John Ray

1627 (Black Notley, England) – 1705 (Black Notley)

Perhaps the most under-appreciated British scientist, Ray pioneered the rational taxonomisation of the life sciences, providing a platform for Linnaeus’ subsequent work. Barrow, a fellow-student at Cambridge, became a great friend. Willughby, also met at Cambridge, accompanied him on expeditions, and supported him when he resigned his fellowship. Wilkins also gave him house-room – Ray translated one of his works into Latin. Rivinus (in Leipzig), Sloane, Oldenburg and Hooke were among his scientific correspondents. Magnol and Steno were met in Montpellier. His work on fishes so strained the Royal Society’s finances that Hooke and Halley were paid in extra copies.

John Ray knew…

  • Hans Sloane
  • Pierre Magnol
  • John Aubrey
  • Isaac Barrow
  • Francis Willughby
  • John Wilkins
  • Henry Oldenburg
  • Robert Hooke
  • Edward Lhuyd
  • Augustus Quirinis Rivinus
  • Martin Lister
  • Nicolas Steno
  • John Evelyn
  • Thomas Browne

Comte de Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc;Buffon

1707 (Montbard, France) – 1788 (Paris)

Buffon prepared natural history for its modernisation. Maupertuis acted as his mentor. D’Alembert called him “the great phrasemonger.” Daubenton collaborated with him for eight years before being unceremoniously ditched. Helvétius and Rousseau stayed with him, Hume and Jefferson were correspondents, Châtelet consulted him on Newton, and Lamarck took his teenage son around Europe. Smellie translated his Histoire Naturelle, Buffon trying to impress him with his important Scottish contacts. Buffon mocked Voltaire’s ideas about fossils, and got Winsløw and Lacépède posts in the royal gardens, realigned by him as a research centre.

William Smellie, encyclopaedist

1740 (Edinburgh) – 1795 (Edinburgh)

The convivial Smellie (not to be confused with the obstetrician of the same name) was a leading figure in Edinburgh enlightenment circles. He printed the work of Burns, Hume, Smith, Cullen and Hutton, all of them friends of his (he attended Cullen’s lectures). Smellie learned French so he could translate Buffon’s great work, was with Black a regular at Monboddo’s ‘learned suppers’, and corresponded with Hunter. Burns immortalised the drinking club Smellie founded — the two had a particular taste for each other’s wit and company; Smith, Ferguson and Monboddo were also members. There is surprisingly little on him online.

Bernard Germain de Lacépède

Bernard Germain de La Cépède

1756 (Agen, France) – 1825 (Épinay-sur-Seine)

The aristocratic Lacépède is mostly known for his continuation, after Buffon’s death, of his great descriptive ‘Natural History’. Gluck complimented the 20-year-old on his unperformed opera. Buffon befriended him after reading some of his writings, taught him (as did Daubenton), and regarded him as his protégé and chosen successor. Cuvier was a close colleague, as were Monge, Berthollet, Chaptal and Laplace. Geoffroy corresponded from Egypt, and took over his position when he fled the Revolution. Lalande was a Masonic colleague; Jefferson corresponded about the possibility of trade-routes and live mammoths.

Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton

1716 (Montbard, France) – 1800 (Paris)

Though less renowned than Buffon (a childhood friend and professional colleague, who got him in because of his own distaste for anatomy and dissection), Daubenton was a significant naturalist and a pioneer of comparative anatomy. He contributed to Diderot’s encyclopaedia, wrote a preface for Lamarck, taught and inspired Haüy, and knew Banks. He recommended Geoffroy — who had attended his lectures and was also supported by another of Daubenton’s protégés, Vicq d’Azyr — to an important first job. After a decade working together, Buffon excised his contribution to the ‘Histoire Naturelle’ (to its detriment), though they later made up.

Esprit Requien

1788 (Avignon, France) – 1851 (Bonifacio, Corsica)

Requien published little, but was an important naturalist (especially in the field of plant communities), enthusiastically and widely erudite. Among his extensive scientific contacts, Bentham, Mirbel, Gray, and his old teacher and good friend de Candolle all visited him. He met his kindred spirit and close colleague spirit Fabre in Corsica, introducing him to conchology and botany. Agassiz was a great friend — Requien sent him extensive information on fossil fishes, and joined him on Agassiz’s first visit to Paris. Mérimée and he, as inspectors of ancient monuments, became lifelong close friends, and helped save Avignon’s walls.

Esprit Requien knew…

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

1744 (Bazentin, France) – 1829 (Paris)

Though Lamarck’s ideas are largely discredited, he was the first to propose a coherent theory of evolution. Bernard de Jussieu taught him; his mentor Buffon helped him ascend the botanical ranks. Rousseau was, inspirationally, met on a walk. Among his professional colleagues, Daubenton wrote a preface for him, Geoffroy was one of the few to fully respect him, Cuvier disparaged his ideas and destroyed him after his death. De Candolle befriended him, Lamarck entrusting him with publication of a new edition of his ‘Flore Française.’ It’s thought that Balzac and Saint-Beuve attended his lectures; whether they met is uncertain.

Johann Reinhold Forster

1729 (Dirschau, Prussia, now Tczew, Poland) – 1798 (Halle, Germany)

Forster was long overshadowed by his son Georg. Taking over from his colleague Priestley, he was the first in England to teach natural history. Banks and Solander got to know him as a naturalist on his move to London, and when Cook refused Banks’s demands, Forster (with son) replaced him on Cook’s second voyage. He was a disciple and correspondent of Linnaeus, who regarded him highly and named a plant after him, and corresponded with Young. His gift for tactlessness (Cook and the Admiralty fell out with him, Solander had his reservations) contributed to his marginalisation and eventual return to Germany.

Charles Bonnet

1720 (Geneva) – 1793 (Genthod, Switzerland)

Bonnet stood on the cusp of modern experimental science and earlier speculative theorising. He was Saussure’s uncle, and with his wife, brought him up as if their own son. Réaumur was a formative influence — Bonnet started corresponding with him after reading his ‘History of Insects’. Spallanzani was a good friend, who stayed with Bonnet when he was able to leave Italy; they had shared ideas about the reproduction of organisms. Sénebier was one of Bonnet’s students, and Haller and Blumenbach correspondents. Although he was a major critic of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on Inequality’, Rousseau never replied.

Alexander von Humboldt

1769 (Berlin) – 1859 (Berlin)

Humboldt, a small man and intellectual giant, was uncommonly well-connected. Werner taught him geology. Gay-Lussac savaged some of his work, but they became friends and ascended Vesuvius in eruption. He named the brazil-nut tree after Berthollet, travelled in the Low Countries and England with Forster, explored Latin America with Bonpland, and met Jefferson. Felix Mendelssohn, a family friend, dedicated a cantata to him. He wrote to Arago, starting 40 years’ friendship; Faraday was another correspondent. He knew Heine and Darwin, met Meyerbeer frequently, contributed to Schiller’s periodical, and taught Agassiz geology.