Senebier, Jean

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(b. Geneva, Switzerland, 6 May 1742; d. Geneva, 22 July 1809)


Although Senebier, the son of Jean-Antoine Senebier, a merchant, and Marie Tessier, was interested in natural history, his family intended him to be a minister. After having presented a distinguished thesis on polygamy, he was ordained pastor of the Protestant church of Geneva in 1765. He then spent a year in Paris, where he became acquainted with more people in the scientific and theatrical worlds than in the church. In 1770 he published Contes moraux and became friends with Abraham Trembley, who influenced the young Protestant minister profoundly.

Charles Bonnet encouraged Senebier to work in the natural sciences and enabled him to perform his first experiments in plant physiology. Following Bonnet’s advice, in 1768 Senebier answered a question on the art of observing posed by the Netherlands Society of Sciences at Haarlem. It received an honorable mention and was published in 1772. He became pastor of Chancy, near Geneva, in 1769 but four years later resigned his post to become librarian for the Republic of Geneva. In 1777 Senebier published the first volume of Spallanzani’s Opuscules de physique animale et végétale, thereby introducing French readers to his work. He later translated most of the works of Spallanzani, with whom he maintained close contact. In 1779 Senebier began to publish his Action de la lumière sur la végétation, the study of photosynthesis that established his reputation as a physiologist. The first edition of this voluminous Traité de physiologie végétale appeared in 1800.

Senebier became the center of a group of young life scientists, and he taught them all: Pierre Huber (1777–1840): A.-P. de Candolle; Jean-Antoine Colladon (1758–1830), the pharmacist whom many consider to be one of Mendel’s precursors; and N. T. de Saussure, who started photochemistry. He was particularly close to françois Huber (1750–1831), with whom he conducted experiments on bees and published Influence de I’ air ... dans la germination (1801).

Two of Senebier’s publications can still repay attention today: his research on photosynthesis and his works on the experimental method, which he defined with precision fifty years before Claude Bernard.

In several works, but especially in Expériences sur I’action de la lumière solaire dans la végétation (1788), Senebier paid particular attention to the gas exchanges of green plants exposed to light. He was the first to observe that in sunlight such plants absorb carbonic acid gas and emit oxygen while manufacturing a substance with a carbon base.

As an extension of his communication on the “art of observing” of 1769, Senebier published the two-volume Art d’observer in 1775. The three-volume Essai sur I’art d’observer et de faire des expeériences (1802) sums up the fundamental theses of the experimental method. This work is impressive for the closeness of Senebier’s thought to that of Claude Bernard and for the degree to which the ideas expressed in Bernard’s Introduction á I’étude de la médecine expérimentale were formulated in teh work of senebier.


I. Original Works. Senebier’s works include Art d’observer (Geneva, 1775); Expériences sur I’ action de la lumiére solaire dans la végétation (Geneva, 1788); Physiologie végétale, , 5 vols. (Geneva, 1800); and Essai sur l’art d’observer et de faire des exp´riences (Geneva, 1802).

II. Secondary Literature. See J. Briquet, “Bibliographie des botanistes à genève,” in Bulletin de la Société botanique suisse, 50 (1940), 433; J. P. Maunoir, Eloge historique de M. Jean Senebier (Geneva, 1810); P. E. Pilet, “Jean Senebier, un des précurseurs de Claude Bernard,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des science, 15 (1962), 303–313; P. Revilliod, Physiciens et naturalistes genevois (Geneva, 1942), 48.

P. E. Pilet