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Darwin au Collège de France

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Antoine Compagnon
, 
Céline Surprenant

A Chair for Two: Georges Cuvier and Jean-Claude Delamétherie at the Collège de France

Pietro Corsi

Texte intégral

1The history of science has always experienced a certain degree of difficulty in accepting the “history” part of its name. Even the more sociologically oriented colleagues appear not to be very successful in freeing themselves from the idea that “science” is, and has always been, a well-defined and coherent body of actors and practices. Almost inevitably, successive generations of historians, together with national and international professional associations and journals, have established a variety of (often contradictory) criteria of relevance, lists of issues and actors worth spending time on. With notable exceptions, the study of actual practices of knowledge of the past has rarely attracted sustained attention. Different and at times diverging hierarchies of relevance projected on to the past have provided useful ways to dispense with the difficult task of assessing the multiple layers – social, generational, political, and disciplinary – that at any given time characterize the actions of populations of individuals claiming to pursue and possess knowledge. Thus, assessing differential hierarchies of scientific authority co-existing at any given time can represent a valid antidote against uncritically applying our anachronistic assumptions to the past. At the same time, the painstaking work of disentangling the micro-politics of institutional developments can produce a substantial corrective to hagiographic temptations and the implicit view that scientific prominence is the objective and only criterion for promotion and personal achievement.

  • 1 J. Viénot, Cuvier. Le Napoléon de l’intelligence, Paris, Fischbacher, 1932.

2The election of Georges Cuvier to the Collège de France in January 1800, and the subsequent appointment of Jean-Claude de la Métherie (1743-1817, since 1794 Delamétherie) as his deputy have never been systematically assessed. Indeed, few commentators appear to be aware that the latter had anything to do with the former. For many historians of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century French science, Delamétherie hardly deserves to be studied at all, and never in conjunction with the vastly superior Cuvier – “the Napoleon of intelligence”, as an unashamedly hagiographic biography asserted.1 Whatever the merit of consolidated historiographic opinion, to the historian of scientific communities and institutions the co-habitation of the two naturalists in the same chair raises several interesting questions. This almost unnoticed and seemingly marginal episode in early nineteenth-century French science does in fact offer important insights into the contemporary articulations between political power (or powers) and scientific practices at key institutions. The archival documents relating to the election of Cuvier to the Collège de France chair tell a complex and far from transparent story, in which the boundaries between electors and elected appeared tenuous. Indeed, Cuvier appears to have dictated the terms for his own appointment, though he could not prevent that of Delamétherie.

Delamétherie in the 1790s

  • 2 D. Outram, Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science, and Authority in Post-revolutionary France, Mancheste (...)
  • 3 P. Taquet, Georges Cuvier, Naissance d’un génie, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2004, p. 334.
  • 4 P. Corsi, The Age of Lamarck. Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790-1830, Berkeley, CA, Univ. of Ca (...)
  • 5 Letter to M.A. Pictet, August 20, 1796, in A. Lacroix, Déodat Dolomieu, membre de l'Institut nation (...)

3To use a euphemism, Cuvier and Delamétherie did not like each other. As Dorinda Outram has documented in her ground-breaking biography of the naturalist, Cuvier’s early career was not a triumphant march from Normandy, where from 1788 he was a tutor to the scion of an aristocratic family, Achille d’Hericy, to the highest honours, political and scientific, in the French capital.2 He had started in 1791 writing letters and sending memoirs to senior Parisian colleagues likely to become his patrons, in the hope of finding a position in the capital. Success was slow in coming, and not all doors opened at the first knock. In the thoroughly documented first volume of his biography of Cuvier, Philippe Taquet has shown how the young naturalist felt very much offended by Delamétherie, who in 1791 had not even bothered to answer Cuvier’s proposal to contribute to the Journal de Physique which the older colleague had edited since 1785.3 Delamétherie clearly had other things to do than answer an unknown young man from the provinces: he was then fully engaged in the revolutionary events, fiercely denouncing Condorcet and the Académie des sciences, to him a hotbed of aristocratic reaction and conspiracy. Condorcet should be tried, and the Académie suppressed, he repeatedly thundered4. As Déodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801) recalled in 1796, “Il se reproche ses écrits en faveur de la Révolution. […] Une personne lui a déchiré le cœur en lui disant qu’en 1789, il n’y avait pas 12 habitants de Paris plus exagérés que lui”.5 Colleagues and victims of the Revolution did not forget: Delamétherie had few friends within French institutional science.

4Events overtook the politically naïve mineralogist and natural philosopher. Delamétherie showed none of the capacity for political survival exhibited by many of his scientific enemies, Antoine-François Fourcroy (1755-1809) and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1826) in particular. They had been far more deeply implicated in the revolutionary tragedies than Delamétherie ever was, yet proved capable of adapting to all change of regime. A reforming Freemason supporting a constitutional monarchy, Delamétherie was imprisoned without charge in the spring of 1794 and soon found himself a few steps away from the guillotine. He was released thanks only to his landlord, a tailor active in the same Jacobin section as Delamétherie’s, who vouched for his patriotism and revolutionary commitment. He thus survived the Terror, but barely survived the persistent economic crisis. The Journal de Physique stopped publication from August 1794 to August 1797, though Delamétherie made some money from his bestselling Théorie de la Terre, two editions of which were published in rapid succession in 1795 (3 vols.) and 1797 (5 vols.). A German edition, published in 1797-1798, attested to the European success of the work. This was surely a consolation, but not a sufficient one to secure his future prospects.

5A portrait of the mineralogist penned on 18 February 1795, by the Genevan naturalist Marc-August Pictet (1752-1826) – at a time when Cuvier was finally preparing for his daring move to Paris – is worth quoting in full, since the original letter, excerpts of which briefly appeared on the website of the Parisian manuscript dealer Traces Écrites, is now in unknown private hands:

  • 6 M.A. Pictet to J. Senebier, 18 February 1795. I wish to thank Mr. Emmanuel Lorient, owner of Traces (...)

Vous ferez grand plaisir au pauvre La Métherie de lui envoyer quelque chose; au reste, ce n’est pas par défaut de matières que son journal cloche [Journal de Physique], c’est par défaut de souscripteurs et de papier. Il talonne le gouvernement pour venir à son aide, mais comme il n’est pas de la clique régnante, il n’obtient que des promesses et prend patience au coin de son feu avec sa chatte et une vieille gouvernante. Il s’est formé un joli cabinet de minéralogie et l’étudie tant qu’il peu. Il a été assez longtemps en prison et en a été tiré par le crédit de son maître de maison, tailleur de son métier, et fameux Jacobin.6

  • 7 H.D. de Blainville, “Notice historique sur la vie et les écrits de J. C. Delamétherie”, Journal de (...)

6In his biography of Delamétherie, Henry Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850), who took over the Journal de Physique after 1817, described the naturalist as a good-hearted man, stubborn and vain, proud of the many discoveries he had made, which jealous colleagues refused to acknowledge.7 Delamétherie repeatedly took issue – among others – with René-Just Haüy (1743-1822), the almost universally respected crystallographer, guilty in his eyes of not acknowledging the priority of Jean-Baptiste Louis Romé de L’Isle (1736-1790), and of Delamétherie himself, in establishing the key role of crystals in the determination of mineral species. He had fought and kept fighting a war against Lavoisier, his legacy and his school, unconcerned that many of Lavoisier’s pupils, Fourcroy and Laplace in particular, were occupying leading positions in the Revolutionary State apparatus: they preserved much of their power, indeed they increased it during the many transformations and upheavals through which the political system went from 1789 to the Restoration of the King in 1815. They were not likely to help the aging mineralogist. Thus, Delamétherie claimed in vain his right to be appointed to some of the new research and educational institutions created during the Revolution and in the aftermath of the fall of Robespierre.

