Magnol, Pierre

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(b. Montpellier, France, 8 June 1638; d. Montpellier, 21 May 1715)


Magnol’s father was an apothecary, and his mother came from a family of physicians. He was interested in botany from his youth; and in 1659, after receiving his medical degree, he decided that (as his son reports) “it would be very advantageous to him to make a serious study of plants” before practicing medicine. He then began to botanize in the area around Montpellier, in Provence, and in the neighboring islands. He was aided by Laugier, a professor of medicine who was the friend of Gaston, duke of Orleans, and who possessed a great knowledge of plants. Magnol’s reputation grew rapidly, and people soon competed to join the excursions he led. He established contacts with many French and foreign botanists: John Ray, William Sherard, and James Petiver in London; Herman and Hotton in Leiden; Commelin in Amsterdam; the Rivinuses (Bachmanns) in Leipzig; Breyn in Danzig; Johann Heinrich Lavater in Zurich; Lelio and Giovanni Battista Triumpheti in Rome; Giovanni Ciassi in Venice; Boccone in Palermo; Nappus in Strasbourg; J. Salvador in Barcelona; Jacob Spon in Lyons; and Gui C. Fagon in Paris. In 1663 Magnol obtained, through J. P. de Tournefort, a brevet de médecin ordinaire du roi. In 1667 the king opposed his nomination as professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier (he was not appointed until 1694, but in the meantime he renounced Protestantism). Magnol was not disturbed by this rejection, which permitted him to devote his time to botany.

Magnol’s Botanicum Monspeliense, containing, it is said, the description of 1,354 species, appeared in 1676; it was intended for his students, among whom were Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu. Out of love for botany Magnol agreed in 1687 to substitute for François Chicoyneau, whose sight was starting to fail, as demonstrator of plants at the botanical garden of Montpellier. In 1697 Magnol was named director of the botanical garden. He was called to Paris in 1709 to replace Tournefort at the Académie Royale des Sciences and was particularly warmly received there by Fontenelle. But he soon wished to return to his native city, where, in “his” garden, he cultivated rare plants. In 1697 he had published a catalog of this garden (Hortus regius Monspeliensis) in which several new species were described, including Lonicera Pyrenaica and Xanthium spinosum.

An innovator in classification, Magnol was one of the first, in his Prodromus historiae generalis plantarum (1689), to classify plants in tables that made possible rapid identifications. In his Novus caracter plantarum, posthumously published by his son Antoine in 1720, “he proposed a new classification based on the calyx (a name that he gives even to the unique floral envelope of certain plants).” He demonstrated that the fig contains many flowers but was unable to interpret the fructification of the ferns. He recognized that the coral is a “living body” but thought it was a plant. Magnol also established that desiccation causes the tuber of the arum to lose its “burning acridity.” He observed the underground components of the Bryonia, the cyclamen, the Jerusalem artichoke, turnips, and other plants and concluded that by drying them, Kneading them with wheat or rye flour, and baking them a quite nourishing food could be obtained; it is the root of the creeping wheat-grass that gives bread the most agreeable taste. These observations were published in the Histoire de la Société des sciences de Montpellier.

Magnol helped to promote interest in botany, which he thought was excessively neglected by educated people, and attracted attention to the possibility of employing natural classifications. Moreover, he was undoubtedly the first to use the term “family” in the sense of a natural group. The family Magnoliaceae is represented by the genus Magnolia, which was dedicated to him by Plumier.


I. Original Works. Magnol’s works are Botanicum Monspeliense (Lyons, 1676); Prodromus historiae generalis plantarum in quo familiae plantarum per tabulas disponuntur (Montpellier, 1689); Hortus regius Monspeliensis (Montpellier, 1697); and the posthumously published Novus caracter plantarum, in duos tractatus divisus (Montpellier, 1720). He also contributed various memoirs to the Histoire de la Société royale des sciences de Montpellier.

II. Secondary Literature. The principal source is the biography by Magnol’s son Antoine, in J. E. Planchon, ed., La botanique à Montpellier. Notes et documents… (Montpellier, 1884). See also L. Dulieu, “Les Magnol,” in Revue dhistoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 12 (1959), 209–224; and Robert Zander, “Pierre Magnol,” in Das Gartnamt (Nov. 1959), 245–246, with portrait.

Paul Jovet

J. C. Mallet