Jacquemont, Victor, 1801-1832

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Born in Paris on August 8, 1801, the youngest of four sons of Venceslas and Rose Laisné Jacquemont, Victor Jacquemont became one of the rising stars of French natural history and an archetype for the scientist in the Romantic era. Combining youth, genius, and a rhapsodic love of nature with a life filled with masculine affection, star-crossed romance, and exotic climes, Jacquemont epitomized the romantic intellectual right up to the time of his untimely death in the Himalayas. In a career in which ill fortune and good fortune walked hand in hand, the figure of Jacquemont has all but overshadowed his substantial scientific accomplishments.

As a youth, Jacquemont pursued a course of classical studies at the Lycée Imperiale before entering into a scientific course at the Collège de France in 1817 to study chemistry under Louis Jacques Thenard (1777-1857). When a laboratory accident waylaid him, however, Jacquemont's interests drifted to botany. At the Château La Grange, home of the Marquis de Lafayette, Jacquemont had recovered sufficiently by 1820 to undertake a botanical tour of northeastern France, further whetting his enthusiasm for his new passion. His coterie of friends, including Adolphe Brogniart, Hippolyte Jaubert, Albert Kunth, and Adrien de Jussieu, helped sharpen Jacquemont's skills in botany, geology, and mineralogy, and together, they founded the Société d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris to promote their sciences. Jacquemont's social and intellectual ambit grew steadily, and by his twenty-first birthday, he had been received into the influential salon of étienne Delécluze in Paris, and later, into the circle gathered about Mme Pasta. He eventually counted among his valued associates such stellar figures as Stendahl and Prosper Mérimée.

Jacquemont's ascent into the stratosphere of French science was regularly accompanied by an appropriately romantic pairing of tragedy and good fortune. While taking part in a scientific excursion to the Alps in 1822, Jacquemont's friend Jaubert fell ill near the tiny village of Pinsot, requiring immediate care. The party of young scientists was taken in by a young engineer, Achille Chaper, with whom all found an immediate affinity. The bond between Jacquemont and Chaper, in particular, was instantaneous and life-long, and the two became intimate correspondents on matters social, political, personal, and scientific during the extensive periods when they were separated by science or social obligations.

Returning to his education in the fall of 1822, Jacquemont entered a course in medicine at the Faculté de Médecine in Paris, but nevertheless continued to work at the Jardin des Plantes and to take courses under Arago at the école des Mines. His relentless schedule had little impact upon his productivity: between 1820 and 1828, he contributed over 20 articles to scientific publications and never abated his naturalizing tours in and around France. Before long, however, the peculiar mix of good and ill fortune reentered the scene. Falling into a deep despair in 1826 over an "unhappy passion" for the Italian singer Adélaide Schïasetti, Jacquemont threatened to unravel. To divert him from his woes, Jacquemont's brother intervened to arrange a voyage to New York, to find solace in a new climate and in the company of an old friend, John B. Stevenson, a physician whom he had met at the Jardin des Plantes. Yet the Atlantic could not buffer against the tides of passion. While departing after a pleasant evening at the home of Pierre François Réal, Jacquemont's walking companion, the former Napoleonic officer, General Lalleman, suddenly launched into a deeply offending tirade. So insulting were the general's words, in fact, that Jacquemont immediately demanded satisfaction. Prevented by New York authorities from dueling in the States, Jacquemont vowed to avenge his wounded honor by traveling to Haiti, where civilized people could kill one another with honor (and where his brother Frédéric served as Consul). Lallemand, however, refused to follow, citing poverty among other excuses. Although the general never deigned to apologize, Jacquemont took comfort in the knowledge that the general's cowardice had been sufficiently demonstrated, and by January 1827, he felt free to leave Haiti, his honor restored.

The sojourn in Haiti, however, was not wasted. During his stay, Jacquemont engaged in some minor botanizing, but more importantly, he received an invitation from Pierre Louis Cordier of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle to undertake a scientific survey in India, complete with full pay and full discretion over the course of the expedition. This morsel of scientific validation was irresistible, and Jacquemont immediately returned to France via the United States to prepare. A winter in Paris served to shore up his knowledge of Asian zoology and he returned to the Jardin des Plantes to bone up on techniques for the preservation of natural specimens. After finalizing his arrangements, he departed on August 26, 1828, sailing aboard the Zélée for Pondichery.

Almost terra incognita to the French, India represented a vast scientific challenge for a country eager for information about "tropical" colonial dependencies. His travels from the Punjab to Kashmir, Bombay to Bengal, brought Jacquemont into a starling array of botanical microhabitats and geological terranes, generating reams of data and thousands of specimens that eventually fed back into French scientific circles. His pioneering geological research in the Himalayas appears to have had little influence, but his remarks on the Indian flora -- largely descriptive, but including notes on biogeography, ecology, and taxonomy -- were received eagerly. Although botanical knowledge of the tropical portions of the subcontinent were becoming increasingly well known, the information returned from the Kashmir and Himalayas as far east as Tibet was largely original. The major publication resulting from Jacquemont's three years in Indian, Voyage dans l'Inde, was widely read, and comprehended a vast scope, venturing from botany and zoology into ethnography, colonial administration, and jurisprudence. His exertions under difficult conditions and precarious health, however, took their toll. Jacquemont died of disease in Bombay on December 7, 1832.

From the guide to the Victor Jacquemont Papers, 1822-1833, 1822-1833, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Botany--France
Geology--France
Dueling
Humboldt, Alexander von, 1769-1859
Natural history--France
Slavery--Brazil
Beyond Early America
Haiti--Description and travel
India--Description and travel--19th century
Himalaya Mountains--Description and travel
Occupation
Activity

Person

Birth 1801-08-08

Death 1832-12-07

French

French

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