  • 8 B.G. Sage (1740-1824) became non-resident member on 5 March 1796 and regained his full chair on 25  (...)

7On 20 November 1795, the Directory then ruling France appointed the first wave of members of the Institut national, who were afterwards in charge of appointing the next two-thirds of members. The Institut was designed to replace the old Académie des sciences dissolved in 1793 by the “vandalisme” of the revolutionary Republic: a measure Delamétherie had publicly approved of. Yet, as if he had forgotten his campaign to abolish the Académie, Delamétherie expected to be asked to play a leading role in the Institut, in view of the success of his Théorie de la Terre. To his dismay, Jean Darcet (1728-1801) and his enemy Haüy were in charge of putting forward names for the section of natural history and mineralogy. Darcet was Director at the porcelain manufacture of Sèvres, had been a leading participant in the so-called revolutionary “mobilisation” of scientists in 1792-1793, and was an ally of the new chemists: hardly a friend. Delamétherie understood that his chances were over. When on 13 December 1795, the final contingent of members was elected, Delamétherie’s name was not in the list. Neither were a number of senior mineralogists, but some managed to get elected the next year or at a later date. Delamétherie never marshalled enough support to even be able to submit his candidature.8

  • 9 Letter to M.A. Pictet, 15 December 1795 in A. Lacroix, Déodat Dolomieu, op. cit., p. 94.

8As Dolomieu reported, “Il est plein d’indignation et de colère contre tout ce qu’il voit, contre tout ce qui se fait, et il n’a personne à qui il puisse le dire”.9 It should be pointed out that a few weeks before the two waves of nominations of November and December, on 5 October 1795, a royalist uprising had been violently repressed by the young General Bonaparte, the starting point of his political ascent. I am not aware of any study linking the selection of the members of the Institut and the implicit strategy implemented by the Directory to keep both royalists and extreme Jacobins at a distance in all State-run institutions: it is however clear that several former royalist members of the Académie des sciences were not elected at the Institut. It should be recalled that General Bonaparte himself manoeuvred to get appointed, which occurred on 25 December 1797, in spite of almost non-existent scientific accomplishments: like many contemporaries, he did not doubt that the Institut played a crucial political role.

9The two waves of elections also served to purge the Institut of former académiciens who had opposed the colleagues who were now in power. The naturalists and hommes de lettres selected by the Directory to elect the remaining two-thirds did not shy away from appointing acolytes and clients and excluding former enemies and rivals. Almost one half of the membership of the Académie abolished in 1793 did not enter the newly established Institut. It is therefore highly reductive – to say the least – to assume that members of the Institut were de facto the élite of French science during the Consulate, the Empire and much of the Restauration.

  • 10 J.-L. Chappey, “Enjeux sociaux et politiques de la « vulgarisation scientifique » en Révolution

10Deeply wounded, Delamétherie multiplied his efforts to reaffirm his standing within the republic of letters. As many naturalists excluded from institutional positions and salaries did, Delamétherie considerably increased his publication output, taking advantage of the widespread demand for scientific news and instruction.10 The resumption of publications of the Journal de Physique in August 1797 and the regained centrality of Paris in European science, supported by the victorious military campaign across much of the Continent, greatly assisted Delamétherie. Over the years he had accumulated an impressive list of correspondents and collaborators, especially in Switzerland (Geneva in particular), Italy, Great Britain, and Germany. Every year, the January issue of the Journal de Physique was devoted to a long survey of scientific news from Europe, written in short, matter-of-fact paragraphs covering disciplines from mathematics and astronomy to zoology and medicine. Delamétherie took advantage of his role as the editor of the journal and often made ample and generous reference to his own works. More importantly, the magazine was giving voice to the scores of authors, in France and throughout Europe, who were not convinced that the new institutional powers of French science really represented cultivated opinion and answered the philosophical needs of gentlemen readers.

  • 11 P. Corsi, “Idola Tribus: Lamarck, politics and religion in the early nineteenth century”, in A. Fas (...)

11Delamétherie’s modest apartment in Paris became a sort of port of call for many distinguished naturalists and philosophers passing by. In the late 1790s, Alexander von Humboldt performed experiments on electricity there, and Humboldt’s brother Wilhelm was a frequent visitor as well, together with scores of Italian and German mineralogists and geologists. Delamétherie’s new, much expanded edition of the Manuel du minéralogiste, ou Sciagraphie du règne minéral distribué d’après l’analyse chimique (2 vols., Paris, Cuchet), by Torbern Bergman (1735-1784), published in 1792, was widely read throughout Europe and had become compulsory reading at the École des mines. British visitors often referred to Delamétherie to guide them through the scientific high points of Paris, the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in particular. The naturalist made no mystery, either with them or with his French colleagues, of his conviction that atheism or an extreme form of Deism were the only beliefs a philosopher could embrace.11

12At the close of the 1790s, Delamétherie felt confident that his international reputation – still very high –, his numerous works and incessant editorial activity would pay dividends when a new opportunity became available. Yet, as it was also the case with Cuvier, by now a bitter rival, politics proved more important than merit – however assessed, and by whom.

Cuvier in the 1790s

13The biographical events and scientific achievements of Cuvier during the 1790s have been endlessly recounted, though Dorinda Outram’s invitation to apply critical rigour in assessing them has very rarely been accepted. Cuvier’s efforts to build his own network of alliances and patrons still wait for documentary corroboration, though Philippe Taquet has already done much to achieve this goal. As hinted above, from 1791 to the end of the decade Cuvier tirelessly sought to call attention to his work and capabilities, firstly through letters, then, from early March 1795, through an incessant work of participation in the activities of scientific societies and in forging personal and intellectual alliances. In April he had been appointed to a position in the Commission des Arts, thanks to the recommendation of Aubin-Louis Millin (1759-1818), and in May, professor of natural history at the École centrale of Paris. On 20 November, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) and Bernard Germain Lacépède (1756-1825) were elected to supervise the formation of the section of natural history at the Institut, and Lacépède managed to convince Daubenton to elect Cuvier, on 13 December. Being the youngest member, Cuvier acted as secretary to the First Class, a position he never relinquished: again with the help of Lacépède, in 1803 he was appointed permanent secretary to the First Class of the Institut.

  • 12 “Je vous fais de nouveau la proposition de m’accorder votre suppléance en remplacement de M. Latrei (...)

14It is not necessary here to recount Outram’s and Taquet’s masterly work detailing the early phases of Cuvier’s life in Paris. I will limit myself to pointing out episodes and biographical features that in my view still need further clarification. For instance, Cuvier’s appointment as “suppléant” to Jean-Claude Mertrud (1728-1802), the holder of the chair of Animal Anatomy at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle from 1793 to his death, is often given as an unproblematic biographic detail. The appointment occurred on 2 July 1795, just a few months after Cuvier’s arrival in town. Mertrud was an old hand at the Jardin des Plantes, having assisted Daubenton and Félix Vicq d’Azyr (1748-1794) with dissections. The fact that Daubenton did not like the young ambitious Cuvier, and that Mertrud – not remotely a prominent figure in the establishment – was already assisted by his own son, Antoine-Louis-François, does not help in explaining the appointment of a newcomer as “suppléant”, though one can easily imagine that Lacépède, a strong supporter of Cuvier and a prominent political patron of the Muséum, did exercise his influence. Yet, the interesting albeit slightly disturbing account of the appointment provided by de Blainville still awaits critical assessment. Writing to Lamarck in 1825, to ask the old naturalist to appoint him as “suppléant” to the latter’s Museum chair, de Blainville proposed to compensate the naturalist by paying back two thirds of the salary to one of Lamarck’s children. In order to make the offer more palatable and less dishonourable, de Blainville quoted the precedent established, among others, by Cuvier, who got his job by doing the same for one of Mertrud’s sons, probably Antoine-Louis-François. The tone of de Blainville’s narrative sounds convincing: he is talking to someone who had spent decades at the Jardin and at the Muséum, who would have known whether the episode referred to as being in the public domain was true or not.12

  • 13 H. Martineu, Petit Dictionnaire stendhalien, Paris, Le Divan, 1948, p. 206-208.

