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René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur

1683-1757

French Naturalist, Physiologist and Physicist

French contemporaries referred to René de Réaumur as the "Pliny of the Eighteenth Century," and later authorities compared him to the English natural philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). His obscurity today may be due to the fact that he considered everything scientific as having practical applications.

This French scientist was born at La Rochelle, France. His father died before René was two, and though little is known of his early education, it is thought that he received his early training from Oratorians or Jesuit priests at La Rochelle and Poitiers. An uncle then directed him to study law at Bourges, and he was later enrolled at the University of Paris. He early demonstrated an unusual aptitude for mathematics. In 1708, through the good offices of the mathematician Pierre Varignon, Réaumur was elected a "student geometer" to the French Academy of Sciences at the unusually early age of 25. By 1709, however, he had turned his attention to technology, natural history, and other subjects. In 1711 he was elected pensionnaire mécanicien of the academy. In 1713 he was selected to write a French industrial compendium, and he spent 10 years researching and writing memoirs concerning the fabrication of iron, steel, tin, and porcelain. His research led to the publication, among other works, of L' art d'convertir le fer forgé en acier (1722).

In 1731 Réaumur developed a new thermometer, attempting to resolve certain of the shortcomings of the ones previously invented by Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) and others. Unfortunately, many Réaumur thermometers were not correctly made according to his specifications, obliging modern scientists to use eighteenth-century temperature figures arrived at with his thermometers with care.

In the field of natural history he began with studies of the scales of fish and the manner of growth in the shells of bivalves. He also devoted considerable attention to the subject of regeneration in worms and crustaceans, and methods of locomotion in marine organisms, including starfish and mollusks. Between 1734 and 1742 he published six sections of his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire des insectes, but this important work, particularly the section concerning ants, was still not completed when he died. A portion of what he had written about ants was finally published in an edition compiled by the American entomologist William Morton Wheeler (1865-1937) in 1926. His study of insects led him to develop a new system of classification based on an animal's behavior, rather than on morphological characteristics, as has been the practice since his day. It was he who discovered the role of the queen in bee colonies, and he did some of the earliest research into the ways in which bees communicate.

Réaumur was also interested in the artificial incubation of domestic birds' eggs, and he further carried out much research dealing with the digestive processes of birds, particularly domestic fowl and birds of prey. These efforts resulted in several published studies, culminating in Sur la digestion des oiseaux, which was printed in two parts the year before his death in 1757. Over a period of nearly half a century, Réaumur was elected a director of the French Academy on a dozen occasions and subdirector nine times, and he contributed 74 papers to its Mémoires (proceedings). He was also elected to at least five other European academies of science. He purchased several honorary posts in the Royal Military Order of St. Louis, which brought with them social standing that was the equivalent of a count. In 1755 he inherited the castle of La Bermondière and noble rank in the French province of Maine. His death at age 74 was the result of a fall from his horse.

KEIR B. STERLING

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