Corrêa da Serra, Edward J.
Corrêa da Serra, Edward J.
Corrêa da Serra, Edward J.
José Francisco Correia da Serra (1750–1823, APS 1812) was an abbot, diplomat, scholar and botanist. In his work as a botanist he was particularly concerned with the systematic classification of vegetable species. Thomas Jefferson described him as “profoundly learned in several branches of science he was so above all others in that of Botany; in which he preferred an amalgamation of the methods of Linnaeus [1707-1778, APS 1769] and of Jussieu [1686-1758] to either of them exclusively.” Correia spent many years of his life in France, England and the United States where he made the acquaintance of leading European and American intellectual leaders of the time.
Correia was born in Serpa, Portugal, to the physician and lawyer Luis Dias Correia and Francisca Luisa da Serra. In 1756 the family was forced to leave Portugal because the elder Correia’s scientific work had incurred the displeasure of the Holy Office. They settled in Naples, Italy, where the boy came under the tutelage of the abbé and university professor of “Commerce and mechanics” Antonio Genovesi (1712-1769), a major force in the Neapolitan Enlightenment. During this time Correia was also taught in natural history by the botanist Luis Antonio Verney (1713-1792). In 1772 Correia moved to Rome where he studied at the University and other institutions. By that time he was already corresponding with Carl Linnaeus, in Latin. He also made the acquaintance of Don John Carlos of Braganza, second Duke of Lafoens, a member of the Portuguese royal family. The Duke became Correia’s friend and patron.
In 1775 Correia was ordained a Presbyterian abbot; two years later he received the degree of Doctor of Laws. However, it was clear that Correia’s real interest was natural history, especially botany, and that he did not plan to pursue a life in the church. In fact, some of his biographers have suggested that he focused on ecclesiastical studies mainly in order to protect himself in his scientific work from potential suspicions by the Inquisition. Whatever the case, in early 1778 the young abbé, with encouragement from the duke, who hoped to encourage scientific research in Portugal, moved to Lisbon. There he turned his attention to scholarly pursuits and diplomacy.
Correia and the duke set out right away to organize the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, a learned institution that was dedicated to the advancement of science. Correia also conducted botanical research. He spent the period from 1786 to about 1788 outside of Portugal, and while his activities during this period remain unclear, there is evidence that he visited Rome. In the mid-1790s, after his return to his native country, he began the task of editing what would be the first three of five volumes of Colleccao de livros ineditos da historia Portugueza, an extensive collection of documents.
In 1795 political difficulties compelled Correia to leave Portugal. The Royal Academy and many of its members were viewed with suspicion by certain ecclesiastical groups, especially after Correia befriended the French naturalist and Girondist Peter Marie Auguste Broussonet (1761-1807), who had taken refuge in Portugal. Armed with letters of introduction to several British scientists, Correia traveled to London. He soon became the protégé of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820, APS 1787), president of the Royal Society, who facilitated Correia’s election to the Society. He also was welcomed by James Edward Smith (1759-1828, APS 1796), president of the Linnean Society. By then, Correia was already publishing on various natural science topics, especially botany, which contributed to his growing reputation as a naturalist.
For about one year during his residence in London, Correia also served as Secretary to the Portuguese embassy. However, tensions with the conservative Minister compelled him to depart from England in 1802. In the summer of that year, Correia moved to Paris. There he made the acquaintance of leading scientists and other public figures. The list includes Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours (1739–1817, APS 1800), the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834, APS 1781), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859, APS 1804), the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Augustin Pyrame de Candolle (1778-1841, APS 1841), and André Thouin (1746-1824), superintendent of the Jardin du Roi, now known as Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. Correia also met Esther Delavigne, who eventually became his lover.
Of particular importance to Correia was his extensive correspondence with friends in Portugal that he maintained throughout his time in London, Paris and then the United States. Through his contact with them he hoped to bring the latest scientific ideas and discoveries to his mother country. His letters are filled with news of new vaccines, maritime maps, instruments, and anything else that he thought might serve to aid the progress of Portugal. Correia’s wide-ranging contacts with fellow botanists made him an important intermediary in the exchanges between naturalists in different parts of the world. In 1807 his own government recognized his contributions by making him a Knight of the Order of Christ.