15Outram has called attention to Cuvier’s private life, and the circle of his closest friends at the time. She documented the role played by Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834) in introducing Cuvier to his future wife, Marie-Anne Coquet-Dutrazail (or de Trazail, 1764-1849), the widow of Louis Philippe Duvaucel, a tax collector who went to the guillotine with Lavoisier on 8 May 1794.13 Arnault, whom we will meet again when discussing the complex affair of the Collège de France chair, was then a well-known man of letters, poet and dramatist, with an interest in science – a feature most writers in search of patronage shared during the second half of the 1790s. Cuvier and Arnault probably met at the Société philotechnique. Even though Arnault mentioned Cuvier only once, and in passing, in his memoirs, he had been a witness to Cuvier’s marriage in 1804 and had been for years very close to the naturalist. Arnault did meet General Bonaparte in Italy, in 1797, and went to Egypt with him. He remained a faithful collaborator and did not hide his sympathies for the Empire, even after 1815, when he was exiled and persecuted.

  • 14 J.-J. Coulmann, Réminiscences, 2 vols., Paris, Michel Lèvy frères, 1862-1869.

16Another member of the Cuvier family circle, about whom it would be interesting to know more, was Cuvier’s first cousin (from his mother’s side) Frédéric-Louis-Henri Walther (1761-1813), a protestant from Alsace, general of brigade since 1793. He became a trusted collaborator of General Bonaparte and was highly esteemed even by officers of successive anti-French coalitions. He was made Count of the Empire in 1808. In 1802 he married Salomé-Louise Coulman (1783-1822), a young Alsatian girl whom Cuvier’s brother, Frédéric, fancied all his life.14 We do not have much information on the social and political weight of Cuvier’s relationship with a prominent military man trusted by the Directory and by Bonaparte after 1797, though Philippe Taquet’s forthcoming second volume of Cuvier’s biography will throw much needed light on this relationship.

17Clearly, during the 1790s Cuvier was not the lonely provincial protestant boy who could count only on his superior wits to survive and eventually to emerge as a central figure in French science. As Outram pointed out years ago, Cuvier himself, and his family circle, let alone historians, exclusively insisted on the scientific merits of the aspiring naturalist and on his social and economic deprivations during the early years in Paris. There is of course no doubt that Cuvier was an exceptionally gifted young man: his remarkable qualities, however, were not, in and by themselves, sufficient to open the doors to promotion and power.

Scientific differences

18While Cuvier spent much of the 1790s doing his best to be listened to, Delamétherie appears to have spent much of his time complaining that jealousy and unethical behaviour on the part of his colleagues were depriving him of the recognition he deserved. Cuvier was a pleasant and brilliant newcomer, uncompromised by the fateful events of the Revolution, dedicated to increasing his chances by multiplying his social and scientific efforts. Delamétherie was a much older man, who probably expected people to come and see him, as many were doing: sources we have quoted above describe him as bitter and more in touch with foreigners than with Parisian colleagues. His mental and scientific outlook had been formed during the 1770s and the 1780s. He belonged to a generation of naturalist-philosophers for whom the works of Lucretius, de Maillet’s Telliamed, and Buffon’s Les Époques de la nature, were points of reference.

  • 15 G. Laurent, « Cuvier et le catastrophisme », Travaux du Comité français d’histoire de la géologie, (...)
  • 16 G. Cuvier, « Mémoire sur les espèces d’éléphans vivantes et fossiles. Lu le premier pluviôse an IV  (...)

19Cuvier, on the other hand, belonged to a generation for whom Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Laplace and Haüy were models of precision and rigour to be imitated: the systems of nature or the theories of the Earth the old generation cherished had no place in the natural sciences, nor had materialism and atheism. At the first public session of the Institut in 1796 Cuvier read a memoir on the elephants (already presented in 1795 at the Société philomatique and at the Société d’histoire naturelle de Paris), widely reported in the generalist press before appearing in the Mémoires de l’Institut. By means of erudite discussions of the differences between African and Asian pachyderms, and the famous Siberian mammoth, which were attracting universal curiosity, Cuvier declared that all were well marked, distinct species, not the local adaptations of some unknown if not fanciful prototype.15 In the oral presentation, he laid down the empirical law that extinct fossil species, of quadrupeds but also of shells, did not have living analogues in the contemporary world: successive upheavals had wiped out faunas and floras. Species could only live and die, never adapt and transform.16

  • 17 I have discussed Delamétherie’s critique of Cuvier during the late 1790s in P. Corsi, Lamarck, genè (...)

20This was the exact opposite of what Delamétherie and several of his colleagues believed, and they made themselves heard. Delamétherie, Patrin, and in later years Lamarck, criticized Cuvier’s appeal to revolutions, and argued for indefinite lengths of time needed by nature’s operations. Delamétherie even quoted the well-known collection of fossil and living shells owned by Lamarck (in 1797-1798 still an opponent of transformism) to show that fossil invertebrates did have living analogues.17 All known living forms were to Delamétherie the modified descendants of a relatively small number of prototypes – organisms spontaneously generated through crystallization in the primitive ocean surrounding the terrestrial globe, then modified through interaction with changed geo-climatic conditions.

21Theories of the earth and systems of nature were the target of Cuvier’s sarcastic remarks from the 1790s onwards: any doctrine arguing for processes of transformation that living beings were supposedly subjected to come in for special vituperation. Speculative natural history had done its time, and it was now essential to turn to positive facts and detailed observation. Echoing Immanuel Kant’s famous saying, he repeated that a Newton of life sciences was still centuries away. Hasty generalizations and all-encompassing theorizing had impeded the progress of the natural sciences. With the consolidation of his institutional and political position, Cuvier adopted an increasingly aggressive tone towards Delamétherie, Patrin, Lamarck and their allies. Yet, as we will argue below, in spite of his efforts, Cuvier never managed to silence authors producing systems of nature and theories of the Earth for a reading public eager to consume all-embracing views of nature and of man. Targeting specifically Delamétherie and Patrin, Cuvier repeatedly declared that nothing was giving him more pleasure than finding a fact that would undermine a geological system. In 1805, Cuvier openly challenged the older generation from the very pages of the Journal de Physique:

  • 18 G. Cuvier, “Mémoire sur le squelette presque entier d’un petit quadrupède du genre des Sarigues, tr (...)

Dans la persuasion où je suis de la futilité de tous ces systèmes, je me trouve heureux chaque fois qu’un fait bien constaté vient en détruire quelqu’un. Le plus grand service qu’on puisse rendre à la science est d’y faire place nette avant d’y rien construire, de commencer par raser tous ces édifices fantastiques qui en hérissent les avenues et qui empêchent de s’y engager tous ceux à qui les sciences exactes ont donné l’heureuse habitude de ne se rendre qu’à l’évidence, ou du moins de classer les propositions d’après le degré de leur probabilité. Avec cette dernière précaution, il n’est aucune science qui ne puisse devenir presque géométrique. Les chimistes l’ont prouvé dans ces derniers temps pour la leur, et j’espère que le temps n’est pas éloigné l’on on dira autant des anatomistes.18

22Cuvier made no mystery of the fact that he considered Delamétherie a perfect example of bad science. As we will see below, much of his work during the 1800s and 1810s represented an implicit, and at times, explicit indictment of the doctrines put forward by his now “deputy” to the chair of natural history at the Collège de France. So, how and why Delamétherie and Cuvier came to share a prestigious chair at the Collège de France?

