upper middle class, and through his parents’ efforts he received a particularly broad and thorough education. After studying medicine he graduated docteur régent from the Faculty of Medicine in Paris on 16 October 1660. Even as a student Dodart so distinguished himself by his learning, his eloquence, and his agreeable nature that Gui Patin, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine and a habitually very severe critic, called him, in a letter to a friend, “one of the wisest and most learned men of this century.”

In 1666 Dodart became a professor at the School of Pharmacy in Paris. A well-known practitioner, he was first in the service of the duchess of Longueville and then was physician to the house of Conti. A pious man, Dodart spent much of his time helping the poor, both medically and financially. He was sympathetic to Jansenism and became a close friend of Jean Hamon, a monk-doctor, whom he attended at death and whom he succeeded as doctor at Port-Royal. Dodart had the title, but did not perform the functions, of physician-adviser to the king. Louis XIV disliked Dodart’s connections with Port-Royal, but he yielded to Colbert’s appeal that he make Dodart a member of the Academy and to that of Mme. de Maintenon that he give Dodart a place at the court (1698) and named him physician at St. Cyr.

Most of Dodart’s scientific activity took place within the framework of the Academy of Sciences, of which he became a member (botanist) in 1673. The Perrault brothers regarded Dodart as a man capable of directing the ambitious Histoire des plantes, a project which the Academy had proposed as one of the goals of its research since its founding. In 1676 Dodart published Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire des plantes, a preliminary study and an announcement of a large collective work that never appeared. The Mémoires contains a methodological introduction and a model showing how to conduct botanical research. Because of Dodart’s recommendation of phytochemical analysis, this work marks a new step in botany.

When the Academy of Sciences was reorganized, Dodart was among the first group of titulaires named directly by Louis XIV; on 28 January 1699 he was given the title of pensioner-botanist. He justified this nomination by the publication, in 1700, of studies of the influence of gravitation on development of roots and stems and on the fertilization and reproduction of plants. Dodart was an advocate of the theory of encasement or emboîtement of seeds, and he strove tirelessly to apply in botany the embryological ideas of N. Andry and other preformationists. He further described several new species of plants; and Tournefort named the genus Dodartia for him.

Botany was not the only field in which Dodart excelled. In 1678 he presented to the Academy an important memoir by La Salle “on certain details of the natural history of North America, particularly of the Iroquois territory.” He published a good description of ergotism (1676) and several anatomicalpathological and embryological observations; three memoirs on phonation appeared between 1700 and 1707.

Dodart was the first since Aristotle and Galen to present new ideas on the mechanism of phonation. He nursed the idea of writing a history of medicine; but when Daniel Leclerc published one first, he abandoned this project for a history of music. Studies on the human voice and on the nature of tones were to serve as an introduction to this history. Credit must be given to Dodart for pointing out the fundamental role of the vocal cords in phonation. In opposition to the classic theory, which considered the larynx a type of flute, Dodart stated that “the glottis alone makes the voice and all the tones...; no wind instrument can explain its functioning...; the entire effect of the glottis on the tones depends on the tension of its lips and its various openings.”

Finally, Dodart was, with Perrault, one of the few French physicians of the seventeenth century to understand and properly appreciate the experiments and the theories of the Italian iatromechanics. He performed on himself the “static” (i.e., performed with a balance) experiments of S. Santorio, measuring the changes in weight of his body and in particular the quantity of imperceptible perspiration. He demonstrated that perspiration gradually decreases as one grows older and also noted, for example, how much the strictest Lenten fast may decrease weight and how much time is needed to regain this lost weight. As an advocate of mechanical explanations of vital phenomena, Dodart saw in them a proof of the existence of God. His religious convictions found noble expression in his will (an autograph of which is in the archives of the Academy of Sciences in Paris).

Dodart had one son, Claude-Jean-Baptiste (1664–1730), who was chief physician to Louis XV, and one grandson, Denis le Jeune, who was maître des requêtes and intendant.


I. Original Works. Dodart’s main work is Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire des plantes (Paris, 1676), which was divided into “Projet de l’Histoire des plantes” and “Description de quelques plantes nouvelles,” the latter illustrated with magnificent plates by Abraham Bosse, Nicolas Robert, and L. de Chatillon. A second edition of the “Projet” appeared in 1679.

Dodart published several articles in the Mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences: “Lettre sur le seigle ergoté” (1676), 562; “Sur l’affectation de la perpendiculaire, remarquable dans toutes les tiges” (1700), 47; “Mémoire sur les causes de la voix de l’homme, et de ses différens tons” (1700), 238–287; “Sur la multiplication des corps vivants considérée dans la fécondité des plantes” (1700), 136–160; “Second mémoire sur la fécondité des plantes” (1701), 241–257; and “Supplément au mémoire sur la voix et sur les tons” (1706), 136–148, 388–410; (1707), 66–81.

His physiological experiments on nutrition and on imperceptible transpiration were published posthumously by P. Noguez as Medicina statica Gallica (Paris, 1725).

II. Secondary Literature. The basic biographical source remains B. de Fontenelle, “Éloge de M. Dodart,” in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences pour l’année 1707 (Paris, 1708), pp. 182–192. The text of his will was published in Chronique médicale, 5 (1898), 742–750.

Remarks on his character are in letters by Gui Patin, Lettres, J. H. Reveillé-Parise, ed. (Paris, 1846), III, 231, 277, 293; and in the éloge of Dodart’s son written by Saint-Simon. Biographical notices include the following (listed chronologically): N. F. J. Eloy, “Dodart,” in Dictionnaire historique de la médecine, II (Mons, 1778), 64–65; J. A. Hazon, Notice des hommes les plus célèbres de la Faculté de médecine de l’Université de Paris (Paris, 1778), pp. 135–138; G. Nomdedeu, Les médecins de Port-Royal (Bordeaux, 1931); and Roman d’Amat, “Dodart,” in Dictionnaire de biographie française, XI (Paris, 1967), cols. 417–418. His work in botany is discussed in Y. Laissus and A. M. Monseigny, “Les plantes du roi,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences. 22 (1969), 193–236.

M. D. Grmek