Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle, botanist and magistrate of France, was born in Paris on June 15, 1746; his family held considerable wealth derived from commerce, and belonged to the upper stratum of court society. When he was twenty-six years old, family influence obtained for him the post of superintendent of the waters and forests in the Paris region-a relatively high administrative appointment. Far from treating it as a sinecure, he began a serious study of the native French trees and shrubs and also commenced to learn about exotic plants. As a botanist, he was self-educated with no formal training, but he had a broad range of acquaintances among the botanists who frequented the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Among these, the most important was probably the botanist, Pierre M. A. Broussonet (1761-1807), who had studied with Joseph Banks, and had enthusiastically accepted the Linnaean system. L’Héritier also became a follower of Linnaeus, and this was at a time when many French botanists did not care for the sexual system of Linnaean taxonomy, but preferred the natural system as expounded by such men as Michel Adanson (1727-1806) and Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836). This predilection of L’Héritier’s may be explained by the fact that he was much more interested in classification and identification of plants than in the natural relations among them.
In 1775, L’Héritier was given a new government post. He was appointed a counselor, or judge, in the Cour des Aides in Paris. This was one of the oldest law courts in France, and had become the supreme fiscal court. In the course of his duties there, L’Héritier became a close friend of the great reform administrator, C. G. de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721-1794). The latter as president of the court, and later, as secretary of state for the royal household, sought to implement reforms in the government, which would save it from its own corruption, extravagances, and follies. As the Revolution of 1789 demonstrated, he was an unsuccessful reformer, but he was part of a group of officials, writers, scientists, and private citizens who worked for a future different from that which a continuation of the Old Regime would bring. For L’Héritier, the influence of Malesherbes meant that his next years would be devoted both to the science of botany (Malesherbes was a gifted amateur botanist) and to public service directed toward the creation of a new France.
L’Héritier’s first botanical publication was also his most important, but it was never finished. As one biographer put it, " ...it was doomed to get stuck in the French revolution." Stirpes novae aut minus cognitae was intended to be a work of two volumes with at least 120 plates, but only six fascicles were published-in the years 1785-1791-with eighty-four plates and accompanying descriptive texts. Many of the plants described were new plants from living specimens. The author himself was too busy with official duties to engage in active plant collecting, but he employed a team of young men to do the work for him. He also paid the full costs of his publications from his own resources. Possibly the most notable feature of the Stirpes novae are the illustrations of Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), the highly renowned artist who was actually "discovered" by L’Héritier around 1784. The two became close friends and Redouté was employed to produce the plates. The author instructed him in the techniques of dissection and the details of plant anatomy and permitted the artist to use his extensive collection of illustrated botanical works. Stirpes novae was Redouté’s first botanical publication, and the artist credited his mentor with leading him to a new career in which he could develop his talents.
While engaged with the publication described above, L’Héritier became involved in the notorious "Dombey affair," which engaged scientists and governments of France, Spain, and England for more than two years. Joseph Dombey (1742-1794) was a French botanist and explorer who spent several years (1778-1784) in Spanish America on a plant collecting expedition that was jointly supported by France and Spain. The understanding was that the Dombey collections were to be divided between the scientific establishments of the two countries, but all manner of bureaucratic difficulties arose and the living specimens perished in Spanish customs houses. Eventually, in 1785, Dombey arrived in France, in ill health and nearly penniless, but with a large collection of dried plants, mostly from Chile and Peru. Before leaving Spain, Dombey had signed a pledge not to publish information about his collections until his Spanish companions had returned from the New World, but, in France, the scientific community was willing to ignore this restriction and the dried plants were turned over to L’Héritier who had offered
to publish everything botanical of Dombey’s at his own expense. In addition, the French government agreed to pay Dombey’s debts and gave him a government pension.
The Spanish government naturally saw these moves as a serious violation of contracts and made strenuous objections, including an article in Gazeta de Madrid (July 11, 1786) that listed all of their grievances. As a result of Spanish protests, the French government intervened, and ordered that L’Héritier return all of the Dombey materials to the royal museum. When that gentleman learned of this development, he, together with Redouté and Broussonet, packed up all of the Dombey plants and departed for England where he would remain for nearly fifteen months. His stay there was not without further controversy, for his conduct irritated Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and other English botanists. In the end, very little use was made of the Dombey collection; in London, L’Héritier busied himself with studying the Banks herbarium and exploring Kew and other English gardens. His descriptions of English plants were published in Sertum anglicum (1789), with drawings by Redouté and James Sowerby.
After his return to France in December of 1787, L’Héritier continued to work at the Jardin du Roi and to continue publication of Stirpes novae, but in the next years, he was caught up in the momentous events of the French Revolution. He, like many of the enlightened men of his era, supported the early revolutionary reforms, and he took an active role as commander of a battalion of the National Guard and as a judge on one of the revolutionary tribunals. However, as the Revolution moved into its more violent phases, he became disenchanted. During the Reign of Terror, he lost his positions and much of his personal fortune and, in 1794, his wife of nineteen years died, leaving him with the task of educating their five children. When the Terror ended in 1794, L’Héritier was restored to a modest government post and also became a member of the Commission d’Agriculture et des Arts; in this capacity, he authored three memoirs on agricultural subjects.
In his last years, L’Héritier took an active role in the Institut national des Sciences et des Arts, but there is little evidence to show that he worked to complete his major works, none of which-Stirpes novae, Sertum anglicum, and Geraniologia-had ever been finished. His last botanical publication was Mémoire sur un nouveau genre de plants appelé Cadia (1795), published in Magasin encyclopédique
L’Héritier’s end was as dramatic as many other aspects of his life, for he was murdered near his house by an unknown attacker. The crime was never solved, and no clues are to be found in the Paris police archives. After his death, his herbarium of 8000 species was sold to the Swiss botanist, A. - P. de Candolle (1778-1841), and is now at Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques in Geneva.
Sir Joseph Banks, The Banks Letters. A Calendar of the manuscript correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks. ed. By Warren R. Dawson. 1958.
James Britten and B. B. Woodward, "L’Héritier’s Botanical Works". The Journal of Botany. v. 43:266-273; 325-329. 1905.
Günther Buchheim, "A bibliographical account of L’Héritier’s ‘Stirpes novae’." Huntia, v. 2:29-58. 1965.
Georges Cuvier, Recueil des Éloges Historiques, v. 1:109-133. 1819.
Théodore J. E. Hamy, Joseph Dombey, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa correspondance. 1905.
Frans A. Stafleu, "L’Héritier de Brutelle: the man and his work", Sertum Anglicum, facs. ed. xiii-xliii. 1963.
Arthur Robert Steele, Flowers for the King. 1964.
Robert F. Erickson