Michel Adanson (7 April 1727 – 3 August 1806) was an
18th-century French botanist and naturalist, of Scottish descent.
1 Personal history
2 Familles naturelles des plantes
4 Later life
5 Death and legacy
6 In literature
7 Taxa named by Adanson
8 See also
Adanson was born at Aix-en-Provence. His family moved to Paris on
1730. After leaving the
Collège Sainte-Barbe he was employed in the
cabinets of R. A. F. Réaumur and Bernard de Jussieu, as well as in
the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. He attended lectures at the Jardin
du Roi and the Collège Royal in Paris from 1741 to 1746. At the end
of 1748, funded by a director of the Compagnie des Indes, he left
France on an exploring expedition to Senegal. 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 Sénégal.
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). Sales of the work were slow, and after the publisher's
bankruptcy and the reimbursement to subscribers, Adanson estimated the
cost of the book to him had been 5,000 livres, beginning the penury in
which he lived the rest of his life. 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 organised 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.
Familles naturelles des plantes
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.
Adanson was an early proponent of the inheritance of acquired
characters and a limited view of evolution. Historian of science
Conway Zirkle has noted that "Adanson was Lamarck's predecessor at the
Jardin Royal, and
Lamarck could hardly have remained unfamiliar with
Adanson 's publications. Adanson not only described evolution in his
"Familles de plantes," published in 1763 when
Lamarck was a young man
of twenty, but also suggested that the changes in specific
characteristics were produced through the inheritance of acquired
In an article for the Histoire and Memoires de l'Academie Royale des
Sciences of 1769, Adanson used the term "mutations" to refer to small
changes that could bring about new variations in individuals.
Despite being described as a "precursor of evolutionism" by
historians, Adanson rejected the concept of species, preferring to
focus on individuals and denied the transmutation of species.
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 in 1793, and was consequently reduced to such a
depth of poverty as to be unable to appear before the French Institute
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.
Death and legacy
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
Adanson), the origin of the varieties of cultivated plants, and
His papers and herbarium remained in his family's hands for over a
century and a half, finally coming to the Hunt Institute for Botanical
Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, in
1961–62. Subsequently, the Hunt Institute republished his
Familles des plantes in two volumes (1963–64), under the editorship
of G. H. M. Lawrence.
A species of turtle, Pelusios adansonii, is named in his honor.
In The Commodore, the seventeenth novel of Patrick O'Brian's
Stephen Maturin makes reference to Adanson. He
elaborates on Adanson's botanical work in Senegal, the prodigious
volume of his written output and his penurious circumstances at the
time of his death.
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 summarised 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 Jussieu and the
Institut in general. Jack Aubrey: "I am sure he was, said Jack. "We
are under way" he cried." In the eleventh of the Aubrey-Maturin
series he is also mentioned by
Stephen Maturin as having the baobab
tree named in his honour "Adanasonia digitata" by Linnaeus. "The
Reverse of the Medal" pp. 95 "Patrick O'Brian,
Taxa named by Adanson
Main page: Category: Taxa named by Michel Adanson
The standard author abbreviation Adans. is used to indicate this
person as the author when citing a botanical name.
Arboretum de Balaine
^ a b c d e f g One or more of the preceding
sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public
domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Adanson, Michel".
Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
^ Adanson, Michel Adanson : the Bicentennial of Michel Adanson's
Familles des Plantes. Part one. The Hunt botanical library Carnegie
Institute of Technology. Pittsburgh, 1963:49.
^ a b Zirkle, Conway. (1935). The Inheritance of Acquired Characters
and the Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis. The American Naturalist
^ Cornell, John F. (1983). From Creation to Evolution: Sir William
Dawson and the Idea of Design in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of
the History of Biology 16: 137–170.
^ Adanson: Adanson, the man, by J. P. Nicolas. Adanson and his
Familles des plantes, by F. A. Stafleu. The Adanson collection of
botanical books and manuscripts, by W. D. Margadant. Hunt Botanical
Library, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1963. p. 168
^ Mayr, Ernst. (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity,
Evolution, and Inheritance. Belknap Press. p. 260.
^ Delumeau, Jean; O'Connell, Matthew. (2000). History of Paradise: The
Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition. University of Illinois Press. p.
222. ISBN 978-0252068805
^ Adanson papers Archived 10 July 2012 at Archive.is
^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym
Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Adanson", pp. 1-2).
^ Excerpted from The Commodore, pp. 227–228, Patrick O'Brian,
^ IPNI. Adans.
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.
Nicolas, J.P. (1970). "Adanson, Michel". Dictionary of Scientific
Biography. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 58–59.
A voyage to Senegal, the isle of Goree, and the river Gambia,
1759—Translation of Histoire naturelle du Sénégal
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Michel Adanson at Find a Grave
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