La Rive, Charles-Gaspard De

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La Rive, Charles-Gaspard De

(b, Geneva, 14 March 1770; d. Geneva, Swiss Confederation, 18 March 1834),

physics, chemistry, medicine.

Nobile Charles-Gaspard de La Rive was the second son of Ami-Jean de La Rive and Jeanne-Elisabeth Sellon. A landowning noble family, the de La Rives had for centuries been prominent members of Geneva’s Protestant patriciate. After receiving his primary education at the Collège de Genève, Gaspard entered the Académie de Genève in May 1789 to study law. Although he had studied some natural science, he was still a student of law in August 1794 when the first Genevan Tribunal Révolutionnaire sentenced him to a year’s house arrest. However, the relaxation of the Terror after 9 Thermidor freed him to emigrate, whereupon he went to Edinburgh to study medicine. He received his doctorate in 1797 with the publication of his thesis, Tentamen physiologicum de calore animali, an unoriginal critique especially of Adair Crawford, in which de La Rive followed his teacher John Allen in attributing animal heat to the combustion in the blood of particles derived from food and oxygen absorbed through the lungs.

De La Rive returned to Geneva late in 1799 and shortly thereafter (probably in 1800) married the well-born Marguerite-Adelaïde Boissier, with whom he had two sons. He soon took charge of the Hospice des Aliénés, where he devoted some thirty years to improving the treatment of the insane. In November 1802 he was named honorary professor (without pay) of pharmaceutical chemistry at the Academy, filling one of the ten new honorary chairs created through the reform efforts of M. Pictet, who wanted a strong faculty of sciences within the Academy. In 1819, as Alexandre Marcet took over instruction in pharmaceutical chemistry, his title became that of honorary professor of general chemistry. He frequently gave series of lectures at the Academy and at the Musée Académique on medicine and, especially after 1818, on experimental chemistry. His well-equipped laboratory was outfitted at his own expense; its doors were always open to visiting scientific dignitaries such as Davy, Arago, and Ampère; and indeed his generosity and personal interest contributed significantly to his contemporary reputation.

On 13 December 1813 he participated in the creation of the reactionary Conseil Provisoire (renamed Conseil d’État in 1814) and remained an active member of the government as conseiller d’état until his resignation on 19 June 1818. He was elected premier syndic in 1817. On 4 November 1818 the Conseil d’État created an extraordinary seat for him on the Sénat Académique, where he used his considerable influence in support of reforms aimed at freeing the Academy from ecclesiastical control and in strengthening its faculty of science. He authored the règlement of 11 November 1818 providing for the conferring of academic degrees by the faculties of science and of letters. Later, during his term as rector of the Academy (November 1823-March 1826), he was the major force behind efforts to transform the Academy into a university and to secure for it the beginnings of state financial support. Most important were the two regulations of 28 November 1825, which consolidated the control of the individual faculties over their own affairs and provided for specialized instruction in the sciences and in letters. He was prominent in the founding and initial funding of the Jardin Botanique in 1817 and of the Société de Lecture in 1818, the latter organized at the urging of A.-P. de Candolle to supplement Geneva’s meager libraries.

De La Rive’s actual scientific contributions were negligible, both intrinsically and historically. Excepting his work on electricity, his sixteen publications between 1797 and 1833 were predominantly reviews, translations, extracts, and commentaries, with an occasional paper on a minor chemical or medical topic. Perhaps most valuable were his expositions, among the first on the Continent, of Davy’s electrochemistry, Dalton’s atomic theory, and Berzelius’ theory of definite proportions. His work appeared in Bibliothèque britannique, Geneva’s foremost scientific and literary journal, and in its successor, Bibliothèque universelle, both of which enjoyed his editorial collaboration.

De La Rive enjoyed modest contemporary renown as a critical defender of Ampère. He conceived a simple device—his “flotteur ére”—which he believed exhibited the reasonableness of Ampère’s theory of magnetism. It consisted of a strip each of copper and zinc, passed through a cork and fastened together at the top to form a ring; when floated on acidulated water near a magnet, the device demonstrated the action of the magnet on a simple current loop. De La Rive believed that certain experiments he performed with it led Ampère to modify his theory—by assuming that the molecular currents in a magnet were progressively more inclined the farther from the axis and the center of the magnet. There is no evidence, however, that the final version of Ampère’s theory owned anything to de La Rive’s criticisms.1

Ampère had shown that a rectangular current loop free to rotate about a vertical axis lying within the plane of the loop would assume a position perpendicular to the magnetic meridian, such that the direction of current in the lower portion of the rectangle was from east to west. Ampère initially attributed this effect to the interaction between east-west currents in the surface of the earth and those in the lower portion of his loop in accordance with his law for the attraction between like-directed currents. De La Rive varied this experiment by eliminating the lower horizontal segment. In terms of Ampèlre’s earlier deficient explanation, he then expected that the action of the terrestrial currents—if, indeed, such exist—on the remaining upper horizontal portion would rotate the loop 180° this effect, however, did not occur. The resolution of the difficulty lay in the analysis of the action, on the vertical sides of the loop, of the terrestrial currents—which Ampère now thought had to be located predominantly along the magnetic equator—and in a reconsideration of their action on the horizontal portions. It seems that Ampère had already recognized the deficiency of his original explanation, although de La Rive’s criticism spurred him to develop this aspect of his theory in print before he otherwise would have done. De La Rive’s experiment was carried somewhat further by his son Auguste, who owed his scientific debut to this controversy.2


