Jules Paul Benjamin Delessert, industrialist, banker, philanthropist, and amateur botanist, was born at Lyon, France on February 14, 1773, the son of Étienne Delessert, a successful banker, and his wife, Madeline Boy de la Tour. The family was originally French protestant, but had lived in Switzerland, and had strong ties to the city of Geneva. Benjamin was one of seven children, and their early education was directed by their mother. His initial interest in botany was undoubtedly stimulated by J. -J. Rousseau’s Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique written to Mme. Delessert for her daughter, Marguerite-Madeleine. In addition, Rousseau personally assembled a small herbarium of plants he had collected, and sent it to the family for the instruction of the Delessert children.
In 1784, Benjamin was sent, with his older brother, Étienne, to study at the University of Edinburgh; they were also accompanied by a tutor, M. Guyot, from Switzerland. In the late eighteenth century, Edinburgh was one of the foremost European centers of learning, and the Delesserts became acquainted with a number of important men—the economist Adam Smith; geologist James Hutton; philosopher Dugald Stewart. On a trip to Birmingham, Benjamin met James Watt, whose steam engines were by this time radically changing the course of English industrialization. Later, at Windsor, Delessert resided for a time with the geologist and meteorologist, Jean André Deluc. All of these relationships profoundly affected Delessert’s life, which was to be devoted to both science and technology allied with strong philanthropic concerns.
Benjamin and Étienne returned to France in 1789 when the Revolution was just beginning, and the younger brother enrolled in the National Guard. Following that service, he volunteered for the artillery school, became an officer, and served in various campaigns of the revolutionary wars. After the death of his father, in 1795, he left the army to become director of the family’s business affairs in Paris.
Delessert’s career as a businessman, government official, and philanthropist spanned fifty-two years. During the Napoleonic period, he worked to improve French commerce, which was seriously handicapped by the British blockade. He established a model mechanized cotton factory and a refinery for the manufacture of sugar from the sugar beet. For these and other services to the Empire, Napoleon gave him the title of Baron of the Empire, and awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
In civic life, Delessert was mayor of one of the Paris districts, a regent of the Bank of France, a judge of the commercial court, and a member of the municipal council on hospices. Later, during and after the Bourbon Restoration, he served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies.
Delessert’s business and financial success enabled him, during his lifetime, to pursue two courses of action not often taken by a man of public and commercial affairs. The first was in philanthropy. Along with other prominent individuals of the early nineteenth century, he saw that the new industrial society had serious social problems for which few remedies were in existence. His first response was to organize soup kitchens for the poor of Paris. Out of this developed the Société philantropique, which promoted nursing services, maternity homes, dispensaries, and other social institutions. He also helped to establish houses for childcare and savings banks. Toward the end of his life, Delessert wrote a treatise on charitable foundations, in which he urged the rich to set up such organizations during their lifetimes, instead of at their deaths.
The other activity was in the cause of science. In the early 1800’s, with the help of the botanist, A. P. de Candolle, he began to build up his natural history collections. With the acquisition of herbaria such as that of Luis-Guillaume Lemonnier (1803), E. P. Ventenat (1809), N. L. Burman (1810), and A. M.
Palisot de Beauvais (1820), Delessert was able to create a research facility of major dimensions. At the time of his death, his herbarium in Paris included about 300,00 specimens, with the related literature kept in a very large library. The location of both herbarium and library was at his town house in the rue Montmartre, and it also included his great art collection of Dutch, Flemish, and
French masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scientists, artists, men of letters, and other public figures always received a cordial welcome in this setting.
Delessert was also the sponsor of a number of scientific publications, some of which were written by the curators to his collections. These included Musée botanique de M. Benjamin Delessert (1845) by Antoine Lasègue; Nouveaux elements de botanique (1819) by Achille Richard; Archives de botanique (1833) by Antoine Guillemin. Delessert did not write any scientific works; his name appears on the title page of Icones selectae plantarum, five volumes, 1820-1845, but not as the author, who was A. P. de Candolle.
In his lifetime, Benjamin Delessert was recognized as a great patron of the sciences. He was one of the first members at-large of the Academy of Sciences, and was a Foreign Member of the Linnaean Society of London and of other scientific societies in Europe. He not only financed scientific publications, he also paid the expenses of botanists on collecting expeditions and actually loaned out parts of his collections to botanists working in other countries. When he died, his collections were left to the management of his brothers; eventually they were given to the city of Geneva, and his library was presented to the Institut de France. Along with many other charitable dispensations, he left the sum of 150,000 francs to his savings banks for grants to working men.
John Briquet, Biographies des Botanistes a Genève. Berichte der Schweizerischen Botanischen Gesellschaft. v. 50a: 296-299. 1940.
Pierre Flourens, Éloge Historique de Benjamin Delessert. 1850.
Frans A. Stafleu, “Benjamin Delessert and Antoine Lasègue”. Taxon. v. 19:920-
Robert F. Erickson