Count of Buffon: French Naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc

Georges-Louis Leclerc who became known as the Count of Buffon was a naturalist whose works influenced other naturalists, such as George Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Leclerc was the eldest of five children and grew up in an upper-middle class family. In 1730, having finished school and having studied law, mathematics, and medicine, Leclerc decided the Grand Tour was in order after he met a young English Duke, who was taking the Grand Tour and traveling throughout France and Italy.

George-Louis Lecler, Comte de Buffon, Courtesy of Wikipedia

George-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the time Leclerc finished the Grand Tour and returned to France, he had appended “de Buffon” to his name, probably because it was more impressive. He was also at war with his father and in the middle of his Grand Tour, in the summer of 1731, his mother died. He inherited a small fortune from her, but his inheritance came into question when his father remarried and then attempted to appropriate it from him.

In the end, Leclerc got his inheritance, but it resulted in him dropping the Leclerc name around 1734, never speaking to his father again, and thereafter being known as the Count of Buffon. By this time Buffon was financial well off, but he did not rest on his laurels because he then decided to purchase the village of Buffon, which his father had owned but sold. He also began to focus on his finances, increasing his wealth. Thus, “Buffon’s income eventually amounted to about 80,000 livres a year, at a time when the minimum required … befitting [someone in] his position…was about 10,000 livres a year.”[1]

Map Showing the Village of Buffon, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Map showing the village of Buffon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Upon his return to France, the Count of Buffon also realized he was oversleeping and wasting time. He attempted to remedy the situation himself but failed. Buffon thought his valet Joseph could help, and, so, he promised Joseph a crown every time he was able to get him up before six in the morning. However, no matter how hard Joseph tried “Buffon declined to rise — pleaded that he was ill, or pretended anger at being disturbed.”[2] Joseph finally resorted to extreme measures. He pulled back Buffon’s covers and dumped ice-cold water on him. The effect was instantaneous. Thus, “by the persistent use of such means Buffon at length conquered his habit; and he was accustomed to say that he owed to Joseph three or four volumes of his Natural History.”[3]

While increasing his wealth, the Count of Buffon also maintained his interest in mathematics and made a mark in the field. Besides introducing differential and integral calculus into probability theory, he was the first to pose what became known as Buffon’s needle problem. The turning point in Buffon’s interests came when he was appointed Curator of the Royal Gardens in 1739. From that point forward Buffon concentrated on biology and botany. He also spent the next forty-eight years of his life focused on his finances and scientific interests.

Because of his scientific interests, Buffon became interested in animals and acquired a lemur. At first the lemur was pleasant and good-natured and Buffon let it have free run of his house with it “settling down before the fire like a common cat.”[4] But as the lemur aged, it became less friendly and caused so many problems, Buffon chained it up. The lemur was of course unhappy, and because it was clever, it soon slipped its chains and escaped to a confectioner’s shop where “it very quietly and systematically roamed in search of sweets, devouring all it could get its hands on … and was quite heedless regarding the price or the rarity of its desired treats.”[5] Great effort was put into catching it and success was finally achieved. However, it later died from the cold.

In 1739, Count of Buffon was appointed head of the Jardin du Roi, and, as head, he transformed the Jardin into a museum and major research center. He also enlarged it by purchasing adjoining lots and acquiring many new botanical and zoological specimens from all over the world. One animal he acquired was an infant chimpanzee captured in Angola around 1740 and named Jocko. He lived one summer in Paris, and was then taken to London, where, unfortunately, the English climate affected his lungs and the poor animal died of consumption the following winter.

Count of Buffon's Illustration of Jacko, Author's Collection

Buffon’s illustration of Jacko. Author’s collection.

During Buffon’s life, he was known to be a hard worker who woke at six o’clock every day and frequently worked fourteen hours a day. He also developed some rather unusual work habits. For instance, he was a handsome man with fine bearing and wrote in “full dress, believing that the splendor of his clothes would impress his language with pomp and elegance.”[6] He also recited aloud whatever he wrote so that he could hear the rhythm of his words, and he once said of the hours he spent writing that they were “the most delightful in his life.”[7]

The Count of Buffon was interesting in other ways. The Scots Magazine described Buffon stating:

“[His] conversation was unadorned, rarely animated, but sometimes cheerful. He was exact in his dress, particularly in dressing his hair. He sat long at [the] table, and then seemed at his ease. His conversation was, at this time, unembarrassed, and his guests had frequently occasion to notice some happy turn of phrase, or some deep reflection. His complaisance was very considerable: he loved praise, and even praised himself; but it was with so much frankness and with so little contempt of others, that it was never disagreeable.”[8]

In 1752, when Buffon was 45, he married 20-year-old Françoise de Saint-Belin-Malain. They had a boy who was born in 1764. He was named George Louis Marie Leclerc but nicknamed Buffonet. Five years later, in 1769, Buffon’s wife died at Montbard. Buffon was devastated and grieved deeply, but his grief was tempered by his son, who as he grew, appeared to have a brilliant future like his father. One indication of Buffonet having a brilliant future was that his father arranged a botanical trip throughout Europe for his 17-year-old son with the remarkable plant biologist Lamarck.

