The project

An interdisciplinary research on historical herbaria

The project: “Botanical legacies from the Enlightenment: unexplored collections and texts at the crossroads between the humanities and the sciences” (SNF project nr. 186227) focuses on the botanical collections of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Jean-Baptiste-Christian Fusée-Aublet (1723-1778), Jean-Frédéric Chaillet (1747-1839), and several of their contemporaries. The project views 18th century botany as a body of knowledge and of practices in which a diverse range of actors were involved. The research team is examining the historical and scientific value of ancient herbaria, and the possibilities of providing these complex collections online.

The research is centred on botanists of diverse backgrounds and is divided in three subprojects.

The first focuses on Rousseau’s herbaria and the specimens that the philosopher collected or obtained from other botanists, including Fusée-Aublet. By combining botany, history, and information technology, the aim is to reconstruct these collections, currently dispersed, in the form of a database and a virtual herbarium that will be available online.

Based on Fusée-Aublet, the second subproject focuses on botanists travelling to the Americas. In terms of history, it explores the construction of a body of knowledge about the West Indies, and questions the agenda of colonial botany managed from Paris. In terms of science, the project aims to identify which of the specimens among Aublet’s collections were used to describe species and genera new to science in his book Histoire des plantes de la Guiane françoise (1775).

Finally, the third sub-project investigates botanical sciences at a regional scale. It focuses on naturalists from Neuchâtel who first introduced Rousseau to botany. These include Jean-Antoine d’Ivernois (1703-1765) and Abraham Gagnebin (1707-1800), and particularly Chaillet, who played an important role in the study of flora in Switzerland at the turn of the 19th century.

This interdisciplinary and collaborative project combines the skills of botanists, science historians, and specialists of historical scientific literature. The project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (“Sinergia” programme) and was launched at the University of Neuchâtel in 2020. It forms the core of a reflection on the alliance between science and literature in the 18th century. Further details about the different research projects, as well as publications and updates, and information about the research team are provided on this site.

Research projects

The project follows three axes and is centred around different botanists active in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Rousseau's herbaria

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) studied botany intensively during the last fifteen years of his life, leaving behind him rich manuscripts and hundreds of plant specimens. One part of this project is dedicated to the study of these manuscripts and to the creation of a virtual herbarium, which will bring together all these collections online.

Fusée-Aublet
and the scientific journey

Jean-Baptiste-Christian Fusée-Aublet (1723-1778) travelled to and lived in Île de France (Mauritius) and French Guiana. He is considered an authority in tropical botany. One focus of this project is the inventory of his herbarium, the reconstruction of his networks, and the study of his methods.

Chaillet and the Neuchâtel flora

In the Principality of Neuchâtel, botany was established by scientists such as Laurent Garcin (c. 1683-1751), Jean-Antoine d’Ivernois (1703-1765), and Abraham Gagnebin (1707-1800). In continuation, Captain Jean-Frédéric Chaillet (1747-1839) completed the inventory of the local flora and created a large herbarium. One focus of the project concerns their work and the study of botany on a regional scale.

News

You will find here the scientific events associated with the project, and the list of publications by its collaborators. A biannual newsletter provides news and an overview of ongoing research.

Current team

Direction

Jason Grant
Applicant, principal investigator, botany

Nathalie Vuillemin
Applicant, co-investigator, literature



Address

Université de Neuchâtel
Institut de biologie
Projet Botanical Legacies
Rue Émile-Argand 11
CH-2000 Neuchâtel

Transversal positions

Pierre-Emmanuel DuPasquier
Coordinator, scientific collaborator, botany

Timothée Léchot
Coordinator, scientific collaborator, literature

Christian Morel
Scientific collaborator, computer science

Rousseau's herbaria

Alexandra Cook
Scientific partner, history of botany

Takuya Kobayashi
Scientific partner, history of botany

Dorothée Rusque
Scientific collaborator, history

Fusée-Aublet and the scientific journey

Perrine Besson
PhD student, literature

Piero Delprete
Scientific partner, botany

Guilhem Mansion
Scientific collaborator, botany

Thibaud Martinetti
Postdoctoral fellow, literature

Chaillet and the Neuchâtel flora

Rossella Baldi
Scientific collaborator, history

Edouard Di Maio
Scientific collaborator, botany

Stéphanie Morelon
PhD student, botany

Mathias Vust
Scientific collaborator, botany










Conference

Uses, practices and functions of historical herbaria

Monte Verità conference centre, Ascona, 6-8 November 2023.

