(b. Nîmes, France, ca. 1530; d. Paris, France, 10 May 1604)
Any dictionary of scientific biography would be incomplete without an entry for Jean Nicot. His name designates in French “the nicotian plant, admirably suited to curing all wounds, sores, cankers, scurfs, and other such misfortunes of the human body” (Thresor, p. 429); it is preserved in the Linnaean designation Nicotiana tabacum, which to a certain extent renders Nicot a botanist.
The son of a court clerk, he studied letters at Nimes, his native city, then at Paris, where he became a friend of the poet Ronsard. He was admitted to the king’s household and took charge of charters. As councillor to the king he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Portugal, from which in 1560 he sent to Queen Mother Marie de’ Medici seeds and leaves of “petun” (the Indian name for tobacco), pointing out the therapeutic value of the plant. Its cultivation later spread from France.
After two years of diplomatic service, Nicot began to dedicate himself to historical and literary study in his vast library at Brie-Cornte Robert, near Paris. In 1568 he published Historiae francorum lib. IV of Aimonius (960–1010); in 1573 he supervised the publication of a new edition of the Dictionnaire francois latin of Robert Estienne, then began his own magnum opus, Thresor de la langue francoyse, published posthumously in 1606. This new French-Latin dictionary was enriched with a commentary in French that facilitated the compilation of subsequent French dictionaries. Although not strictly a scientist, Nicot was concerned in this work with animals and plants—the above citation is the prime example. He also left an unpublished treatise on nautical subjects.
Nicot’s works are Aimonii monachi … Historiae francorum libri IV (Paris, 1568) and Thresor de la langue francoyse tant ancienne que moderne (Paris, 1606).
On Nicot and his work, see Maxime Lanusse, De Joanne Nicotio philologo (Paris, 1893).