Ramond De Carbonnières, Louis Fran
RAMOND DE CARBONNIèRES, LOUIS FRANçOIS ÉLISABETH
(b. Strasbourg, France, 4 January 1755: d. Paris, France, 14 May 1827)
Ramond, the son of a state official in Alsace, took courses in law and medicine at the University of Strasbourg. In 1777 he visited Switzerland, where he met Voltaire, Haller, and Johann Lavater. He also traveled across the Alps in order to study their natural history. In 1776 the Englishman William Coxe had made similar journeys, and his observations were later published as Sketches of the Natural, Civil and Political State of Swisserland in a Series of Letters to William Melmoth (London, 1779). Ramond translated this work into French, adding notes based on his own observations in Switzerland, in particular giving details about the glaciers.
The success of this book, which was published in 1781, attracted the attention of Cardinal Louis de Rohan, and he engaged Ramond as his confidential secretary. In this capacity Ramond acted as gobetween in Rohan’s dealings with the notorious charlatan Cagliostro.
In 1787 he accompanied Rohan to Barèges, a small spa in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The mineralogical and botanical observations he made in the neighboring mountains were published in 1789 as Observations faites dans les Pyrénées, a work which aroused great interest. Ramond described glaciers in the Pyrenees which were quite unknown to the scientific world. He also gave an account of the fauna and flora, and described the changes that took place in the vegetation with increasing altitude.
During the early years of the Revolution Ramond was in Paris and in 1791 was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a deputy, In debates he supported Lafayette and after the events of 10 August 1792 found it necessary to leave the city immediately. He returned to Barèges, but in 1794 was impriscnetl in Tarbes (Hautes-Pyrénées) for ten months because of his political views. After his release he was appointed professor of natural history at Tarbes.
In the summer of 1797 Ramond attempted to reach the summit of Mont-Perdu (now Monte Perdido, in Spain) in the central Pyrenees, which he erroneously believed to be the highest peak of the range. He was accompanied by Philippe Pico de la Peyrouse, botanist and inspector of mines, from Toulouse, and several students. The summit was not reached, but the party made the unexpected discovery of abundant fossil remains of marine shells in the limestone strata at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Ramond and Picot de la Peyrouse, each anxious to claim credit for this discovery, sent separate accounts to the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts (the former Académie des Sciences) in Paris and these were published in the Journal de Mines, 8 (1798), 35–66.
Ramond continued his researches, botanical as well as geological, in the Pyrenees. In 1800 he returned to Paris and was elected to the Corps Législatif. He published a new account of his several journeys in the Pyrenees in Voyages au Mont-Perdu et dans la partie adjacente des Hautes-Pyrénées (Paris, 1801). He continued to visit the district and on 10 August 1802 at last succeeded in reaching the summit of Monte Perdido, an altitude of 10,997 feet.
Ramond was elected a member of the Institut National in 1802, and in 1806 Napoleon appointed him prefect of Puy-de-Dôme. In Auvergne he continued to pursue his botanical and geological researches, and barometric measurements also engaged his attention. During the invasion of France in 1814 his house in Paris was ransacked by Cossacks, and manuscripts that he was preparing for publication were destroyed.
Ramond’s researches in the Pyrenees have received little notice in the histories of geology and botany, but his discovery of abundant fossils in calcareous sediments at a great altitude was undoubtedly a momentous one. At that time it was widely thought that the highest mountains were composed of granite, “the oldest work of the seal” and other “primitive” rocks; against them lay steeply inclined non-fossiliferous bedded rocks, chemically deposited or derived by erosion from the primitive mountains. Fossiliferous sediments, horizontally bedded or gently inclined, were believed to be confined to a lower level. These ideas, first clearly stated by Pallas, had been accepted and taught by Werner in Freiberg. Thus, Ramond’s discovery was a revolutionary one, which required new explanations of geological structures. In his Voyages (1801) he also described granites, some of which he thought were less ancient than others, although he did not accept an igneous origin for them.
His name is commemorated by the genus Ramonda, beautiful little rock plants named after him.
I. Original Works. Ramond’s first scientific work was Lettres de M. William Coxe à M. W. Melmoth sur l’état politique civil et naturel de la Suisse et augmentées des Observations faites dans le même pays par le traducteur (Paris, 1781); two more eds. (1782 and 1787) were almost unchanged. The Observations were reprinted and issued separately, H. Beraldi, ed. (Toulouse, 1929). An English translation was added to W. Coxe’s Travels in Switzerland (London, 1802). Observations faites dans les Pyrénées pour servir de suite des observations sur les Alpes … (Paris, 1789) was translated into German (Strasbourg, 1789). An English trans. by F. Gold, Travels in the Pyrenees (London, 1813), omits the more interesting geological material found in the second part. Voyages au Mont-Perdu (Paris, 1801) was followed by Voyage au sommet du Mont-Perdu (Paris, 1803); the latter appeared in English in John Pinkerton’s General Collection of Voyages and Travels, IV (London, 1809), and in an abbreviated form in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, 6 (1803), 250–252. It was reprinted (Pau, 1914) and also reproduced in facs. by the Société Ramond (Bagnères-de-Bigorre, 1925). Some correspondence between Ramond and Picot de la Peyrouse was edited by C. Roumeguére and published in Bulletin de la Société agricole, scientifique et littéraire des Pyrénées-Orientales, 20 (1873). The Musée Pyrénéen du Chateau-fort in Lourdes has many of Ramond’s personal possessions, his medals, certificates, scientific instruments and maps, as well as a suite of rocks he brought back from Monte Perdido in 1802.
II. Secondary Literature. An éloge by Cuvier is in Mémoires de l’ Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France, 9 (1830), clxix-cxcv; there is a longer notice in Michaud’s Biographic universclle, XXXV (Paris, 1843), 150–154. The most recent account of Ramond is C. M. Girdlestone, Poésie politique, Pyrénées: Louis-François Ramond 1755–1827 sa vie, son oeuvre littéraire et politique (Paris, 1968).
Joan M. Eyles