Parmentier, Antoine-Augustin

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(b. Montdidier, France, 12 or 17 August 1737; d. Paris, France, 17 December 1813)

chemistry, nutrition, agriculture, public health, pharmacy.

Born into a bourgeois family of modest means, Parmentier was apprenticed at an early age to an apothecary in Montdidier. In 1755 he left for Paris to continue his apprenticeship; but two years later, during the Seven Years War, he joined the French army in Germany as apothicaire sous-aide. Wounded in action and captured five times by the Prussians, he nevertheless returned safely to Paris in 1763. To support himself he worked in an apothecary shop and in his spare time attended lectures given by Nollet, Bernard de Jussieu, and G.-F. Rouelle. In 1766 he competed successfully for the post of apothicaire gagnat-maitrise at the Hotel Royal des Invalides and in 1772 was commissioned apothicaire-major of that institution. Two years later the Sisters of Charity, the nursing order in charge of the pharmacy service at the Invalides since 1676, caused Parmentier’s commission to be revoked. Despite this temporary setback, he carved out a brilliant career in military pharmacy, eventually achieving the rank of inspector general in the army health service.

Parmentier’s earliest investigation, dating from about 1771, concerned the chemical and nutritive constituents of the potato. This research was soon broadened to include a large number of indigenous plants which he recommended as food in times of scarcity and famine, ascribing their nutritive value to their starch content. These early efforts resulted in a published memoir (1773), which was awarded a prize by the Besançon Academy of Science, Bells-Lettres, and Arts and later formed the basis of a greatly expanded work, Recherches sur les végétaux nourissants qui, dans les temps de disette, peuvent remplacer les alimens ordinaires (1781).

Of all these plants it was the potato that most interested Parmentier, and it is unfortunate that his long and successful campaign to popularize the cultivation and use of the potato in France as a cheap and abundant source of food has tended to obscure his other accomplishments in food chemistry and nutrition. Typical and worthy of note are his chemical analyses of wheat and flour (1776), chestnuts (1780), milk (1790 and 1799, in collaboration with Nicolas Deyeux), and chocolate (1786 and 1803). Parmentier devoted considerable time to formulating cheap and nutritious soups for the poor and to the technology of bread-making. In 1780 he was instrumental in founding, with his colleague Cadet de Vaux, the first government-sponsored school of baking in France. During France’s economic warfare with England (1806–1812), Parmentier achieved some success in fostering the production of grape syrup as a substitute for cane sugar, which had become scarce and expensive.

A member of the prestigious Royal Society of Agriculture in Paris and an agronome of repute, Parmentier conducted far-ranging investigations that included preservation of grain and flour; improvements in milling; cultivation of corn; and preservation of vinegar, wine, and meat, as well as methods for detecting their adulteration. He contributed articles to the twelve-volume Cours complet d’agriculture, launched by Abbé François Rozier in 1781; he collaborated in the writing of the twenty-four-volume Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle (paris, 1803-1804); and he was the author of Économie rurale et domestique, of which six volumes of the projected eight appeared (Paris, 1788–1793).

Parmentier also evinced a strong interest in public health, reflected in his publications on the quality of water from the Seine (1775 and 1787), chemical studies with Deyeux of pathological changes in the blood (1791 and 1794), and his collaboration with Laborie and Cadet de Vaux on cesspools (1778) and with them and Hecquet on exhumations (1783). Parmentier was active in the movement to provide free smallpox vaccinations to the poor, and in 1802 he was appointed to the newly created Council of Health for the Department of the Seine.

Frankly utilitarian in his scientific orientation, Parmentier in his life and work personified the best sentiments and aspirations of the Enlightenment. In addition to his close association with Cadet de Vaux and Deyeux, Parmentier numbered among his collaborators Bertrand Pelletier, Chaptal, Huzard, Rozier, Thouin and d’Ussieux. A member of many learned societies, he was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1795 and in 1801 was one of the founding members of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale.


I. Original Works. An annotated bibliography of Parmentier’s publications is given in A. Balland, La chimie alimentaire dans l’oeuvre de Parmentier (Paris, 1902), 377–426. See also J.-M. Quérard, La France littéraire ou dictionnaire bibliographique (Paris, 1827–1839), VI, 603–606; and the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1863), IV, 762–763.

II. Secondary Literature. For older material covering the period 1781–1897, see Balland (above), pp. 427–434, which lists 34 references. Recent sources include Arthur Birembaut, “L’école gratuite de bounlangerie,” in René Taton, ed., Enseignement et diffusion des sciences en France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1964), 493–509; A. J. Bourde, Agronomie et agronomes en France au XVIIIe siècle, 3 vols. (Paris, 1967), II, 637–643, 913; and III, 1291, 1331, 15531534; Maurice Bouvet, “Hommage à Parmentier,” in Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie,12, , no. 151 (Dec. 1956), 478–480; Maurice Javillier, “Antoine Parmentier,” in Figures pharmaceutiques françaises (Paris, 1953), 29–34; and R. Massy, “À l’apothicairerie de l’Hôtel royal des Invalides: Le conflit de 1772 entre l’administration de l’hôtel et les Filles de la Charité,” in Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie,11, no. 142 (Sept. 1954), 315–324.

Alex Berman