Dombey, Joseph

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Dombey, Joseph

(b. Mâcon, France, 22 February 1742; d. Montserrat, West Indies, 18 February 1794)

medicine, botany.

The tenth of the fourteen children of Jean-Philibert Dombey, a baker, and Marie Carra, Dombey was orphaned at the age of fourteen. After studying with the Jesuits, he studied medicine at Montpellier and graduated in 1767. Antoine Gouan and Pierre Cusson stimulated Dombey to pursue natural history, and he carried out fieldwork in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Vosges. He went to Paris in 1772 and took courses under Antoine-Laurent Jussieu and Lemonnier, and in 1776 he was appointed royal botanist for the study of South American plants that could acclimatize to France.

Dombey left Cádiz in 1777 with the Spanish botanists Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón, reaching Callao, Peru, in 1778. Dombey studied the Peruvian vegetation, particularly the so-called American cinnamon, searched for platinum and saltpeter, analyzed the Chauchin spa, and made archaeological explorations in Chan Chan, Pachacamac, and Tarma; at Huánuco he found cinchona. In 1781 he went to Chile, exploring the mines of Coquimbo and Copiapó, and returned to France in 1785.

Dombey had promised not to publish his observations prior to those of the Spaniards, and his ill health and disappointments caused him to sell his books and to burn all his notes and observations when he retired to Lyons. In 1793, during the Revolution, he became surgeon at the military hospital of Lyons and afterward was commissioned to take the standards of the decimal system to the United States and to arrange the purchase of grain. His ship was captured by the British and he died in prison, but news of his death did not reach France until October 1794.

Dombey introduced the Araucanian pine, named after him, into naval construction and presented to the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, a great number of specimens and his herbarium, containing more than 1,500 new species. He was made a member of the Academia de Medicina, Madrid, and the Académie des Sciences, Paris.


I. Original Works. Since he burned his notes and manuscripts, Dombey’s only printed works are “Lettre sur la salpêtre du Pérou et la phosphorescence de la mer,” published by Lalande in the Journal de physique, 15 (1780), 212–214; and certain observations included by Ruiz and Pavón in the Flora peruviana et chilensis (4 vols., Madrid, 1798–1802). Dombey’s correspondence has been published as E. T. Hamy, Joseph Dombey, médecin, naturaliste, archéologue, explorateur du Pérou, du Chili et du Brésil (1778–1785), sa vie, son oeuvre, sa correspondance (Paris, 1905). J. Riquelme Salar, “El Doctor Dombey, médico Francés; su labor cientifica en los reinos del Perú y Chile, an̄o 1777–85,” in Proceedings of the International Congress of the History of Medicine, 1 (1959), 160–162, also contains the correspondence.

II. Secondary Literature. On Dombey or his work, see E. Dubois, Le naturaliste Joseph Dombey (Bourg-en-Bresse, 1934); and A. R. Steele, Flowers for the King. The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavón and the Flora of Perou (Durham, N.C., 1964).

Francisco Guerra