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‘The whole man at once’: scientific identities at the Dibner Library

by Morgan E. Aronson

George Sarton, a founder of the history of science as an academic discipline, argued that scholars should pay close attention to portraits. These images, he said, can give you ‘the whole man at once.’ With a ‘great portrait,’ Sarton believed, ‘you are given immediately some fundamental knowledge of him, which even the longest descriptions and discussions would fail to evoke.’ Sarton’s ideas led Bern Dibner to purchase portrait prints of men and women of science and technology. Many of these are now in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

Deborah Jean Warner, Curator, Physical Sciences Collection

 

A picture may tell 1000 words, but another 500 for context can add depth to the image. Follow this blog series to discover the people behind the portraits available online in the Scientific Identity collection.

Joseph Jerome Le Francais de Lalande (1732-1807)

Had Joseph Jerome Le Francis de Lalande chosen a different place of lodging, he may very well have become a barrister or priest in the French provinces. Instead, his contributions to astronomy led Bern Dibner to collect five of his portraits.

Born in 1732 in the town of Bourg, Lalande’s relatively wealthy parents sent their only child to be educated at the Jesuit College in Lyon. What happened there we cannot say, but instead of joining the Order young Lalande left Lyon for Paris to study law.  Lalande settled on the Hotel de Cluny, now a museum, for lodging.  Originally built to house the abbots of Cluny, it was re-built in the late 15th century and still exists in that form today. Later tenants included Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII and wife to Louis XII, and Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin, Chief Minister to the King of France for 20 years until his death in 1661. By the time Lalande arrived, astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle (1688-1768) had transformed the top of the hotel’s tower into an observatory for the navy, used often by astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817) and others. It was this proximity to the tools of astronomy that led Lalande astray from a promising career in the law.

Diagram showing the parallax of the moon from the Earth. khanacademy.org

Lalande’s enthusiasm for astronomy was quickly noticed by leading French astronomer Charles Le Monnier (1715-1799). A project was underway at the time to have two people observe the transit of the moon from different positions on the same meridian. It was believed that the results of this observation would improve the accuracy of the moon’s known parallax. Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762) was to be sent to the Cape of Good Hope and La Monnier suggested that young Lalande be entrusted with the task of observing from Berlin. So it was that before the age of 21 Lalande, as guest of the Prussian Observatory, successfully noted the transit of the moon and thus made his first contribution to astronomy.

Unfortunately this would also be the first of many occasions when Lalande’s difficult personality would sour his professional relations. Lalande and La Monnier disagreed on the allowance to be given to the flattening of the Earth’s surface, and it was Lalande’s results that were deemed most valid by the scientific community. Though La Monnier distanced himself from his pupil after that, Lalande no longer needed his help. He was soon admitted to the Academy of Berlin and given the post of adjunct astronomer to the Academy of Paris. Lalande was given the great responsibility of coordinating and collecting the observations of the two transits of Venus that occurred just 8 years apart (in 1761 and 1769). Should it have gone awry the scientific community would have had to wait 113 years to try again. The success of this project allowed astronomers to accurately establish the size of the Solar System and won Lalande a lifetime of deserved fame.

In 1762 J. N. Delisle resigned his chair of astronomy in the College de France in favor of Lalande. Lalande would remain there for 46 years, turning his home into an astronomical seminary for the next generation of astronomers.

Lalande died 210 years ago today, April 4th, but his continued relevance to modern astronomy can’t be denied. His work on improving Halley’s planetary tables made them the most accurate available to the end of the 18th century. His lectures and textbooks popularized astronomy as a science. The Lalande prize, created by him in 1802 for the chief astronomical performance of the year, continued until 1970 to recognize astronomical achievements. Click here for a list of 26 of Lalande’s works, including several manuscript pieces in Laland’s own hand, you can see by appointment at the Dibner Library.

 

Sources:

Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, Astronomers. David Abbott 1984.

World’s Who’s Who in Science

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 16. Pg. 95

Scientific Identity

 

Books by Lalande in the Smithsonian Libraries collections:

1.Document [manuscript]
by Corvisart des Marets, Jean Nicolas, baron, 1755-1821
Call #: MSS 000375 A
Imprint: 1802.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

2.Bibliographie astronomique : avec l’histoire de l’astronomie depuis 1781 jusqu’à 1802.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: Z5151 .L19 1970
Imprint: Amsterdam : J. C. Gieben, 1970.
Collection: Special Collections Dibner Reference

3.The art of making paper : taken from the Universal magazine of knowledge and pleasure … here selected from volumes X, XXX & XXXII / / [compiled by Colin Cohen, Geoffry Wakeman].
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TS1104 .L2213X
Imprint: Loughborough, Eng. : Plough Press, c1978.
Collection: NMAH Graphic Arts

4.[Pièces d’astronomie.
Call #: QB3 .P613
Imprint: s.l. : s.n., 1746-1766]
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