The politics of an appointment: the chair of natural history at the Collège de France

  • 19 19C’était me venger assez noblement”, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Ms. Flourens, 25983, f (...)

23From all we have seen above, it is clear that the nomination of Delamétherie as deputy to Cuvier in the chair of natural history at the Collège de France represents a true puzzle. In his manuscript autobiography, Cuvier claimed that this was a noble way to revenge himself against his opponent.19 Outram quotes this statement without further comment, though she also refers to the classic Histoire du Collège de France by Abel Lefranc (1893), where documents related to the election were made public for the first time. In volume one of his biography, Taquet does not discuss the Collège de France affair, which most probably will be examined in the forthcoming second volume.

24Lefranc consulted documents at the Archives nationales, and he published two of them in their entirety. A handful of further documents at the Archives nationales and at the Collège de France make it possible to sketch the sequence of events leading to the Cuvier-Delamétherie joint appointment. The last document that we will examine below, Cuvier’s own presentation of his plan of action for the chair to his colleagues at the Collège, provides surprising and unexpected clues as to the complexity of the nomination process. It also reveals a far from clear division of roles between the appointing authorities and the appointee.

  • 20 Archives nationales, Pierrefitte, F / 17 / 13555, in A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, Par (...)
  • 21 Laplace had been Minister for only 45 days. Lucien lasted until the end of the year, when due to gr (...)
  • 22 R. Trousson, Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834), Paris, Honoré Champion, 2004. p. 142.

25The first document published by Lefranc, and the first of the series which we will discuss in the following pages, was a memo prepared at the request of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840), who had asked his subordinates whether the natural history chair at the Collège de France should be maintained or suppressed.20 Lucien had succeeded Laplace at the head of the Ministry on 25 December 1799, at a moment when the new political structures following the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) were being empowered, according to the Constitution of 22 Frimaire an VIII (13 December 1799).21 On 24 December 1799, Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832) became the member of the Conseil d’État responsible for public education. He had been a strong advocate of the need to strengthen the Collège and bring it to its former importance and authority. Finally, on 22 December Arnault, Cuvier’s ally and friend, had been rewarded by General Bonaparte for his fidelity and active contribution to 18 Brumaire with the appointment to the directorship of the public education division of the Ministry of the Interior.22 Several documents relating to the Collège affair were drafted by him.

26The memo, undated, was most certainly written after 1 January, the date of the death of Daubenton (he had actually died during the night between 31 December and 1 January), and before 8 January, the day in which the decree appointing Cuvier as his successor was signed. It could be argued that the memo was giving voice to a generic expression of concern on the Minister’s part, perhaps even of Lucien’s predecessor Laplace, in view of Daubenton’s very old age and poor health. Thus, the document could have been drafted before January 1800. However, the Minister also asked the department of public instruction to acquaint him with the salaries paid to a Professor at the Collège, and those at the Écoles centrales: at first sight, this is a rather incongruous addition to a request concerning the future of the chair at the Collège. As it will become clear below, the Minister was in fact exploring the possibilities open to him of finding a position for Delamétherie: either the chair at the Collège, should it be preserved, or a teaching job at the Écoles centrales. Lucien’s predecessor, Laplace, would never have taken an interest in the old, idiosyncratic colleague, whom he disliked.

  • 23 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 300.

27Briefly, the main argument of the memo addressed to the Minister was that the Collège chair did not represent a duplication of positions existing elsewhere. The teaching of natural history imparted at the Écoles centrales, directed to young men of 12 to 14 years of age, was too elementary to be considered as relevant to the discussion. The thirteen chairs covering the various specialties of natural history at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle were on the contrary too specialized: in short, no one in Paris was providing a comprehensive, philosophically alert view of the field. The new Professor had a mission to fulfil: “Son cours doit être vaste, grand, universel; les vues qu’il développe doivent offrir des profonds résultats. C’est surtout la partie philosophique de la science qu’il doit saisir et développer”.23

  • 24 Ibid., p. 301.

28The Collège as a whole, and Parisian educational institutions in general, had to be strengthened in order to compete with the universities of neighbouring countries, the German ones in particular: “Ce seroit une conquête de plus sur les nations qui nous environnent, et peut-être un jour verrions-nous leur jeunesse déserter les universités d’Allemagne, pour venir chercher la science dans une ville qui lui offriroit d’ailleurs tant d’objets d’instruction et d’agrément”.24 We will comment below on the interesting albeit somewhat surprising reference to German universities and to the possibility that Paris could take a cultural and scientific lead in Europe, thanks to the “objects d’instruction” it contained.

  • 25 Le Moniteur Universel, 22 nivôse an VIII (12 January 1800), 112, p. 444; Le bien informé, 21 nivôse (...)

29At the first Collège assembly of the year, on 30 nivôse an 8 (20 January 1800), the minutes acknowledged the nomination decree signed on 18 - nivôse an 8 (8 January 1800) by the First Consul Bonaparte, the Minister of the Interior, Lucien Bonaparte, and the Director of the First Division, Arnault. No further comment was added. The election had already been announced in the Moniteur universel and in other periodicals, such as the Bien informé.25

30More than a month later, on 8 Ventôse an 8 (27 February 1800), Cuvier addressed a letter to Arnault, in which the newly elected Professor proposed to share the chair of natural history with Delamétherie. To Lefranc, who published the full text of the letter, together with the early January memo, the two documents indicated the effort that were being made to save the chair, and Cuvier’s noble behaviour on behalf of the older colleague.

31It is impossible however not to notice that the letter was sent two months after Cuvier’s election to the chair, as if matters had not been settled with the signing of the nomination decree. Furthermore, the letter made explicit reference to lengthy negotiations Cuvier had embarked upon, involving several actors, in order to fulfill an explicit request from the Minister:

  • 26 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 302.

Conformément au désir que le Ministre de l’Intérieur avait témoigné d’obliger le C. Delamétherie et à mes sentiments particuliers d’attachement et d’estime pour ce savant, je m’étais empressé d’offrir la démission de ma place de Professeur à l’école centrale du Panthéon que le Jury paraissait très disposé à lui conférer. Mais comme cette place ne convient point à sa santé, il a préféré de se charger d’une partie de fonctions de celle qui vient de m’être donnée au Collège de France, moyennant des arrangements dont nous conviendrons entre nous.26

32The letter provides a clear answer as to why the Minister had asked for the salaries paid to professors at the Collège (6000 fr. a year), and to teachers at the Écoles centrales (3000 fr. a year): he had already in mind to offer a position to Delamétherie, and was uncertain to which of the two chairs he should do so, having not yet decided upon the fate of the chair of natural history at the Collège. The second striking revelation of the letter is that Cuvier himself negotiated the terms of the offer with his rival, as if he were acting on behalf of the Ministry itself: he had contacted the authorities in charge of appointments at the Écoles centrales (the Jury), discussed the matter with Delamétherie on several occasions, and found a compromise solution which he now presented for approval. Needless to say, a question naturally arises: how is it possible that Delamétherie, who lacked support in political and official scientific circles, declined the Minister’s proposal to take up the chair at the École centrales, and only consented to be associated with Cuvier on the more prestigious Collège chair? And, more importantly, why should Lucien Bonaparte have wished to favour the old mineralogist, and, furthermore, why should he have accepted to negotiate with Delamétherie, albeit through Cuvier’s offices?

