Du Hamel, Jean-Baptiste

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Du Hamel, Jean-Baptiste

(b. Vire, Normandy, France, 11 June 1623; d. Paris, France, 6 August 1706)

institutional history.

Although usually designated an anatomist, this distinguished priest and humanist had in reality no such specialized scientific interests and indeed owes his fame primarily to the high office that he held from 1666 to 1697 in the first great French institution. His successor Fontenelle, who knew him well, suggested that du Hamel inherited from his lawyer father a talent for conciliation. Certainly he inherited from his family a sensitivity to social relations in the legal milieu in general, and the manner in which he exploited his heritage has earned him a place in the history of science.

In Paris, du Hamel completed the studies in rhetoric and philosophy that he had begun in Caen. He immediately applied his talents to mathematics at the scholarly institution called the Académie Royale, which was being enlivened by the Jesuits. His short treatise Elementa astronomica (1643), intended as a primer on astronomy, testifies to his ability. Having already taken minor orders, he was admitted to the Institution de l’Oratoire in Paris on Christmas day of 1643. In September 1644 he was sent to the Collège Université of Angers, where he taught philosophy with great success and where he was ordained a priest in 1649. In October 1652 he was recalled to the house in the rue St. Honoré to instruct the young Oratorians in positive theology. But at the request of his lawyer brother, who sought his aid in ecclesiastical matters, he left the Oratory in 1653. He became a curé in Neuilly-sur-Marne until 1663. During these ten years he was both a zealous pastor and an industrious intellectual. The works that he published in 1660 and 1663 assure his reputation and reflect perfectly his scholarly personality.

Directed to a lay audience, these works outlined the then current state of physics and of philosophical disputes. Their originality lies in the effort to emphasize what is valuable in the ancients for the moderns, in an interesting compilation of knowledge in the era following the death of Descartes.

Appointed royal chaplain in 1656, du Hamel relinquished the vicariate of Neuilly in 1663 to assist the bishop of Bayeux in Paris as chancellor. In 1666 the founding of the Académie Royale des Sciences brought him another office. As Fontenelle said, he had given, without intending to, evidence of all the qualities necessary in a secretary of the new organization. The choice proved to be judicious.

From 1668 to 1670 he attended the marquis of Croissy at the negotiations of Aix-la-Chapelle, at which an expert Latinist was required, and then accompanied him to England and the Netherlands on diplomatic missions. Du Hamel resumed his position at the academy, enriched by his contact with foreign scholars, notably Boyle and Oldenburg.

His zeal in the service of secular knowledge was soon tempered, however. He dedicated himself increasingly to important publications for the sacred sciences. Without doubting the sincerity of the scruples that he expressed with regard to his sacerdotal state, one may suppose that with time, and for a variety of reasons, his responsibilities at the Academy became more trying. The Academy had not maintained its original distinction and in the last decade of the seventeenth century was afflicted with various ills that threatened to hasten its demise. Surrounded by the debates of an advancing science and suffering from faults in its administrative organization, the institution was in need of reform as well as protection. By securing his position for as long as possible and by passing it on to Fontenelle in 1697, du Hamel certainly assisted in preserving the Academy, at the same time that he published the first printed summary of its history.

A pensionary anatomist in the revived Academy of 1699, du Hamel once again saw how to make way for a qualified member, Littré Alenis. In the larger interest of science he permitted Varignon, in 1701, to assume the chair of Greek and Latin philosophy, which he had held since 1682, at the Collège de France.

A man of the Church who had a deep inner life, du Hamel put the advantages of his position and background in the service of the broadest scientific progress.


I. Original Works. The following list includes only those works concerning science and its history: Elementa astronomica ubi Theodosii Tripolitae sphaericorum libri tres cum universa triangulorum resolutione nova succincta et facillime arte demonstrantur (Paris, 1643), some eds. with the commentary on Euclid by P. Georges Fournier, S.J., one of which eds. was repr. (London, 1654); Astronomia physica, seu de luce, natura et motibus corporum caelestium, libri duo.... Accessere P. Petiti observationes aliquot eclypsium solis et lunae (Paris, 1660); De meteoribus et fossilibus libri duo (Paris, 1660); De consensu veteris et novae philosophiae ubi Platonis, Aristotelis, Epicuri, Cartesii aliorumque placita de principiis rerum excutiuntur et de principiis chymicis (Paris, 1663); De corporum affectionibus tum manifestis tum occultis libri duo (Paris, 1670); De mente humana libri quatuor (Paris, 1672); De corpore animato libri quatuor (Paris, 1673); and Regiae scientiarum academiae historia (Paris, 1698), 2nd augmented ed. (Paris, 1701).

II. Secondary Literature. On du Hamel and his work, see “Mémoire sur la vie et les écrits de J. B. du Hamel, prieur de St. Lambert,” in Journal des sçavans, supp. (Feb. 1707), pp. 88–94 (author anon.); Fontenelle, “Éloge de Mr. du Hamel,” in Histoire et mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences, pt 1 (Paris, 1707), pp. 142–153; Louis Batterel, Mémoires domestiques pour servir à l’histoire de l’Oraioire, Bonnardet-Ingold, ed., III (Paris, 1904), 142–155; and a medallion in Museum Mazzuchelianum seu numismata virorum doctrina praestantium, II (Venice, 1761), 89 and pl. 120, no. 4.

Pierre Costabel

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