1. The confusion surrounding Gaspard’s claims and Ampère’s explanations is far out of proportion to the importance of the casse, Be that as it may, the relevant sources are Gaspard de La Rive, “Notice sur quelques expériences éelctro-magnétiques,” in Bibliothèque universelle des sciences, belles-lettres et arts. Sciences et arts, 16 (1821), 201-203; and “Mémoire sur quelques nouvelles expériences électro-magnétiques et en particulier sur celles de Mr. Faraday,” ibid.,18 (1821), 269-286, See also four letters of Ampère’s—to S.S. van der Eyk, 12 Apr. 1822; to G. de La Rive, 12 June 1822; to F. Maurice, 6 July 1822; and to Faraday, 10 July 1822—published in Correspondance du grand Ampère, L. de launay, ed., 3 vols. (Paris, 1936-1943), II, 579, 580-582; III, 927; and II, 588, respectively. The letter to de La Rive was originally published as “Extrait d’une lettre de Mr. Ampère au prof. de la Rive sur des expériences électro-magnétiques,” in Bibliothèque universell…,20 (1822), 185-192.

2. The relevant sources are Gaspard de La Rive, “lettre du Professeur de La Rive à M. Arago (datée le 22 juin 1822), sur des courans galvaniques,’ in Annales de chimie et de physique, 2nd ser., 20 (1822), 269-275; a letter from Ampère to M. Pictet, dated 10 July 1822, published in the former’s Correspondance, II, 583-585; August de La Rive,” De l’action qu’exerce le globe terrestre sur une portion mobile du circuit voltaïque. (Mémoire lu à la Socieété de physique et d’histoire naturelle de Genéve le 4 septembre 1822),“in Bibliothèque universelle…,21 (1822), 29-48 (a footnote to the title adds that” Mr. Ampère, alors à Genève, assistoit àl cette séance” ). Pp. 29-42 are the memoir proper; pp. 42-47 are Auguste’s version of Ampère;re’s berbal explanation of the new experiments; pp. 47-48 describe two other experiments the two did together at Geneva. The version published in Annales de chimie et de physique, 2nd ser., 21 (1822), 24-48 (“Mémoire sur l’action qu’exerce …” ), is the same except that the middle segment (pp. 39-46) has been modified slightly by Ampère; in addition, there follows a note by Ampère on two other new experiments (pp. 48-53).

On the respective contributions of the two de La Rives, see also Gaspard’s letter of 16 of Sept. 1822 to Berzelius, in Jac. Berzelius Bref, H. G. Söderbaum, ed., 14 vols. in 6 (Uppsala, 1912-1932), ( = Strödda Bref (1809-1847), III, pt. 2), 60-61; and letters by Ampère to C. J. Bredin, [24] Sept. 1822, and to A. de La Rive, 11-31 Oct. 1822, in his Correspondance, II, 509 and 603-604, respectively.


I. Original Works. Nearly complete bibliographies of Gaspard’s scientific works are in Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, II, 217; Poggendorff, II, col. 657; and G. de Fère, “Charles-Gaspard de La Rive,” in Nouvelle biographie générale depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, 46 vols. (Paris, 1853-1866), XXIX, cols. 603-606 (the bibliography, which follows a biography, is exten-sive but contains many errors). The Bibliothéque Publique et Universitaire de Genéve preserves three vols. of MSS containing letters by and to Gaspard and a journal kept during the years 1794 to 1799.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important source is the anonymous “Notice biographique sur M. le prof. G. De La Rive,” in Bibliothèque universelle des sciences, belles-letters et arts. Sciences et arts, 55 (1834), 303-338, possibly written by A. Gautier, whose often identically worded obituary notice on Gaspard appeared in Mémoires de la Société de physique et d’histoire naturelle de Genéve, 10 (1834), xii-xiv. In addition to the biography by de Fère cited above, mention should also be made of A. Maury, “Charles-Gaspard de Larive,” in Biographie universelle (Michaud) ancienne et moderne, new ed. (Paris, n.d.), XXIII, 264-265. A wealth of information of Gaspard’s activities at the Academy is in C. Borgeaud, Histoire de l’Université de Genève, II , “L’Académie de Calvin dans l’Université de Napoléon, 1798-1814,” and III , “L’Acadé-mie et l’Université au XIXe siècle, 1814-1900” (Geneva, 1909-0934), passim.

Kenneth L. Caneva

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La Rive, Charles-Gaspard De