33As was the case with Cuvier’s appointment to the Muséum in July 1795, de Blainville’s testimony concerning the Collège de France deal provides an interesting clue. Writing in 1832, when engaged in his unsuccessful campaign to succeed to Cuvier on the same chair, the anatomist – who had grown to become Cuvier’s fierce opponent during the late 1810s and the 1820s – gave voice to rumours widely circulating at the time concerning the succession to Daubenton. According to de Blainville, Antoine de La Methérie-Sorbier (1751-1804), Delametherie’s younger brother, played a fundamental role in the nomination procedure:

  • 27 H.D. de Blainville, Observations sur la chaire d’histoire naturelle du Collège de France, Paris, Ti (...)

Son frère, ancien membre du Conseil des Cinq-Cents, et qui avait contribué à la révolution du 18 brumaire avec Lucien Bonaparte, alors ministre de l’intérieur, obtint de ce ministre une promesse formelle de la place de Daubenton pour Lamétherie; mais lorsqu’il s’agit de l’effectuer, M. de Lacépède, que l’on regardait alors comme le continuateur de Buffon, et qui du moins devait connaître ses intentions, puisque il avait eu l’avantage de vivre dans une certaine intimité et de travailler avec lui, prenant un grand intérêt à la science, non moins qu’à M. Cuvier, vint aisément à bout de démontrer que cette chaire ne pouvait, sans être dénaturé, être confiée à un naturaliste spécial. M. Cuvier, malgré la grande différence d’âge, l’emporta sur M. de Lamétherie, et fut en effet nommé professeur, mais sous l’engagement par écrit, de confier à celui-ci l’enseignement de la minéralogie spéciale et de la géologie, avec un tiers des appointements.27

  • 28 Wilhelm von Humboldt, Journal parisien (1797-1799), R. Trousson (ed.), trad. E. Beyer, Paris, Honor (...)

34Faulty memory or ignorance of detail did not serve De Blainville well. For instance, he was wrong concerning Antoine: the latter never sat in the Conseil de Cinq-Cents, though he was elected by the Senate a member of the 300-strong Corps Législatif (that started its functions on 1 January 1800) on 25 December 1799. Lacépède was the secretary who drew up the minutes of the Senate session devoted to the elections. It is however highly possible that Antoine had something to do with 18 Brumaire: his election to the Corps Législatif surely indicated that he was seen as an ally by the new administration. Furthermore, he was and remained a minor political figure. He did not have a following nor a personal power base: thus, he must have rendered services for which he was now rewarded. Antoine was one of the main reasons for Delamétherie’s financial troubles, since the older brother kept paying the gaming debts the younger one was accumulating. Antoine was certainly in Paris during most of the late 1790s: Wilhelm von Humboldt, who lived there from November 1797 to August 1799, saw him at his brother’s lodging.28

35De Blainville was nevertheless right when he referred to the reason allegedly given for choosing Cuvier, that he could provide a wide-ranging overview of natural history: this is confirmed by the ministerial memo. Delamétherie, of course, could have said the same of himself: as indicated above, his literary production since the late 1770s was precisely intended to advocate the philosophical foundations and import of the study of nature. Yet, his was a materialistic philosophy, verging on atheism, and no one at the dawn of the new century would have wanted to hear it again, least of all from the Chair of the Collège. Thus, De Blainville’s testimony helps in explaining Delamétherie’s bargaining power with Cuvier and the administration: something had been promised to his brother, and political debts are usually honoured, one way or the other.

36As we pointed out above, no document has so far been located to cover the almost two months following the nomination early in January, and the letter by Cuvier of 27 February 1800 informing Arnault that an agreement had been reached with Delamétherie. As soon as the letter reached the Ministry, action resumed in earnest. On the very next day, 28 February, Arnault wrote a short memo to the Minister, announcing the good news:

  • 29 Archives nationales, Pierrefitte, F/17/13555.

En proposant le Citoyen Cuvier pour professer l’histoire naturelle au Collège de France, le ministre avait témoigné le désir de voir le Citoyen Lamétherie prendre la place qu’occupe le Citoyen Cuvier à l’École Centrale du Panthéon. Mais la santé du Citoyen Lamétherie ne lui permet pas de l’accepter. Pour l’indemniser, le Citoyen Cuvier demande de partager avec lui les travaux de la chaire du Collège de France. Par cet accord l’enseignement reçoit une nouvelle activité, et les vues bienfaisantes du Ministre à l’égard du Citoyen Lamétherie se trouvent remplies. On propose en conséquence au ministre d’autoriser l’adjonction demandée.29

37Below the draft of the note to the Minister, Arnault also penned the Minister’s answer to Cuvier, which was dispatched only two weeks later, on 23 ventôse an 8 (14 mars 1800):

Citoyen je concours très volontiers à ce que le C. Lamétherie soit chargé d’une partie des fonctions de la chaire d’hist. Naturelle que vous remplissez au Collège de France et je vous autorise à le prendre pour adjoint.

Salut et fraternité

Lucien Bonaparte

38Shortly afterwards, on 30 ventôse an 8 (21 mars 1800) Cuvier appeared in front of the Assembly of Professors where he delivered a long speech, outlining his plan of action concerning his tenure of the chair of natural history; he also asked that the letter from the Minister be included in the minutes, in order to ratify the appointment of Delamétherie as his deputy. There are several striking features in Cuvier’s speech that indicate the extent to which the entire procedure had been far from transparent, leading to the suspicion that the appointee had played a crucial role in the appointment.

39Firstly, Cuvier’s justification for the very existence of the chair of natural history was very revealing: it followed the same line of argument and employed almost the same expressions deployed by Arnault in his memo of early January:

  • 30 Archives du Collège de France, Assemblée des Professeurs. Registres d’assemblées et pièces annexes, (...)

Vous savez que l’histoire naturelle est enseignée sous deux rapports dans les écoles de cette ville, d’une manière élémentaire et pour les commençans seulement dans les écoles centrales et d’une manière profonde avec tous ses détails, au Muséum national du jardin des plantes ou 13 professeurs s’en divisent les diverses branches et peuvent se livrer chacun dans celle dont il est chargé à tous les développements dont elle est susceptible. La chaire d’Histoire naturelle du Collège de France seroit donc inutile si cette science ne pouvoit être envisagée sous un troisème rapport absolument distinct des deux premiers.30

40The insistence on the difference between the elementary teaching at the Écoles centrales, and the specialized curriculum imparted at the Muséum, was further expanded upon by Cuvier, and more details were offered with respect to the memo written by Arnault, though the logic of the argument remained closely similar:

En effet l’histoire naturelle a encore une partie générale qui est en quelque sorte le résumé de toutes les autres et qui en présente les résultats ; tout ce qui concerne la génération l’instinct l’économie générale de la nature, par ex. ne peut être traité par aucun des professeurs du Muséum en particulier, parce que ces matières n’appartiennent à aucune branche en particulier. Encore moins elles peuvent l’être dans les écoles centrales, puisqu’elles exigent une métaphysique assez profonde, jointe à beaucoup de connaissances de physique et de physiologie. Il en est de même de la théorie générale des méthodes et d’une foule d’autres objets que le cours que je me propose de faire embrassera.

41Contrary to the Arnault memo, the argument was now deployed to convince colleagues that a single professor could not fulfil such an ambitious plan. With an unusual and less than credible display of modesty, Cuvier justified the absolute need to have a deputy: « Ce que je viens de vous dire vous montre assez combien je suis peu capable de le faire, si je n’avais obtenu de la sagesse du Ministre un adjoint bien propre à suppléer à mon impuissance ». Delamétherie was now referred to as the « savant estimable » who would bring prestige to the Collège and to the chair.

  • 31 P. Corsi, “Systèmes de la nature and Theories of Life: Bridging the eighteenth and the nineteenth c (...)
  • 32 C.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt (ed.), Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, par Leclerc de Buff (...)

