René Louiche Desfontaines, botanist and longtime Director of the
Jardin des Plantes in Paris, was born on February 14, 1750 in the village
of Fossés near Tremblay in Brittany. His father was René-Jean Louiche,
sieur des Fontaines, a prosperous peasant married to Yvonne Boulmerson, of the
same social background. The father was also a master artisan in the cottage
textile industry, but even though he was quite well-off, the family was not
regarded as part of the bougeoisie. Nevertheless, the son was sent, at age
seven, to a local private school and then to the Collège de Rennes,
established in 1563 mainly for the education of the future clergy, but which
also enrolled young men who were destined for medical or legal practice. At the
college, Desfontaines was an outstanding student and the recipient of numerous
prizes for scholarship, so it was determined that he would go to Paris to study
medicine. He arrived in that city in 1773; he was then twenty three years old.
Desfontaines was first attracted to the study of botany owing to the fact that
the medical curriculum at Paris included a course of lectures at the Jardin du
Roi. At that time, the principal lecturer in botany at the garden was Louis
Guillaume Lemonnier, who had been a student of Bernard de Jussieu and was a close
acquaintance of de Jussieu’s nephew, Antoine-Laurent. Desfontaines soon became an
esteemed member of what was probably France’s most distinguished group of botanists.
Lemonnier himself was the mentor, not only of Desfontaines, but of important young
naturalists like Philibert Commerson, J.-J. Labillardière, and F.-A. Michaux.
In 1782, Desfontaines finished his medical studies and, a year later, he was
elected to the Academy of Sciences even though he had not published any of the
writings which he offered in support of his candidacy. These included memoirs on
Tithonia and Ailanthus and a mongraph on the Irritabilité des
plantes, but his election probably came about because of the influence of de
Jussieu and Lemonnier. The latter had already shown his confidence in Desfontaine’s
zeal and abilities by selecting him to go on a botanical expedition to Africa, and
his election to the Academy and departure for the Barbary Coast were practically
Desfontaines spent two years in Algeria and Tunisia, and explored the region from
the seacoast to, and including the Atlas Mountains. He returned with a huge collection
of plants which became part of the herbarium of the Natural History Museum and was
described in his great work, Flora Atlantica , 2 vols. (1798-1799). In it are
descriptions of 1,520 species and of more than three hundred genera previously unknown
to botanical science. Many of the illustrations in Flora Atlantica were drawn
by the renowned painter, Pierre-Joseph Redouté.
In 1786, Desfontaines was appointed professor of botany at the Jardin du Roi,
replacing his old friend and mentor, Lemonnier. From that time on, Desfontaines devoted
his life to the organization and development of the garden which, in 1793, was
established as the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle. As professor of botany,
he gave a regular course of lectures which were open to the public, and attracted as
many as five or six hundred listeners and he also worked on the enormous task of
organizing the garden’s collections. He was responsible for the formation of the
National Herbarium of the Museum and his efforts and work with botanists such as A.-L.
de Jussieu and André Thouin greatly expanded its holdings. The catalog of the
herbarium appeared as Tableau de l’Ecole de Botanique du Muséum in 1804,
and was reprinted in 1815 with a supplement and in 1829 as Catalogus plantarum
horti Regii Parisiensis. In addition to his many articles in scientific journals,
Desfontaines also wrote Choix des Plantes du Corollaire des Instituts de Tournefort
(1808) and Histoire des Arbres et Arbrisseaux qui peuvent être cultivés
en pleine terre sur le sol de la France (1809).
In his lifetime, Desfontaines was acknowledged to be one of France’s most important
men of science. In addition to his directorship of the Museum of Natural History, he
was one of the founders of the Institut de France, president of the Academy of
Sciences, and was elected to the Legion of Honor. Toward the end of his life, he became
blind, but he continued to study the plants of the garden by touch as he was escorted
through the various greenhouses. A.-P. de Candolle described him as, "one of the
most distinguished scientists of our era".
- Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, "Notice historique sur la vie et les
travaux de M. Desfontaines". Annales des Sciences Naturelles. Ser. 2.
v. 1:129-150. 1834.
- Auguste Chevalier, La vie et l’oeuvre de René Desfontaines. 1939.
- Adrien Davy de Virville, Histoire de la Botanique de France. 1954.
Robert F. Erickson