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Philippe Commerson, the famous botanist in Mauritius

Written on : 27 May 2020
By : Léa Frémiot
Philippe Commerson, the famous botanist in Mauritius

The exotic nature of Mauritius has always been the stuff of dreams, and Philippe Commerson understood that well. A French botanist, he undertook many trips to discover the fauna and flora and was notably part of the famous expedition alongside Bougainvillea. After exploring Mauritius, he decided to spend the last few days here. Quickly discover this figure of French botanicals and its history with Mauritius.

Who is Philip Commerson?

Who is Philip Commerson?

Born on 18 November 1727 in Châtillon-les-Dombes and eldest of seven boys, it was from the third one onwards that Philippe Commerson discovered some notions of botany through walks with his teacher. This was the birth of his vocation. At the age of twenty, he decided to turn to natural history and medicine and left to continue his studies in Montpellier. This taste for botany quickly turned into a real passion and he started his first herbarium with the aim of surpassing in number and species all the previous herbariums. Extreme and sometimes violent in nature, he contradicted and refuted the theories of his professors at every opportunity. This character only found interest in the study and the knowledge he could bring to others. After graduating as a doctor, he spent four more years in Montpellier before joining his family and studying the plants of many regions of France.

A short time later, and already recognized as a specialist, at the request of the Queen of Sweden, Professor Gouan asked him to carry out research on Mediterranean fish, work which he carried out successfully. In 1755 he began botanical research in Switzerland, Savoy and other French cities before settling for a while as a doctor in Toulon-sur-Arroux. Working day and night without restraint, sometimes to the point of becoming ill, Philippe Commerson was driven by the desire to discover further and further. In 1760 he married Antoinette Vivante Beau, whose son he had a son that cost his wife her life. 

Following the grief caused by the death of his wife and the solicitations of his friends, he left for Paris and was a great success with his fellow botanists. At that time the great journey to the southern lands of Bougainville was planned and the botanist was offered to join the expedition, which he accepted, but due to poor health, he joined the expedition a few days later in Rochefort.  He wrote his will before his departure, in which he mentioned that each year a prize of virtue be given in his honour to a person who had carried out good deeds in that year.

During this trip, he visited the Falkland Islands in Brazil. As well as Tahiti where he discovered people with exceptional warmth and whose way of life inspired him greatly. During this expedition, two people assisted him in his work, a painter named Jossigny who drew the plants for him, and Baret, a servant but also a real botanist named Jeanne Barret.

After more than twenty-one months of travel, the expedition anchored in Mauritius where Commerson met Poivre, a botanist with whom he became friends and a soldier from Châtillon who informed him of the death of one of his parents. At that time he wanted to explore North America as well as establishing himself in Mauritius, which he particularly liked, as there was an academy bringing together all the various sciences. A the end of 1770 he continued his explorations in Madagascar and Reunion Island before returning to Mauritius where he had already completed a study of the island's natural history. At the end of 1771, the poor health of the botanist prevented him from returning to France with his friends and his collections were so important that they could not be transported on the ship. He thus retired to a house he bought in Mauritius. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Philippe Commerson died there, accompanied by Jeanne Baret, on March 13, 1773, at the age of 46. It was only eight days after his death that the botanist was named Associate of the Academy in recognition of his many works. His large herbarium was bequeathed to the King's Garden and he sent more than 1500 species to his botanist friend Linné.

>>> 10 explorers who changed history.

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