42The praise for his opponent was certainly an opportunistic rhetorical move. Yet, even rhetorical choices can tell us something of importance. No one, at the Ministry or at the Collège, found the expression of high esteem towards Delamétherie objectionable. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the kind of “philosophical” natural history Delamétherie advocated was still appreciated by older and younger naturalists, and a sizeable section of the reading public – including senior members of the State apparatus and the army.31 Emperor Bonaparte himself took with him in the final exile of St. Helena the complete edition of Buffon’s works edited by Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (1751-1812): an edition Cuvier judged scandalous and harmful to contemporary scientific culture, also because, one might add, it had been a great commercial success.32

  • 33 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 301.

43After describing the structure of the course – introductory lectures by Cuvier, followed by lectures on mineralogy and the Theory of the Earth by Delamétherie, and by Cuvier again on “des matières générales et […] toute la partie philosophique relative aux êtres organisés” – Cuvier appeared to correct a minor point in the memo to the Minister. The January document claimed that due to his old age, Daubenton was allowed by decree of the National Convention to hold his classes at the Muséum. This was the reason why his lectures did not take place at the Collège.33 This seemingly innocent point could have prompted the remark that after all, a Professor at the Muséum could have done the job required by the Collège position – a point the memo and Cuvier vigorously denied. As if someone from within the Ministry had objected to the view that Daubenton had been offered special conditions, Cuvier added: “Quoique cette loi ne fut point personnelle au C. Daubenton ainsi que nous nous en sommes assurés”. It would be difficult to explain why Cuvier felt the need to add this explanation, unless, as we will argue below, he had been involved in the collection of the information required to draft the memo. In other words, the memo contained a mistake, and Cuvier had corrected it after checking the relevant documents.

44The logic of the argument defending the preservation of the chair of natural history at the Collège; the insistence on the philosophical dimension of the teaching; the correction of the point concerning Daubenton, all suggest that Cuvier had at least seen the memo to the Minister Arnault had to draft in the space of a few days. As already suggested, a more surprising and somewhat disturbing hypothesis deserves probing: Cuvier himself might have directly contributed to the writing of the memo to the Minister. Arnault was a personal friend, a confrère at the Institut, where Cuvier was increasingly asserting his role as the efficient secretary to the First Class. The newly appointed Director of the public instruction section of the Ministry of the Interior could well have asked his friend to give a hand, when asked by the Minister to advise on the Chair at very short notice. A detail contained in the memo we have already called attention to, may provide further support for the hypothesis that this had indeed been the case. The reference to German universities attracting students more than the French capital did echoed a polemical argument Cuvier had put forward a few months earlier in his eulogy of Jean-Guillaume Bruguière (1750-1798), a text that has never been discussed in detail by historians of Cuvier.

45In an unusually scathing criticism of his fellow naturalists, Cuvier contrasted the wealth of Parisian institutions with the many poor universities and towns in Germany where industrious naturalists took care of collections and published journals offering the result of their research. Parisian naturalists sat on treasures which they did not even bother to catalogue, while asking the government to send them more specimens from remote regions, at great expense:

  • 34 G. Cuvier, “Extrait d’une notice biographique sur Bruguières, lue à la Société Philomatique, dans s (...)

Il est peut-être honteux que la France, si riche en grands naturalistes et en belles collections d’histoire naturelle, n’ait aujourd’hui aucun recueil périodique consacré à cette science, tandis que l’Allemagne, où les collections sont rares et pauvres, où les princes ne font point de voyages, où les moyens d’instruction sont en général presque nuls, il y a dans ce moment une vingtaine de journaux sur cet objet seul, uniquement dus à la patience invincible des écrivains de ce pays, et à l’amour des classes moyennes pour l’étude et pour les occupations honnêtes.34

  • 35 Ibid., p. 43.
  • 36 C.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt (ed), Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, op. cit., vol. 65, p (...)

46The targets of Cuvier’s strictures were in fact the naturalists of the old school, and all those who liked to speculate on natural phenomena rather than carefully observing and describing them: too many flights of imagination and too little substance. The eulogy opened with a severe denunciation of the then very active crowd of imitators and followers of Buffon, as Cuvier put it.35 He had clearly in mind Sonnini’s project, already well under way, to erect a « paper monument » to the deceased naturalist in the form of an edition of all his works, enriched by additional volumes of updates and copious annotations. Sonnini took offense at Cuvier’s words, and answered in similar tone, denouncing the “pedagogue” who waved his cane at fellow naturalists whose works were highly appreciated by the cultivated public. Readers, Sonnini added, were not impressed nor intimidated by the self-appointed new master of Parisian natural history.36

47Needless to say, the competition for the Collège chair demanded some sacrifice. In his dealing with the Ministry, Cuvier, the man of positive facts and careful observation of details, was now prepared to wear the hat of the philosopher providing all-embracing views of nature. Throughout the negotiations, Cuvier had to please Lucien Bonaparte’s wish to find a paid position for Delamétherie. Supported by his ministerial patron Arnault, and by his scientific patrons Lacépède, Laplace and Chaptal, he was forced to adopt a language that cultivated public opinion and several colleagues found acceptable. Thus, Delamétherie was promoted – albeit temporarily – to the rang of “esteemed naturalist”; his teaching the Theory of the Earth was presented as an important complement and addition to the “philosophical” treatment of natural history at the Collège. Clearly, this was not what he thought: from 1800 to Delamétherie’s death in 1817, he spared no occasion to marginalize his colleague’s work and the scientific tradition he represented.

Conclusion. An endless war of attrition

  • 37 Archives du Collège de France, 7 CDF 5-12, “Cours de minéralogie de La Métherie, année 1808”.

48Delamétherie took his Collège job very seriously indeed. Mineralogy lectures remained very popular throughout the 1810s, attracting foreign and French students, as attested by the register of attendants to the mineralogy lectures delivered at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle. There are only two registers left of students taking Delamétherie’s class, and the numbers of signatures are disappointing.37 However, they cover years in which Cuvier’s and Brongniart’s work on the Parisian basin attracted universal attention, and Cuvier himself was lecturing on geology at the Collège, attracting crowds. In his biographical essay on the mineralogist, De Blainville spoke of the success Delamétherie’s early lectures met with, enhanced by the innovation of class excursions in the Parisian basin:

  • 38 H.D. de Blainville, “Notice historique sur la vie et les écrits de J. C. Delamétherie”, op. cit., p (...)

Un grand nombre d’élèves de toutes les nations suivirent ses leçons […] Il imagina le premier, si je ne me trompe pas, de donner des démonstrations lithologiques et géologiques, en conduisant les élèves dans les environs de Paris, et en leur démontrant, dans un certain nombre de courses, les formations géologiques de ce lieu remarquable.38

  • 39 J.C. Delamétherie, “Discours préliminaire”, Journal de Physique, 56, Part 1 (nivose an 11 de la Rép (...)
  • 40 Leçons de minéralogie données au Collège de France, Paris, Courcier, 2 vols., 1812, and new ed., 3  (...)

49Italian mineralogists such as Carlo Ermenegildo Pini (1739-1825) continued to consider him as a very prominent colleague. When the distinguished German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817) visited Paris in 1802, he held several conversations with Delamétherie, who printed an authorized summary of them in his Journal de Physique.39 The rising star of German geology, Christian Leopold von Buch (1774-1853) made frequent and positive reference to Delamétherie’s doctrine on the formation of mountains due to a process of crystallization. It is true, however, that the three volumes of lectures on mineralogy Delamétherie published in 1811, 1812 and 1816, and the three on geology published in 1816, were rather tedious repetitions of material abundantly covered in the Théorie de la Terre and in articles for the Journal de Physique. Delamétherie was getting old, his health was failing, and, as the last “discours préliminaires” he penned after 1812 well show, the rivalry with Cuvier deeply depressed him, and produced outbursts of rantings against the corrupted élites of Parisian science.40

50The “Discours préliminaires” he continued to print in the first yearly issue of his journal were still widely read throughout Europe. They gave voice to the many research traditions attracting practitioners and the attention of the cultivated reading public at the continental level. Delamétherie reported profusely on doctrines Cuvier considered as devoid of scientific dignity: theories of the earth, the formation of mountains, the origin of volcanoes, spontaneous generation, the transformation of living forms throughout the history of the earth, the existence of fossil remains of early humans. His “discours” do represent a powerful reminder of the European dimension of natural history debates at the time. They warn against the anachronistic historiographic concentration on a few individuals working within a handful of scientific institutions, in France as elsewhere.