5.Des canaux de navigation, et spécialement du canal de Languedoc. / Par. m. de La Lande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TC672 .L2L3 folio
Imprint: Paris, Veuve Desaint, 1778.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner Transfer)

6.Papers [manuscript]
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: MSS 000814 A
Imprint: 1755-1806.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

7.Physica specialis [manuscript]
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: MSS 000832 B
Imprint: 1781.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

8.Abrégé d’astronomie / / par M. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB45 .L19 1774
Imprint: A Paris : Chez la veuve Desaint …, 1774.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

9.Astronomie / / par M. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB42 .L19 1764
Imprint: A Paris, Chez Desaint & Saillant, libraires …, 1764.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

10.Bibliographie astronomique : avec l’histoire de l’astronomie depuis 1781 jusqu’à 1802 / / par Jérôme de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: Z5151 .L19 1803
Imprint: A Paris : De l’Imprimerie de la République, an 11, 1803.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

11.Compendio d’astronomia : colle tavole astronomiche / / del Signor de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB45 .L19 I1777
Imprint: In Padova : Nella Stamperia del Seminario : Appresso Giovanni Manfré, 1777.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

12.Almanac des physiciens / / par le citoyen Lalande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: AY81 .M4L19 1801
Imprint: A Paris : Chez Laurens, jeune, imprimeur-libraire …, [1801?]
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

13.Abrégé de navigation, historique, théorique et pratique : òu l’on trouve les principes de lamanoeuvre & ceux du pilotage, les méthodes les plus simples pour se conduire sur mer par longitudes & latitudes, avec des tables horaires pour connôitre le tems vrai par la hauteur du soleil & des e toiles dans tous les tems de l’année, & à toutes les latitudes jusqu’à 61 / / par Jerome Lalande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: VK553 .L2X 1793
Imprint: A Paris : Chez l’auteur …, & chez Dezauche …, 1793.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

14.Traité du flux et du reflux de la mer : d’après la théorie et les observations extrait du quatrième volume de l’Astronomie / / par M. de Lalande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB414 .L19 1781
Imprint: A Paris : Chez la veuve Desaint …, 1781.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

15.Mémoire sur la véritable longueur de l’année astronomique : qui a remporté le prix proposé par la Société roïale des sciences de Copenhague (pour l’année MDCCLXXX) / / Mr. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB211 .L19m 1784
Imprint: Copenhague : Imprimé chez Auguste Friderich Stein, 1784.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

16.Histoire céleste française, contenant les observations faites par plusieurs astronomes français / / publiée Jérôme Delalande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB4 .L16X 1801
Imprint: A Paris : Imprimerie de la république, an 9, 1801.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

17.Connoissance des temps pour l’année 1761, au méridien de Paris / / publiée par l’ordre de l’Académie royale des sciences, et calculée par M. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB211 .L19 1759
Imprint: A Paris : De l’Imprimerie royale, 1759.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

18.Tables de logarithmes pour les nombres et pour les sinus / / par Jéròme de Lalande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QA55 .L22 1818
Imprint: Paris : Mme ve Courcier, imprimeur-libraire …, 1818.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

19.Réflexions sur les comètes : qui peuvent approcher de la terre / / par M. de La Lande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: QB357 .L22 1773
Imprint: A Paris : Chez Gibert, libraire …, 1773.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

20.Voyage d’un françois en Italie : fait dans les années 1765 & 1766 : contenant l’histoire & les anecdotes les plus singulieres de l’Italie, & sa description, les moeurs, les usages, le gouvernement, le commerce, la littérature, les arts, l’histoire naturelle & les antiquités : avec des jugemenssur les ouvrages de peinture, sculpture & architecture, & les plans de toutes les grandes villes d’ Italie.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: DG424 .L19 1769X
Imprint: A Venise ; Se trouve à Paris : Chez Desaint, libraire …, 1769.
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

21.L’art de l’hongroyeur / / par M. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TS965 .L35 1766 folio
Imprint: [Paris : Desaint & Saillant?, 1766?]
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

22.L’art de faire le maroquin / / par M. de La Lande …
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TS965 .L35 1766 folio
Imprint: [Paris : Desaint et Saillant?, 1766?]
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

23.Art du mégissier / / par M. de La Lande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TS965 .L35 1766 folio
Imprint: [Paris] : De l’imprimerie de H.L. Guerin & L.F. Delatour, 1765.
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

24.Art de faire le parchemin / / par M. de La Lande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TS965 .L35 1766 folio
Imprint: [Paris] : De l’Imprimerie de H.L. Guerin & L.F. Delatour, 1762.
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

25.Art du chamoiseur / / par M. de La Lande.
by Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de, 1732-1807
Call #: TN800 .M67 1768 folio
Imprint: [Paris : Desaint & Saillant?], 1763.
Collection: Cooper-Hewitt Rare Books

26.Letter [manuscript]
by Darquier de Pellepoix, Augustin, 1718-1802.
Call #: MSS 000403 A
Imprint: 1776.
Collection: Special Collections (Dibner)

 

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