In the 18th century, as botany developed and became more institutionalised, the functions of the herbarium diversified. As an instrument for the acquisition, recording, exchange, and dissemination of knowledge about the plant kingdom, the herbarium deserves to be considered from a scientific as well as an artistic, economic, and social perspective. Indeed, the herbarium not only documents the processes of collection, description, classification, and nomenclature of specimens, but also, in relation to other types of sources, the networks of botanical exchanges, the role of some intermediaries in the construction of knowledge and the scientific ambitions of their owners. Surrounded by enigmas and often fragmentary, the historical collections that have survived benefit from being studied in an interdisciplinary and dialogical perspective.

The colloquium “Uses, practices and functions of historical herbaria” aims to stimulate this dialogue. It is part of the research project “Botanical legacies from the Enlightenment: unexplored collections and texts at the crossroads between the humanities and the sciences” that a team of botanists, historians of science, historians of literature and computer scientists is conducting at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) around Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Fusée-Aublet (1723-1778) and Jean-Frédéric Chaillet (1747-1839). These three botanists were active in the field of natural history at different levels. Their botanical activities, their contrasting backgrounds, and the collections they built up provide rich material for rethinking the relationship between regional and international botanical practices, the approach of the amateur and that of the professional botanist, and the institutional and private issues involved in scientific activity.

One day will be devoted to each of the three botanists. The focus will be on the content and history of the plant collections, but also on their current conditions of conservation and study, and in particular on digital publication devices. Combining panel lectures and round tables, the colloquium will also be open to papers with a broader scientific, epistemological, or methodological scope on historical herbaria and their study. In addition, it will consider the contemporary uses of such sources in different fields, such as taxonomy, floristics and biodiversity.

Languages of the conference: French and English.

Portrait of the botanist from his herbarium: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (6 November 2023)
Organisers: Pierre-Emmanuel DuPasquier, Timothée Léchot, Dorothée Rusque

Rousseau’s botanical activities have been a fertile field of study for the past twenty years, marked by the publication of monographs, collective works, and editions (Cook, Drouin, Ducourthial, Jaquier and Léchot, Kobayashi). However, no large-scale collective reflection has been carried out on the functions of the herbarium in Rousseau’s work. The herbarium cannot be reduced to a “diary of herborization” (The Reveries of the Solitary Walker) which allows Rousseau to reiterate his botanical walks through his imagination and to start again the reveries to which they gave rise. During his exile in the Principality of Neuchâtel (1762-1765), Rousseau devoted himself very seriously to learning botany and making herbaria, activities that would last until his death in 1778. Seen as a practice, a work or an educational and scientific device, the herbarium meets the philosopher’s thoughts on education, language, and representation. Therefore, it seems difficult to interpret the sets of specimens collected by Rousseau or that belonged to him without relating them not only to his correspondence and botanical manuscripts, but also to his philosophical and literary writings.

The collections that have reached us raise further questions. Which groups of plants were of particular interest to Rousseau, who had no ambition to discover new species and who collected plants in the vicinity of his successive homes in Switzerland, England and France? To what extent and in what way did botanists such as Joseph Dombey, Marc-Antoine-Louis Claret de La Tourrette and Fusée-Aublet contribute to the formation or expansion of Rousseau’s collections? How did the project of compiling small herbariums of selected plants, intended to be given away or sold, evolve and to which Rousseau admittedly paid particular attention? What uses did Rousseau make of the successive herbaria that he put together with the help of his correspondents? How did several collections arrive in public institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries, after having been manipulated and fragmented? What processes of patrimonialization have led to the conservation of herbaria in museums or libraries? Finally, to what extent do the digitisation of Rousseau’s specimens and the creation of virtual herbaria contribute to renewing the way we look at collections today?

Collection practices among travellers (7 November 2023)
Organisers: Nathalie Vuillemin, Guilhem Mansion

Within the project "Botanical Legacies from the Enlightenment", the collaborators of the sub-project devoted to Jean-Baptiste Fusée-Aublet revisited L'Histoire des plantes de la Guiane françoise (1775) with the aim of resituating this work in the author's overall career: from his scientific training in Europe to the various trips he made to the French colonies of the Isle de France (1753-1761) and French Guiana (1762-1764) as an apothecary and traveler-botanist. They have notably addressed in their work his practice of plant collection in Europe and in the colonies, the different roles of the botanist in the colonial administrations, as well as the question of the scholarly itineraries recounted in the naturalist's diary, or even his relationship with intermediaries in his scientific missions. They now wish to confront the results obtained with those of other travelers-naturalists. The proposed symposium will be divided into three interdisciplinary panels, with the main objective of inviting speakers from different scientific fields to discuss a common object of reflection.