  • 41 J.-C. Delamétherie, “Notice d’une Machoire inférieure de carnivore analogue à la Chauve-Souris, tro (...)
  • 42 For a masterly overview of geological debates at European level during the decades bridging the eig (...)

51In the Journal de Physique, Delamétherie meticulously recounted Cuvier’s discoveries and publications, printed copious extracts of his colleague’s work, even those in which the Collège de France Professor attacked the concept of natural history Delamétherie defended. He even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to compete with Cuvier in identifying fossil remains of the Parisian basin.41 Cuvier refused all collaboration with his adjoint and kept up his campaign against the “theories of the earth” in general and Delamétherie’s in particular. He very rarely mentioned his colleague’s work, and when he did, he was condescending and patronizing. Together with his friend Alexandre Brongniart, Cuvier started working on the Parisian basin, which in his hands became an open-air, accessible and dramatic refutation of current geological and mineralogical theories. Even today, and rightly so, the stratigraphy of the region surrounding the French capital is associated with the name of Cuvier. Delamétherie’s excursions, his lectures and many publications on the subject have been completely forgotten.42

  • 43 On Cuvier’s early courses, see Philippe Grandchamp, “Des leçons de géologie du Collège de France au (...)
  • 44 Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris, Paris, Baudouin, 1811, p. iv.
  • 45 J.-C. Delamétherie, Journal de Physique, 72 (1811), p. 471-474, p. 471.
  • 46 G. Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes: où l’on rétablit les caractères de (...)

52Contrary to the plan he had outlined for the chair, Cuvier started lecturing on geology at the Collège, that is, on the part of the course assigned to Delamétherie. In the manuscript notes for the class of 1805 and 1808, Cuvier approached the subject by firstly criticizing the theories of the earth that had been put forward in the past, including Delamétherie’s. Again, he contrasted the speculative mood of theoretical flights with the rigorous analysis of available evidence he was promoting.43 It was however the publication of Brogniart’s and Cuvier’s work on the Parisian basin that brought the tension between the latter and Delamétherie into the open. The first edition of the work, in 1808, never mentioned Delamétherie. The expanded edition of 1810, published in 1811, named Delamétherie only once and in terms the old mineralogist found deeply offensive: “M. Delamétherie, qui a travaillé sur le même sujet que nous, a bien voulu aussi nous donner plusieurs avis dans son Journal de Physique, et nous avons cherché de profiter de ceux qui nous avons cru bons”.44 “Mais mon nom ne se trouve pas dans tout le Mémoire, quoiqu’on y trouve les noms de tous les naturalistes qui ont fait des recherches, meme les plus minutieuses, sur la mineralogy des environs de Paris”, Delamétherie retorted in the pages of his journal.45 In the introduction to the Recherches sur les ossemens fossils, later printed separately and destined to achieve enormous success under the title of Discours sur les révolutions du globe, Cuvier again insulted Delamétherie, together with Lamarck and an obscure German naturalist, as representing all that proper science should not be. In fact, several pages were devoted to systematically demolishing the theories of the earth put forward over the last few decades.46 Thus, in spite of defining Delamétherie “savant estimable” when convenient early in 1800, Cuvier never relented in his opposition to what, in his eyes, Delamétherie stood for.

53The fact that Delamétherie was not a first-rate scientist, and an even worse politician of science, should not lead us to conclude that Cuvier successfully managed to marginalize him and his style of scientific work in early nineteenth-century France and Europe. Cuvier’s outstanding scientific merits and his self-serving incursions into the history of natural sciences of his time, certainly succeeded in convincing generations of historians that Delamétherie was a marginal man, to the point that very few commentators noticed that the mineralogist was in fact his deputy on the chair of natural history at the Collège de France.

54One could call upon generational factors and argue that Delamétherie and his allies represented the old natural history even in biographical terms. Indeed, several of Delamétherie’s associates – Philippe Bertrand (1730-1811), Patrin, Alberto Fortis (1741-1803), Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819) – were all past their prime by the year 1800: whereas the young Cuvier represented the new, aggressive natural sciences destined to dominate the field, unopposed. However, age is not a reliable criterion to assess allegiances, and even theoretical standpoints are not crucial to define alliances: Lacépède was born in 1756, was an admirer of Buffon and his style of natural history, had contributed to the Sonnini edition of Buffon’s works, and yet he strongly supported Cuvier and his allies. In his case, politics played a far more important role in his choice of friends and clients. Concerning age, younger naturalists such as Julien-Joseph Virey, born in 1775, or Jean-Baptiste Geneviève Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent (1778-1846), engaged in new large-scale publication ventures such as the edition of Buffon’s work we referred to, or successful dictionaries of natural history. They belied Cuvier’s claim that wide-ranging philosophical issues had to be excluded from safe and reliable scientific undertakings. By the early 1820s, and in a crescendo until Cuvier’s death in May 1832, scores of naturalists in Europe felt that issues such as the origin of the Earth, of life, and the nature and extent of processes adapting life to changing circumstances were not only legitimate, but constituted the most interesting features of natural sciences.

55Deepening our understanding of how and why Delamétherie became the deputy of Cuvier at the Collège de France is far from being a charitable homage to a neglected underdog. Coming to terms with this seemingly marginal episode has unveiled deep layers of historiographic anachronisms and assumptions which have turned the complex and articulated European scientific scene of the early decades of the nineteenth century into a desert populated by a handful of forward-looking giants.

Notes

1 J. Viénot, Cuvier. Le Napoléon de l’intelligence, Paris, Fischbacher, 1932.

2 D. Outram, Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science, and Authority in Post-revolutionary France, Manchester, Manchester Univ. Press, 1984.

3 P. Taquet, Georges Cuvier, Naissance d’un génie, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2004, p. 334.

4 P. Corsi, The Age of Lamarck. Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790-1830, Berkeley, CA, Univ. of California Press, 1988, ch. 1; Pietro Corsi: Lamarck. Genèse et enjeux du transformisme, 1770-1830, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2001.

5 Letter to M.A. Pictet, August 20, 1796, in A. Lacroix, Déodat Dolomieu, membre de l'Institut national (1750-1801) Sa correspondance  sa vie aventureuse  sa captivité ses œuvres, 2 vols., Paris, Librairie académique, Perrin, vol. 2, 1921, p. 117-118.

6 M.A. Pictet to J. Senebier, 18 February 1795. I wish to thank Mr. Emmanuel Lorient, owner of Traces Écrites, for explaining why the excerpts of the letter are no longer available on line.

7 H.D. de Blainville, “Notice historique sur la vie et les écrits de J. C. Delamétherie”, Journal de Physique, 85 (1817), p. 78-107.

8 B.G. Sage (1740-1824) became non-resident member on 5 March 1796 and regained his full chair on 25 April 1801; A. Baumé (1728-1804) was made non-resident member on 28 February 1796. Like Delamétherie, L. C. Cadet de Gassicourt (1731-1799), a member since 1766, was not re-elected.

