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Michel Adanson (April 7, 1727August 3, 1806) was a Frenchmarker naturalist of Scottishmarker descent.

Adanson was born at Aix-en-Provencemarker. His family moved to Parismarker on 1730. After leaving the College Sainte Barbe he was employed in the cabinets of R. A. F. Reaumur and Bernard de Jussieu, as well as in the Jardin des Plantesmarker. At the end of 1748 he left Francemarker on an exploring expedition to Senegalmarker. He remained there for five years, collecting and describing numerous animals and plants. He also collected specimens of every object of commerce, delineated maps of the country, made systematic meteorological and astronomical observations, and prepared grammars and dictionaries of the languages spoken on the banks of the Senegal.

After his return to Paris in 1754 he made use of a small portion of the materials he had collected in his Histoire naturelle du Senegal (1757). This work has a special interest from the essay on shells, printed at the end of it, where Adanson proposed his universal method, a system of classification distinct from those of Buffon and Linnaeus. He founded his classification of all organized beings on the consideration of each individual organ. As each organ gave birth to new relations, so he established a corresponding number of arbitrary arrangements. Those beings possessing the greatest number of similar organs were referred to one great division, and the relationship was considered more remote in proportion to the dissimilarity of organs.

In 1763 he published his Familles naturelles des plantes. In this work he developed the principle of arrangement above mentioned, which, in its adherence to natural botanical relations, was based on the system of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, and had been anticipated to some extent nearly a century before by John Ray. The success of this work was hindered by its innovations in the use of terms, which were ridiculed by the defenders of the popular sexual system of Linnaeus; but it did much to open the way for the establishment, by means principally of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu's Genera Plantarum (1789), of the natural method of the classification of plants.

In 1774 Adanson submitted to the consideration of the French Academy of Sciences an immense work, extending to all known beings and substances. It consisted of 27 large volumes of manuscript, employed in displaying the general relations of all these matters, and their distribution; 150 volumes more, occupied with the alphabetical arrangement of 40,000 species; a vocabulary, containing 200,000 words, with their explanations; and a number of detached memoirs, 40,000 figures and 30,000 specimens of the three kingdoms of nature. The committee to which the inspection of this enormous mass was entrusted strongly recommended Adanson to separate and publish all that was peculiarly his own, leaving out what was merely compilation. He obstinately rejected this advice; and the huge work, at which he continued to labour, was never published.

He had been elected a member of the Academy of Sciences in 1759, and he latterly subsisted on a small pension it had conferred on him. Of this he was deprived in the dissolution of the Academy by the Constituent Assembly, and was consequently reduced to such a depth of poverty as to be unable to appear before the French Institutemarker when it invited him to take his place among its members. (It is said that he possessed neither a white shirt, a coat nor a whole pair of breeches.) Afterwards he was granted a pension sufficient to relieve his simple wants.

He died at Paris after months of severe suffering, requesting, as the only decoration of his grave, a garland of flowers gathered from the fifty-eight families he had differentiated - "a touching though transitory image," says Georges Cuvier, "of the more durable monument which he has erected to himself in his works."

Besides the books already mentioned he published papers on the ship-worm, the baobab tree (whose generic name Adansonia commemorates Adanson), the origin of the varieties of cultivated plants, and gum-producing trees.

His papers and herbarium remained in his family's hands for over a century and a half, finally coming to the Hunt Botanical Library around 1960. Subsequently the Hunt Institute republished his Familles des plantes in two volumes (1963-64), under the editorship of G. H. M. Lawrence.

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References in Literature

Stephen Maturin: "He was a very great naturalist, as zealous, prolific and industrious as he was unfortunate. I knew him in Paris when I was young, and admired him extremely; so did Cuvier. At that time he was very kind to us. When he was little more than a youth he went to Senegal, stayed there five or six years, observing, collecting, dissecting, describing and classifying; and he summarized all this in a brief but eminently respectable natural history of the country, from which I learnt almost everything I know of the African flora and fauna. A valuable book, indeed, and the outcome of intense and long sustained effort; but I can scarcely venture to name it on the same day as his maximum opus - twenty seven large volumes devoted to a systematic account of created beings and substances and the relations between them, together with a hundred and fifty volumes more of index, exact scientific description, separate treatises and a vocabulary: a hundred and fifty volumes, Jack, with forty thousand drawings and thirty thousand specimens. All this he showed to the Academy. It was much praised but never published. Yet he continued working on it in poverty and old age, and I like to think he was happy in his immense design, and with the admiration of such men as Jussieuand the Institut in general.Jack Aubrey: "I am sure he was, said Jack. "We are under way" he cried."

Excerpted from:The Commodore, page 227-228, Patrick O'Brian, ISBN 978-0-00-649932-9


  • Eiselt, J. N. 1836 Geschichte, Systematik und Literatur der Insectenkunde, von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart. Als Handbuch für den Jünger und als Repertorium für den Meister der Entomologie bearbeitet. Leipzig, C. H. F. Hartmann : VIII+255 p.

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