The unluckiest naturalist ever

Image: Ambrose Palisot de Beauvois (public domain).

Writing my forthcoming book has taken me down a lot of rabbitholes.  Many of them have involved the history of science, and especially, the history of natural history.  I’ve learned about naturalists who were heroic and naturalists who were despicable; naturalists who were centuries ahead of their times and naturalists stubbornly stuck in the past; naturalists who had every privilege and naturalists who struggled even to feed themselves, let alone to do science.  But no naturalist I’ve encountered was as extraordinarily unlucky as Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois.

Palisot (let’s call him that) was born in France in 1752.  He trained in law and was admitted to the bar in 1772.  Shortly after, upon the deaths of his father and brother, he inherited both the title of Baron and a position (a sinecure?) as Receiver of Domains and Forests of northern France.  In 1777, that position was abolished – but not before Palisot had become interested in botany, especially of mosses and liverworts.  He dreamed of joining Linnaeus’ student Peter Forskål on a botanical expedition across Africa, but that voyage never materialized.  Instead, he set sail on a French expedition to the Gulf of Guinea in 1786 – one intended to set up trading posts in what is now Nigeria.  This expedition was completely unprepared to deal with tropical conditions; within five months 250 of its 300 members were dead of yellow fever, including Palisot’s two servants.  Nonetheless, Palisot collected extensively; he sent a few specimens to Paris, but kept most in the French trading post at Owara.  In 1791, the British burned that post, and all of Palisot’s collections were lost.

Palisot escaped the British sacking – but only because he had been so sick with yellow fever that, in 1788, the expedition’s captain had bundled him onto a slave ship bound for Haiti.  In Haiti, Palisot began collecting again, amassing huge collections of the Caribbean flora and fauna.  In 1791, the Haitian revolution began as the island’s slaves rose up against the French colonial government.  Placing himself firmly on the wrong side of history, Palisot worked with the government’s attempts to suppress the revolution, and late in 1791 was sent to Philadelphia to seek American intervention on the side of the colonists.  In 1793 he returned to Haiti and found his house, and all his collections, destroyed.  He was arrested and imprisoned by the insurgents for his actions against the revolution, but nobody can be entirely unlucky all the time, and he was merely deported to the United States rather than executed.  En route to the U.S., his ship was boarded by the British, who confiscated all his belongings.  Around the same time, the French revolutionary government confiscated all his lands and holdings in France, and listed him as an émigré – sentenced to death if he returned home.  (It’s often considered good luck to be born into the nobility.  While it’s certainly luck, not achievement, in revolutionary France it’s debatable whether it was good luck.)  Between the actions of the British and the French, Palisot arrived back in Philadelphia homeless and penniless.

Palisot leaned on his American naturalist contacts and eventually (after supporting himself for a while playing bassoon in a circus orchestra) he was able to begin collecting again.  He eventually secured the support of the French ambassador, who was willing to overlook his connections to the nobility.  He traveled for five years around the eastern U.S. collecting plants, insects, and other specimens (he discovered and named the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, and many other species).  He built an enormous collection, and was greatly relieved in 1798 to learn that the French government would permit him to return home.  He set sail with with nearly every American specimen he’d collected – and his ship sank in a storm near Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Palisot made it to shore (and eventually to France) but his third great collection was completely lost.

Back in France, Palisot worked with what little of his African collections had made it there.  He produced a Flora of Owara and Benin, which seems to have been reasonably sensible, and a major work on grasses (Essay on a New Agrostology), which seems not to have been sensible at all.  (One biographer commented that this monograph was “idiosyncratic, to say the least.”)  He died in 1820, leaving a distinctly jumbled reputation.  He made important contributions to lycopod classification, but fumbled the grasses.  He collected many important specimens, but most of them were lost in those three independent disasters.  He must have been careless in documentation, because many of the surviving specimens have dubious or blatantly incorrect location data – African species recorded as being from North America, and vice versa.  He was politically retrograde, perhaps more interested than talented at science, and – while doggedly persistent, to be sure – phenomenally unlucky.  It’s no wonder he’s an obscure figure today.

So, the next time your manuscript spends six weeks waiting to be assigned reviewers, or you trip on a root and spoil one of your 16 replicate quadrats, or your -80° freezer fails on Friday afternoon just as you’re about to leave for vacation:  it could be worse.  It could be a lot worse.  Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois, can vouch for that.

© Stephen Heard  April 25, 2019


Want to read more about Palisot de Beauvois?  I first learned about him in Joseph Kastner’s (1977) A Species of Eternity; you’ll find a precis of his story on pp. 150-151.  Edward Valauskas’ (2014) Palisot de Beauvois: botanist, explorer, entomologist, lawyer, and politician is a short open-access biography.  If your library has access, a longer and more scholarly biography is E.D. Merril’s (1936) Palisot de Beauvois as an overlooked American botanist.  Palisot’s Wikipedia page appears to be largely fiction.

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1 thought on “The unluckiest naturalist ever

  1. Pingback: Even more great reads from the history of natural history | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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