Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, botanist and pioneer agronomist, was born at Geneva, Switzerland on February 4, 1778, the son of Augustin de Candolle, a public official, and his wife, Louise Eléonore Brière. The family was originally from Provence, but had lived in Geneva for two centuries and had become a leading family in that Protestant community. In his early education, Augustin Pyramus favored belles-lettres and poetry, but during his family’s residence in the country in the early 1790’s, he became interested in the world of plants. During the same period, he had attended some lectures on botany by Jean P. E. Vaucher, a Geneva clergyman and author of Histoire physiologique des plantes de l”Europe.
In 1794, at his father’s request, Candolle began medical studies in Geneva, but he continued to make botanical excursions into the Swiss countryside. In 1796, the geologist, Déodat de Dolomieu, invited him to come to Paris to study both medicine and natural history. He attended the lectures of many of the famous scientists of the day, and was closely acquainted with Cuvier, Lamarck, Desfontaines, and Delessert. Candolle returned to Geneva in 1797, but was back in Paris a year later and remained there until 1808. In that year, he was appointed professor of botany at the École de Médecine at Montpellier and was a member of the faculty of sciences there until 1816.
The years Candolle spent in Paris were remarkably productive, and by the time he was in his early twenties, he was recognized as an important member of the botanical circle. His first major publication was Plantarum historia succulentarum (1799-1802), issued in twenty sections with eight more added in 1803. This was followed by Astragalogia (1802) and Essai sur les propriétés médicales des plantes (1804), which was his inaugural thesis for the Doctor of Medicine degree in the Faculty of Paris. He had also been engaged, since 1802, in writing the text for Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Liliacées, and in 1805, he worked with Lamarck on the third edition of Flore française, Synopsis plantarum in Florâ gallicâ descriptarum., co-authored by Lamarck and Candolle, was published in 1806.
Candolle had been an honorary professor of the Geneva Academy since 1800, and in 1816, that institution created a Chair of Natural History for him; so he returned to his native city for the rest of his life. His activities there were extraordinary, for he was not only a teacher and writer in science, he was
associated with a variety of endeavors of a public nature. He was responsible for reorganizing the Geneva botanical gardens, helped to create a museum of natural history, and founded the Conservatoire Botanique. He also worked to develop the public library and was a member of the Societé des Arts, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Société de Physique et d’Histoire naturelle de Genève, and La Société Helvétique des Sciences naturelles. From 1816 to 1841, he was a member of the representative body of his canton and he served as rector of the Geneva Academy from 1831-1832.
The writings of Candolle during both the Montpellier and Geneva periods cover a broad range of topics relating to the world of plants. They are not only in taxonomy and plant biology, but include phytochemistry, plant pathology, medical botany, agronomy, and phytogeography. Among the most notable of his works were Prodromus systematis naturalis regni vegetabilis., a seventeen volume collaborative treatise, edited by Candolle from 1824 to 1841, and completed in 1873. He was a pioneer in both agronomy and phytogeography, and wrote a number of groundbreaking memoirs in these fields; e.g., Premier rapport sur les pommes de terre. (1822); Considérations sur les forêts de la France. (1830); Essai élémentaire de géographie botanique. (1810); Projet d’une flore physico-géographique de la vallée de Léman. (1821). Candolle was also a biographer of note, and wrote many articles for the Bibliothèque Universelle., including the notices for Cuvier, Lamarck, and Linnaeus.
In 1835, due to failing health, Candolle resigned from the Geneva Academy, and his son, Alphonse, assumed the Chair of Botany. In spite of his illness, Candolle retained his interests in science and a year before his death, he went to Italy to participate in a scientific congress. As he had been in Geneva, he was greeted in Turin with applause and admiration as one of the major scientific figures of the nineteenth century.
Bishop of Norwich, “Augustin-Pyramus DeCandolle”. Proceedings of the Linnean
Society of London.. v. I:142-145. 1842.
John Briquet, Biographies des Botanistes a Genève. Berichte der Schweizerischen Botanischen Gesellschaft.. v. 50a:114-130. 1940.
George B. Emerson, “A Notice of Prof. Augustin Pyramus DeCandolle”. The American Journal of Science and Arts.. v. 42:217-227. 1842.
Asa Gray, “Augustin –Pyramus De Candolle”. The Journal of Botany.. v. I:107-120. 1863.
P. E. Pilet, “Augustin-Pyramus De Candolle”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography.. v. III: 43-45. 1971.
Robert F. Erickson