1) We will look at some aspects of making plant collections, from setting up the sampling strategy to the logistical problems encountered in the field, via the physical realization of the herbarium. The intervention of botanists specialized in tropical harvests or in the management of plant collections will make it possible, through a modern perspective, to better understand the problems inherent in 18th century naturalist travel.

2) We will also be interested in the working methods of naturalists in the field. The study of various sources such as travel diaries, herbaria, and other materials will allow us to open up some more general questions about the practice of botany in distant lands in the 18th century, as for example: to what extent is the science practiced by the travelers-naturalists related to the methods of observation of the time? How was the opposition between “cabinet scholars” and “field scholars” concretely articulated in the treatment of the collected materials? What role do the “subaltern” voices occupy in the elaboration of botanical knowledge?

3) Finally, we will question the scientific travel narrative through the prism of spatial and environmental criticism. Within the framework of the research devoted to the relationship between power and knowledge in colonial empires, our interest will focus on the geographical and environmental representation of the naturalists’ itineraries transmitted by travelers in the form of journals and/or maps. We would also like to initiate a reflection on the relevance of collaboration between human sciences and the digital humanities, in order to observe how visual and textual approaches to historical sources can complement each other and thus proceed to the development of new methodological approaches.

We will focus on the timeframe spanning from 1730 to 1800. Case studies may include journeys and travelers from all cultural and linguistic areas, using unpublished sources (manuscripts, herbaria, collections) or new means of investigation (digital humanities).

The botanical legacy of Jean-Frédéric Chaillet (8 November 2023)
Organisers: Jason Grant, Mathias Vust

In 1968, the eminent sociologist, Robert Merton, coined the term "Matthew effect" to refer to the lack of recognition that some scientists experience. Conversely, others gain even greater recognition, sometimes even taking credit for the work of others. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them." This evokes several instances where Nobel Prizes were awarded to male researchers, while their female colleagues were left out. Therefore, in this session, we will draw on Merton to highlight Chaillet's and Gagnebin's contributions to botany, while showing that their work was indispensable to the accomplishments of great botanical figures such as Haller, de Candolle, and Persoon.

During the Enlightenment, with the idea of understanding, collecting, and transmitting as much knowledge as possible, many botanists travelled through their regions with the aim of compiling herbaria. Like Abraham Gagnebin (1707-1800) or Jean-Antoine D'Ivernois (1703-1765), local botanists who preceded him, Jean-Frédéric Chaillet (1747-1839) made an inventory of the vegetation of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Self-taught and solitary by nature, he studied not only flowering plants, but also the still largely unknown groups of cryptogams. Comparison with the botanical practices of other eighteenth-century scholars, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who also collected herbarium specimens, reveals a conscientious and humble figure who was content to remain in the shadows. For almost 50 years, he built up one of the largest and oldest herbaria that is still preserved in Neuchâtel. Just as Gagnebin's discoveries were disseminated in the network of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), Chaillet fed his questions and discoveries into a vast network of correspondence that contributed to the exchange of discoveries and information within the Republic of Sciences. Chaillet's findings, especially new species of fungi, were published by others, notably Alphonse de Candolle (1806-1893), in Geneva, and by the founding father of systematic mycology, Christian Hendrik Persoon (1761-1836), in Paris. However, despite being renowned during his lifetime, Chaillet has largely been forgotten since his death.

The recent identification and study of Chaillet’s catalogs demonstrate his importance as a compiler of botanical knowledge, and in particular that of mycology. Within the framework of the Sinergia project, Chaillet’s herbarium, manuscripts, correspondence, and library preserved in Neuchâtel have been databased to understand his work methods. Like a meticulous stamp collector, Chaillet organized and attached his samples of bryophytes, lichens, and fungi in unprinted books. These bound collections are nearly unique in science and are among the oldest known collections of cryptogams. This demonstrates a rarely-seen passion and perfectionism, leading us to study the history of the bound herbarium as an object itself.

Therefore, we ask what is Chaillet's place in botanical history? What was his work method, his objectives, and the scientific and historical value of his collections today? Is he one of the first "citizen scientists"? Would we go so far as to consider him an unsuspected hero of the Republic of Sciences of the Age of Enlightenment? Finally, was Chaillet, like Gagnebin and many other naturalists of his time, subject to the "Matthew effect"?