Between 1749 and 1788, the Count of Buffon wrote his multi-volumed Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. It was to cover all three “kingdoms” but ended up just covering the animal and mineral kingdoms. Not everyone was happy with his work because his early volumes were condemned by the Faculty of Theology at Sorbonne. They found it accounts of pre-existence or its history had little relation to the Bible. Years later, Darwin would say of Buffon that he was “the first author who in modern times has treated it [evolution] in a scientific spirit.”[9] Despite his critics, readers liked his works because Buffon’s books were translated into many languages, and he became one of the most widely read authors of the day.

The same year that Anton Hinkel painted his famous portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe at her desk, the Count of Buffon died. His death happened on 16 April 1788, shortly before the French Revolution broke out. Buffon retained his senses to within a few hours of his death. It was reported that his breathing became “imperceptible” and he then passed away after midnight at 12:40pm.

Princesse de Lamballe portrait by Anton Hinkel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite being 30 years younger than Buffon, Madame Necker was one of his closest friends and was with him at the time of his death. She was a French-Swiss salonist and writer who hosted one of the most celebrated salons of the Ancien Régime and was wife to Louis XVI’s popular finance minister Jacques Necker. Like Buffon she held a similar view of death.

“[Death was] a lengthy and almost imperceptible process that began at the point at which they body reached maturity … Buffon painted a picture of inevitable dissolution, in which the glory and beauty of youth slowly gave way to physical degeneration and decay. ‘The body dies, therefore, little by little and bit by bit,’ … in such a way that, ultimately death could be understood only as the final nuance of life.”[10]

Madame Necker, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Madame Necker. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Buffon’s demise, surgeons examined his corpse and opened his body. It was discovered he had fifty-seven stones inside his bladder, and doctors thought he could have enjoyed relief, if he had ever consented to a “lithotomy” operation. His body was embalmed, taken to St. Medard’s Church, and then conveyed to Montbard, his birthplace. There he was interred in the same vault that held his wife.

“A great concourse of academicians, and persons of rank and literary distinction, attended the funeral … and a crowd of 20,000 spectators assembled in the streets through which the body was to pass.”[11]

During the French Revolution, Buffon’s tomb was broken into and the lead that covered the coffin was ransacked to produce bullets. His heart was initially saved, as Madame Necker guarded it, but it was later lost. Today, only Buffon’s cerebellum remains. It is at the Museum of Natural History in the base of the statue by Augustin Pajou that Louis XVI commissioned in Buffon’s honor in 1776.

Years later, it was stated of Buffon by Ernst W. Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists, “Truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”[12] Buffon’s son held a similar view of his father and while his father was still alive Buffonet erected a marble column to him praising him for his genius. However, Buffonet’s life was never as illustrious as his father’s. During the Reign of Terror, in 1794, Buffonet was guillotined after being accused of participating in a conspiracy. When Buffonet mounted the scaffolding, his last words honored his father. He said, “Citizens, my name is Buffon.”[13]

References:

  • [1] Gribbin, John R., The Scientists, 2004, p. 223.
  • [2] Friends’ Review, Volume 24, 1861, p. 462
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] “Buffon’s Pet,” in Falkirk Herald, 5 July 1877, p. 6.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Rutherford, Mildred Lewis, French Authors, 1906, p. 316.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 317.
  • [8] The Scots Magazine, 1789, p. 21.
  • [9] Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species by Means of natural Selection, or the Preservation of a Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1869, p. xv.
  • [10] Boon, Sonja, The Life of Madame Necker, 2015, p. 117.
  • [11] The General Biographic Dictionary, 1813, p. 255.
  • [12] Mayr, Ernst, The Growth of Biological Thought. 1981, p. 330.
  • [13] The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, Volume 5, 1832, p. 3.

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4 Comments

  1. Michelle Stanley on September 8, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Joseph was smart and I would have done the same thing to earn a crown in those times. Buffon was a remarkable man. Very nice post, Geri.

  2. Tom Vawter on March 28, 2022 at 2:09 pm

    I read once that Buffon’s epitaph was “Friend of Franklin.” Is that true?

    • Geri Walton on May 10, 2022 at 8:29 am

      I don’t know. Haven’t heard that before.

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