Overall, Correia’s time in Paris was happy and fruitful. However, life as a liberal under Napoleon was not easy, and Correia soon began to explore the possibility of relocating once again, this time to the United States. Finally, in the winter of 1811, the abbé was aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, on his way to what would become a particularly interesting period in his life.
Correia arrived in Washington, D. C., in early 1812, and he did not lose time in making the acquaintance of leading Americans, including President James Madison. He was anxious to visit Thomas Jefferson but owing to the fact that Philadelphia was the intellectual center of the new nation, he decided to establish himself there first. His European friends had already announced Correia’s imminent arrival to several prominent Philadelphians, including the physicians Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, APS 1768) and Caspar Wistar (1761-1818, APS 1787), and John Vaughan (1756–1841, APS 1784), the treasurer and librarian of the American Philosophical Society. The abbé was elected a member of the Society in January of 1812, before his arrival in the city. He became close friends with Vaughan who soon handled his business affairs and advised him in all kinds of matters. Correia also got to know the botanist Henry Muhlenberg (1753-1815, APS 1785), who introduced him to the physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879, APS 1818). And he reconnected with several Philadelphians he knew from his time in Paris, including the lawyer and financier Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844, APS 1813), and William Short (1759-1849, APS 1804), Jefferson’s private secretary in Paris. Life in Philadelphia was clearly enjoyable for the Portuguese exile but he remained anxious to visit “the great the truly great Mr. Jefferson.” In July of 1813 he left for Virginia for the first of what would eventually be seven visits over a period of about eight years.
Jefferson had been introduced to Correia in glowing letters from Lafayette, Du Pont, Thouin, and Humboldt. It is not surprising, then, that Jefferson received the visitor with warmth and great expectations. They were not disappointed. Jefferson described his guest as “the best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character.” The room in which Correia stayed during his visits to Monticello, the North Square Room, is still known as the Abbé’s room. Correia spent much of his time in Virginia on rambles through the country, often in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828, APS 1794). His interest in natural history eventually also took him to Kentucky, Georgia and north to the Canadian border.
Through Jefferson, Correia made the acquaintance of Francis Walker Gilmer (1790-1826), a promising young man who readily accepted the abbé’s invitation to accompany him on his excursions. In 1816 President Madison asked the two men to deliver a letter from him to the agent of the Cherokee, in the southeastern United States. In the course of their journey through South Carolina and Georgia, they made extensive botanical notations, and Gilmer also recorded several pages of Cherokee vocabulary.
In 1816 Correia received news of his appointment as Portuguese minister-plenipotentiary at Washington, D. C. His expectation that this post would not interfere with his scientific pursuits turned out to be mistaken, even though he never spent more than half a year in the nation’s capital. From the start he was forced to deal with complaints about privateers flying foreign flags who were threatening the Portuguese colonies in South America. The fear was that these privateers, many of whom were American, could encourage and aid a rebellion in Brazil. Correia successfully lobbied the U. S. government for a Neutrality Act that was designed to curb these actions.
In the late 1810s, increasing worries about the turn of Portuguese-American affairs and serious health problems gradually made the abbé’s temper shorter and his spirits lower. He also ultimately became a severe critic of America and Americans, an attitude that contributed to his estrangement from some of his older American friends. However, he also found comfort in new relationships with, for example, the English-born chemist and lawyer Thomas Cooper (1759-1839, APS 1802). Most significantly, Edward Joseph, his fifteen-year old son with his lover Esther Delavigne arrived in the United States from Paris in 1818. Edward, who stayed with his father until their return to Europe, got to know many of his Philadelphia friends quite well. In 1820 father and son sailed from the United States for Portugal via London, a year after Correia had learned of his appointment as Counselor of State for Brazil. Correia spent the last three years of his life in Lisbon, “covered with honors,” as his son Edward wrote in a letter to John Vaughan. He died in Lisbon in 1823.
Correia published many essays and reports on botany in the leading European and American scientific journals of his time. His research centered on the systematic classification of vegetable species. In his work he attempted to apply the methods of compared anatomy of zoology to botany; he sought to group plants into families based on their similarities. His concept of symmetry was later adopted and developed by Candolle. While Correia was not “a member of every philosophical society in the world,” as his young protégé Gilmer wrote enthusiastically in a letter to his brother, he did belong to numerous learned societies. They included the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, the Academy of Science of Paris, and the Société Philomatique. He also offered several courses in botany at the American Philosophical Society.
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