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Vaillant, Sebastien

1. Dates
Born: Vigny, Val d'Oise, 26 May 1669
Died: Paris, 20 May 1722 (Niceron says 26 May)
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 53
2. Father
Occupation: Peasant/Small Farmer
Vaillant came from a family of farmers. Niceron says the father was a merchant, but I am sticking with the later.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: No University
At the age of six he was a boarder studying under M. Subtil, a priest with whom he made regular botanical trips. At eleven he was the organist at a Benedictine monastery. He studied medicine and surgery at the hospital in Pontoise.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Botany
After he got to Paris, Vaillant came in from Neuilly, where he practised as a surgeon, every Wednesday to attend Tournefort's courses at the Jardin du Roi. He also made several botanical expeditions with him. He became an astute plant analyst and began a systematic anatomical study of all the plants in Tournefort's Institutiones.
Over a fourteen year period many scientists accompanied Vaillant on botanical excursions notably along the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Apart from his fieldwork he concentrated on careful dissections of plants. His premature death prevented the publication of some of his manuscripts, notably his inaugural lecture in which he presented irrefutable evidence on the existence of plant sexuality. He was the first in France to promote the theory of sexuality of plants.
When he was near death he gave his notes and plates to Boerhaave for publication. In 1727 Boerhaave published Botanicon parisiense, the culmination of thirty-six years of Vaillant's botanical research.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Patronage, Government
In 1688, Vaillant began to practice surgery at Evreux under supervision.
Two years later Marquis de Goville convinced Vaillant to become the surgeon to his company of troops.
The following year, after the death of the Marquis, Vaillant moved to Paris to become an intern at the Hotel Dieu. He met Tournefort at once. In 1692, while still working at the Hotel Dieu, he established himself as a surgeon in Neuilly. He soon left Neuilly to become secretary to Pere de Valois, a Jesuit, who was confessor to the Duke de Bourgogne. Fagon met Vaillant, and soon he became Fagon's personal secretary. His position with Fagon allowed him to continue his botanical research and to give well-attended lectures at the Jardin du Roi. In 1699 he received the post of "brevet de garde du cabinet des drogues du Jardin du Roi" , i.e. herbarium keeper. Niceron says that Fagon put Vaillant in change of the Jardin, but I think this is not accurate. In 1702 upon the recommedation of Fagon, Vaillant received his first official post as a botanist and six years later, again through Fagon, he became "sous demonstrateur des plantes". (Ramsbottom says that Tournefort selected Vaillant for this position, but everyone else attributes it to Fagon.)
In 1717 he substituted for the titular professor at the Jardin, Antoine de Jusieu. Vaillant was such a success that he was allowed to continue giving lectures to the students.
He was a member of the Académie after 1716.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Physician, Court Official
The Marquis de Goville took Vaillant as surgeon to his company of troops.
Through Fagon (the powerful court physician, who was also involved with the Jardin) Vaillant received his post at the Jardin du Roi. Louis XIV ordered Vaillant to create a Cabinet de Drogues. Fagon obtained permission from the king for Vaillant to direct the building of the first greenhouse in France. Three years later in 1717 another greenhouse, two times larger, was built. Everyone seems agreed that Fagon was Vaillant's special protector, but Louis himself seems to have been involved enough for me to list "Court" as well.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Académie Royal des Sciences, 1716-22
Among his correspondents were Sherard, Micheli, and Boerhaave. After much negotiation, Vaillant's personal herbarium remained in France at the Jardin du Roi. Vaillant had made arrangements to sell it to Sherard. Louis XIV offered Vaillant's widow 12000 livres for the herbarium to remain on French soil, and she conceded.
  1. Niceron says that the father had very little wealth and worried about his son's interest in a subject lacking utility.
  2. I am accepting the statement, which seems to be borne out by Vaillant's career; they were poor.
  3. Sources: Jean-Francois Leroy, "La Botanique au Jardin des Plantes (1626-1970)," Adansonia, 2nd series, 11, 225-50.
  4. Jacques Rousseau, "Sébastien Vaillant, an Outstanding 18th Century Botanist," in P. Smit and R. J. Ch. V. ter Laage, eds., Essays in Biohistory, Utrecht, 1970), pp. 195-228. John Ramsbottom, "S. Vaillant's Discours sur la structure des fleurs (1718)," Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 4 (1963), 194-6. W.L. Tjaden, "Sebastien Vaillant's Flora of Paris, Botanicon parisiense, 1717," Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 8 (1976), 11-27. J.P. Niceron, Mémoires pour servir a l'histoire des hommes illustres (1700s), 8, 234-49.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. A. Schierbeek, "Een merkwaardig boekje. De rede van Seb.
  2. Vaillant van 1717," in In het voetspoor van Thijsse, (Wageningen, 1949), pp. 175-82. While I found this reference, I have not been able to find any trace of the volume.
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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