Chapter 3: Facing his Adversaries (part excerpt only)
While the heads of aristocrats fell with the sickening swish of the guillotine blade, in revolutionary Paris even ordinary citizens came under suspicion. The Reign of Terror—or more simply the Terror—had begun to strike, crushing dissent in the name of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.
But as well as dread, the revolution created a climate of celebration. Or was it just the simple pleasure of staying alive? Regardless, Paris was a buoyant place. Along the crowded streets, café tables spilled out into the squares while restaurants and theatres boomed. Paris was abuzz with the business of living.
Onto the cobblestones one day rumbled a sight as comic as it was prophetic. The three-wheeled automobile of Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot hissed, wheezed and then shuddered to a halt. The excited crowd surged towards this marvel of science and engineering. Cugnot’s vehicle was said to be able to pull four tonnes and travel at speeds of up to four kilometres per hour. It was more land-locked steamship than modern automobile but a motorised vehicle it was. It had two wheels at the back supporting the bulbous steam-boiler and one at the front steered by a tiller. On this summer’s day in 1793, Cugnot was demonstrating his invention to lowly officials in a bid to win financial support.
As Cugnot’s improbable motor-vehicle hissed and spat its way through the square, Lamarck rushed by, pushing through the crowd to reach the carriage that would take him to the Jardin des Plantes. Over the past two years, he had been helping to transform the Jardin from a botanical garden with a centre for medical education and biological research into a fully fledged National Museum of Natural History. Today he would learn whether or not he was to become one of its twelve foundation professors.
Despite his youthful stubbornness on the battlefield, Lamarck was not an overly confident man and his anticipation of the meeting at the Jardin made him nervous. Yet of one thing he was certain: he deserved the plum role of foundation professor. Over breakfast that morning, he had experienced an unusual calmness as he considered his position. Lamarck had devoted his adult life—initially as an avid amateur and subsequently throughout his professional career—to the study and organisation of botany. His Flore Française had received wide acclaim and Lamarck was now considered a man of eminence in botanical studies. How could he not be made professor of botany? Suddenly he recalled the conversation with his beloved Marie and he knew this was his moment in history. Today he would be granted one of the three botanical chairs. Had he not been a keen botanist throughout his time in the military? Had he not for the past twenty years been studying, writing and teaching botany in Paris? And had he not for these past five years been keeper of the king’s herbarium at the Jardin? To him, the logic was faultless.
As the carriage pulled off on its short journey to the Jardin in the fifth arrondissement, Lamarck looked out of the window and marvelled at how different the city was from the Paris he’d visited as a child. Every month new discoveries were announced that changed the course of history. It was a fertile time to be a naturalist and Lamarck knew it. However, he began to ruminate on the politics of science and the machinations that would come into play over the selection of the foundation professors. As his carriage trundled closer to the Jardin, uncertainty about his appointment grew.
© 2008 – Ross Honeywill. This material is subject to strict copyright protection and no part may be used without express consent of the author/copyright owner