9 Letter to M.A. Pictet, 15 December 1795 in A. Lacroix, Déodat Dolomieu, op. cit., p. 94.

10 J.-L. Chappey, “Enjeux sociaux et politiques de la « vulgarisation scientifique » en Révolution

(1780-1810)”, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 338 (2004), p. 11-51; see also J.-L. Chappey, La Société des Observateurs de l’Homme (1799-1804). Des anthropologues au temps de Bonaparte, Paris, Société des études robespierristes, 2002, for a classic reconstruction of the multiplicity of literary figures engaged in writing about “scientific” subjects.

11 P. Corsi, “Idola Tribus: Lamarck, politics and religion in the early nineteenth century”, in A. Fasolo, The Theory of Evolution and its Impact, Milan, Springer, 2012, p. 24.

12 “Je vous fais de nouveau la proposition de m’accorder votre suppléance en remplacement de M. Latreille et je m’engage à faire sur mes appointements, si jamais j’obtiens la place, une pension de 1800 francs à tel de vos enfants que vous voudrez me désigner. Quoique ma proposition n’ait rien que d’honorable sans doute (M. Cuvier lui-même a employé ce moyen vis-à-vis de M. Mertrud) excusez-moi cependant d’y avoir recours”, P. Nicard, Études sur la vie et les travaux de Ducrotay de Blainville, Paris, Baillière, 1890, p. 106-107. De Blainville competed unsuccessfully against Victor Audouin, who was supported by Cuvier and his father in law, Cuvier’s close associate Alexandre Brongniart.

13 H. Martineu, Petit Dictionnaire stendhalien, Paris, Le Divan, 1948, p. 206-208.

14 J.-J. Coulmann, Réminiscences, 2 vols., Paris, Michel Lèvy frères, 1862-1869.

15 G. Laurent, « Cuvier et le catastrophisme », Travaux du Comité français d’histoire de la géologie, 2nd series, 3 (1985), https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00950405.

16 G. Cuvier, « Mémoire sur les espèces d’éléphans vivantes et fossiles. Lu le premier pluviôse an IV », Mémoires de l’Institut national des sciences et des arts : sciences mathématiques et physiques, 2 (An VII - 1799), p.1-22 ; reprinted in Journal de Physique, 50 (Year VII – 1800), p. 207-217 ; on the difference between the oral and the printed versions, see R.W. Burkhardt, The Spirit of System. Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press, 1977, p. 129.

17 I have discussed Delamétherie’s critique of Cuvier during the late 1790s in P. Corsi, Lamarck, genèse et enjeux du transformisme, 1770-1830, op. cit.

18 G. Cuvier, “Mémoire sur le squelette presque entier d’un petit quadrupède du genre des Sarigues, trouvé dans la pierre à plâtre des environs de Paris”, Journal de Physique, 18, LXI (Messidor an 13 [1805]), p. 39-45, p. 44.

19 19C’était me venger assez noblement”, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Ms. Flourens, 25983, f. 42, quoted by Outram, p. 218, n. 76.

20 Archives nationales, Pierrefitte, F / 17 / 13555, in A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, Paris, Hachette, 1893, p. 300-301.

21 Laplace had been Minister for only 45 days. Lucien lasted until the end of the year, when due to growing political and personal differences with his brother he was sent to Madrid as Amabassador. Chaptal took his place.

22 R. Trousson, Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834), Paris, Honoré Champion, 2004. p. 142.

23 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 300.

24 Ibid., p. 301.

25 Le Moniteur Universel, 22 nivôse an VIII (12 January 1800), 112, p. 444; Le bien informé, 21 nivôse an VIII (11 January 1800), p. 3.

26 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 302.

27 H.D. de Blainville, Observations sur la chaire d’histoire naturelle du Collège de France, Paris, Tilliard, 1832, p. 10-11.

28 Wilhelm von Humboldt, Journal parisien (1797-1799), R. Trousson (ed.), trad. E. Beyer, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2001.

29 Archives nationales, Pierrefitte, F/17/13555.

30 Archives du Collège de France, Assemblée des Professeurs. Registres d’assemblées et pièces annexes, 2 AP 3, Séance du 30 ventôse an 8 (21 mars 1800), p. 94-95.

31 P. Corsi, “Systèmes de la nature and Theories of Life: Bridging the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries”, Republics of Letters, 6, 1 (2018) – https://arcade.stanford.edu/rofl/syst%C3%A8mes-de-la-nature-and-theories-life-bridging-eighteenth-and-nineteenth-centuries

32 C.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt (ed.), Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, par Leclerc de Buffon, 127 vols., Paris, Dufart, 1798-1808; P. Flourens, Éloges historiques, Paris, Garnier Frères, 1856, p. 182, “D’après nos mémoires [Cuvier et Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire] sur les animaux, Panckoucke, qui songeait à donner une édition de Buffon, nous pria d’y travailler. Il est fâcheux que sa folie ait mis fin à ce projet; il aurait empêché de naitre les éditions absurdes de Castel et de Sonnini, qui ont fait tant de tort à la science”.

33 A. Lefranc, Histoire du Collège de France, op. cit., p. 301.

34 G. Cuvier, “Extrait d’une notice biographique sur Bruguières, lue à la Société Philomatique, dans sa séance générale du 30 nivôse an 7 (19 January 1799)”, Magasin encyclopédique, Ve année, 3 (an VII [1799]), p. 42-57, ici p. 54.

35 Ibid., p. 43.

36 C.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt (ed), Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, op. cit., vol. 65, p. 37.

37 Archives du Collège de France, 7 CDF 5-12, “Cours de minéralogie de La Métherie, année 1808”.

38 H.D. de Blainville, “Notice historique sur la vie et les écrits de J. C. Delamétherie”, op. cit., p. 86-87. Archives du Collège de France, 69 CDF 10-q, “Cours de minéralogie de Jean-Claude De La Metherie, 1800-1817”; 69 CDF 36 “Observations et réflexions pour la minéralogie des environs de Paris faites dans une promenade lithologique avec M. de la Metherie à Montmartre”, an XIII.

39 J.C. Delamétherie, “Discours préliminaire”, Journal de Physique, 56, Part 1 (nivose an 11 de la République, 1803), p. 5-92; p. 73-79, “Résumé du système de Werner, et des conversations entre Delamétherie et Werner”.

40 Leçons de minéralogie données au Collège de France, Paris, Courcier, 2 vols., 1812, and new ed., 3 vols., 1816; Leçons de géologie, données au Collège de France, Paris, Courcier, 3 vols., 1816.

41 J.-C. Delamétherie, “Notice d’une Machoire inférieure de carnivore analogue à la Chauve-Souris, trouvée dans les carriers de Montmartre”, Journal de Physique, 55 (1802), p. 404.

42 For a masterly overview of geological debates at European level during the decades bridging the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see M.J.S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform, Chicago, IL, The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005 and M.J.S. Rudwick, Worlds before Adam: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform, Chicago, IL, The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008.

43 On Cuvier’s early courses, see Philippe Grandchamp, “Des leçons de géologie du Collège de France au Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du Globe: quatre étapes successives du cheminement intellectuel de Cuvier”, in Travaux du Comité français d’Histoire de la Géologie, Comité français d’Histoire de la Géologie, 23 (2009), p. 17-65, available in HAL-Achives ouvertes, <hal-00911680v2>

44 Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris, Paris, Baudouin, 1811, p. iv.

45 J.-C. Delamétherie, Journal de Physique, 72 (1811), p. 471-474, p. 471.

46 G. Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes: où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites, Paris, Deterville, 1812, p. 26-32. P. Corsi, “The Revolutions of Evolution. Geoffroy and Lamarck, 1825-1840”, Bulletin du Musée d’anthropologie préhistorique de Monaco, 51 (2011), p. 97-122.

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