Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What's in a Name? - The de Jussieu Brothers

Once upon a time there were three French brothers: Antoine, Bernard, and Joseph de Jussieu. Sons of a reputable apothecary, they all studied to be doctors at a time when medical science was based on curing physical ailments and disease with the use of herbs and plants. Indeed, the brothers’ interest in the discovery and cultivation of healing plants led them each, in turn, to the study of natural science. Today, they are celebrated in France as among Europe’s earliest botanists. Their legacy still abounds on a springtime visit to the Versailles gardens or to Paris' Jardin de Plantes.

Antoine, the eldest, became director of the King’s Garden in Paris in 1708, a few years before the death of King Louis XIV. Louis XV, who succeeded his grandfather to the throne at the tender age of five, cared little for the garden for many years. It fell on hard times then, with Antoine keeping it going out of his own pocket. Once, he even carried two small cedars back from England in his hat, unable to afford proper transport. These hardy trees continue to survive today and are among the tallest, if not the oldest, trees in the garden now known as the Jardin de Plantes.

Bernard came to Paris in 1722 at the invitation of his brother. Antoine needed competent and trustworthy help and Bernard, after taking his medical degree at Montpellier University, found he could not stand the sight of blood. Working with plants was much more to his liking.

As he came of age, so did King Louis XV, and so, too, did the age of Enlightenment and the development of scienctific inquiry. Louis XV hired Bernard away to Versailles to create a botanical garden at the Grand Trianon. Bernard filled the garden with exotic flowers and plants, such as the heliotrope, which his brother, Joseph, sent to him from Peru.

Joseph was the most adventuresome of the three brothers. In 1735, when King Louis XV extended him an invitation to join “the greatest scientific expedition the world has ever known”, Joseph jumped on it. The expedition, led by Charles Marie de la Condamine, sailed to Peru to measure the arc of the earth’s meridian in an attempt to prove the greatest question of the day: What was the true size and shape of the planet earth? The team of eight astrologers, engineers, mathematicians, and map-makers that Joseph accompanied spent 10 arduous years substantiating the theories of young Isaac Newton.

Perhaps Joseph would have made a different choice had he known he’d be gone from France for 36 years. He returned to Paris in 1771, at the age of 74, physically broken and having lost his mind. But during his time in Peru he made many important discoveries for France, all of which found their place in the King’s Garden:

In addition to the heliotrope, he confirmed that the bark of the cinchona tree furnished a tonic called quinine, capable of reducing high fever. This would become an important substance in curing malaria.

He also discovered that the coca shrub, whose leaves he observed the Indians chewing with obvious enjoyment, created a strong analgesic able to cure pain. He called this substance, cocaine.

Finally, he sent back notes on a plant found in the Amazon jungle by La Condamine that he was certain would be of commercial importance. The plant produced a remarkably elastic resin that was impervious to moisture. When fresh, it could be molded to any shape – bottle, bowl, or boot – that, when dry, did not break. Once back in French hands, the plant, called “rubber”, helped to spark the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, back at Versailles, Bernard was arranging all the plants in the garden of the Grand Trianon according to his own scheme of plant classification. His 1759 improvements on the existing system, developed by Swedish botanist and contemporary Carl Linneaus, sorted natural organisms by both “genus” (generic name) and “family” (specific member within a genus) using universal Latinate names. Even today, Bernard's system of binomial nomenclature remains in international use much as he conceived it. Though a breakthrough for the field of natural science at the time, Bernard was a retiring, humble man not inclined to publish his ideas. He would leave it to his nephew, Antoine-Laurent, another celebrated de Jussieu botanist, to make his classification system known to the world.

Today, the de Jussieu brothers are remembered in a few quiet ways: They are the namesake of both a Sorbonne University campus as well as its neighboring Paris Metro station. Also, on July 26, 1998, the main-belt Asteroid 9470 Jussieu was named in honor of the three French brothers.


For more on the Versailles and Paris gardens, the "greatest scientific expedition the world has ever known", and the de Jussieu brothers, stay tuned for the Time Traveler Paris Tours: Love Live the King's Garden! Coming out soon...


Duval, Marguerite. The King’s Garden. Charlottesville: University of VA: 1982. Translated from the original, La planete des fluers, 1977, by Annette Tomarken & Claudine Cowen.



Image of Bernard de Jussieu courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of the Jardins de Plants in Paris by Benh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Painting of a young Issac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of Cinchona plant courtesy of the United States Geological Survey and Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of tapped Rubber tree courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.

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