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Tournefort, Joseph Pitton de

1. Dates
Born: Aix-en-Provence, 3 June 1656
Died: Paris, 28 November 1708
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 52
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry, Government Official
Tournefort came from a family of minor nobility. His father, Pierre Pitton, seigneur of Tournefort, inherited the estate from his father who had gained it by marriage. Pierre Pitton was a lawyer with sufficient means to purchase the office of royal secretary, which conferred the rights of nobility. Tournefort's mother, Aimare de Fagoue, was the daughter of a royal counselor at the chancellery of Provence.
Although clearly affluent, the family was not wealthy.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Montpelier; Orange, M.D.; Paris, M.D.
Tournefort, originally destined for the church, received an excellent education in classical languages and science from the Jesuits at their college in Aix. After his father's death in 1677 he was free to pursue his own desired studies. His paternal uncle encouraged him towards medicine.
In 1679 he began to study medicine at the University of Montpellier. Until 1683 he divided his time between botanizing and his courses in chemistry, medicine, and Magnol's course in botany. He left Montpellier without a degree, and was probably never officially enrolled there.
In 1688, while on a botanizing trip in southern France, he received an M.D. from the University of Orange. (I had not knowns there was such a university, and remain sceptical.)
In 1695 he was admitted to a license by the medical faculty in Paris, and in 1696 he received an M.D. from Paris. I assume a B.A. or its equivalent.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Botany, Natural History
Subordinate: Mineralogy, Chemistry, Zoology
To the field of botany Tournefort contributed the concept of genus in the modern sense and applied it skillfully to his findings. His goal was to "reduce each species to its true genus" and define the genus by a specific character. His work in botany added to the research being done in the classification of plants, but along the other line of research, inner structure of plants and their functions, Tournefort contributed little. He did not use a microscope and did not participate in any of the research on plant sexuality and reproduction. Although Tournefort was subject to criticism for these limitations in his work, his conception of genus contained a fundamentally new contribution that was elaborated in the works of Linnaeus, Jussieu, and Adanson. His most significant work was Élémens de botanique, 1694, in which he presented his new system of classification based on the corolla of the plant. Tournefort's success in botany was due to his extensive trips to the Iberian peninsula, England, the Netherlands, and many regions in France. Louis XIV sent Tournefort to Greece, Asia, and Africa to make observations for natural history as well as on the religion, customs, and commerce of the people.
Tournefort was interested in minerals and shells (he drew up a classification of shell fish) and had a impressive natural history collection.
He published at least one paper on chemistry and included an important discussion of chemistry in his Histoire.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Medicine
Secondary: Patronage, Government
In 1683 through the efforts of Fagon and Mme de Venelle, a grand dame at court, Tournefort was chosen to be Fagon's substitute at the Royal Garden. His duties included teaching as well as taking care of and cultivating the plants of the garden. He became Fagon's sole substitute.
Tournefort was named professor of medicine at the Collège Royal in 1696. After he returned from his Levantine trip, he returned to this position. Tournefort had a considerable practice in addition to his academic duties. He had some difficulty resuming his practice upon his return from the Levant (1702) but he still had his academic duties. Hazon writes that Tournefort was a doctor at the Hotel Dieu after his return.
Upon his return from the Levant he was offered the post of personal physician to the rouyal grandson, just named Philip V of Spain, but Tournefort refused. In 1706 he did become personal physician to Bignon.
In 1708 he was appointed professor interieur et exterieur des plantes at the Royal Garden.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Court Official, Physician, Government Official
Through the efforts of Mme. Venelle and Fagon (the powerful court physician, who was also involved with the Jardin), Tournefort was recommended for the position at the Royal Garden. Tournefort dedicated his Élémens de botanique to Louis XIV and his Histoire des plantes . . . de Paris, 1698, to Fagon.
Tournefort was sent on his Levantine trip by Louis XIV. Herman at Leiden offered to name Tournefort as his successor for his chair with a very generous salary, but Tournefort declined this offer.
Abbé Bignon nominated him to the Académie. Tournefort left his botanical books to Bignon. (I treat the Abbé as a governmental official.) Pontchartrain was also his protector.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
His Historie des plantes . . . de Paris had a long section on medicines. After his death there was a publication of a manuscript on materia medica.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Académie Royal des Sciences, 1693-1708
Abbé Bignon nominated Tournefort to the Académie. Among his correspondents were Magnol at Montpellier and Herman at Leiden.
His letters to Fagon have been published.
  1. J.A.Hazon, ed., Notice des hommes les plus célèbres de la Faculté de Médecine en l'Université de Paris, (Paris 1778).
  2. Davy de Virville, Histoire de la botanique en France, (Paris, 1954). QK21 .F8 D2 Bernard de Fontenelle, "Eloge de Tournefort", Histoire et mémoires de l'Académie des sciences (1708), pp. 145-77.
  3. Jean-Francois Leroy, "La botanique au Jardin des plantes (1626-1970)," Adansonia, ser. 2, 2 (2) 1971, 226-50.
  4. Roger Heim et al., Tournefort. Les grands naturalistes français, édité par la Muséum national h'histoire naturelle, (Paris, 1957).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Bonnet, ed., "Lettres de Tournefort à Fagon," Journal de botanique, 5 (1891), 372-6, 393-5, 420-4.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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