Adanson, Michel

Michel Adanson (April 7, 1727 – August 3, 1806) was a French naturalist of Scottish descent. He was born at Aix-en-Provence. His family moved to Paris in 1730. After leaving the College Sainte Barbe he was employed in the cabinets of R. A. F. Reaumur and Bernard de Jussieu, as well as in the Jardin des Plantes.

Adanson left France at the end of 1748 on an exploring expedition to Senegal. He remained there for five years, collecting and describing numerous animal and plant species. He also made systematic meteorological and astronomical observations, and prepared grammars and dictionaries for the languages spoken on the banks of the Senegal.

In 1754, Adanson returned to Paris and made use of a small portion of the materials he had collected in his Histoire naturelle du Senegal (Natural History of Senegal) published in 1757. In this work, Adanson proposed his universal method, a system of classification distinct from the works of Buffon and Linnaeus. He founded his classification of all organized beings on the consideration of each individual organ. As each organ produced new relations, those beings possessing the greatest numbers of similar organs were referred to one great division, and the relationship was considered more remote in proportion to the dissimilarity of organs.

In 1763 he published his Familles naturelles des plantes (Natural Families of Plants). This work was based largely on a system used by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, and had been anticipated to some extent nearly a century before by John Ray. In 1774 he 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. The total work consisted of 150 volumes more, with the occupancy of 40,000 species, a vocabulary containing 200,000 words with explanations, and a number of memoirs with 40,000 figures and 30,000 specimens of the three kingdoms of nature. The committee to which the work was entrusted, recommended Adanson to separate and publish his work separately from what was merely compilation. He rejected this advice and the work was never published.

He was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences in 1759, and he later subsided on a small pension it had conferred on him. Of this he was deprived in the dissolution of the Academy by the Constituent Assembly, 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. Afterwards he was granted a pension sufficient to relieve his simple wants.

He died in 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. Besides the books already mentioned he published papers on the ship-worm, the baobab tree (whose generic name Adansonia commemorates Adanson), the origin of the varieties of cultivated plants, and gum-producing trees. His papers and herbarium remained in his family’s hands for over a century and a half, finally coming to the Hunt Botanical Library around 1960. Subsequently the Hunt Institute republished his Familles des plantes in two volumes (1963-64), under the editorship of G. H. M. Lawrence.