The Museum as cradle of chemistry

The Museum is one of the birthplaces of chemistry. Since its creation in 1635 by order of Louis XIII, the Jardin Royal has displayed medicinal plants, their uses and the search for active ingredients. At that time, the terms chemist and alchemist referred to the same activity...

Portrait de William Davisson, dans Nouvelles archives du Muséum, série 3, volume 10, 1898, Pr 260

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In 1647, a Scottish alchemist doctor, William Davisson, gave the first free public chemistry course ever taught in France. In turn, his successors made the site one of the liveliest chemical centres of the 18th century. Among the great figures of the time was Guillaume-François Rouelle. In his laboratory were trained the greatest talents of the pre-revolutionary period: Bayen, Bucquet, Darcet, Macquer and Lavoisier.

And the audience was just as brilliant! Encyclopedists (Diderot), economists (Turgot), magistrates (Malesherbes) and philosophers (Rousseau) all flocked to it. It was so successful that the walls had to be extended. So much so that Buffon, steward of the Garden, entrusted the architect Verniquet with the task of building a new amphitheatre.

Pierre Petit, [Vue intérieure de l'Amphithéâtre avec installation pour le cours de chimie], [sans date], photographie noir et blanc, 331x270 mm, IC 5145

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Belliard, Delpech, « Lavoisier », XIXe siècle, estampe, 355x600 mm, PO 797GF

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In the meantime, chemistry was charting its own course in the 1730s, abandoning the search for the "philosopher's stone" and turning to matter and its components in a scientific approach based on experimentation and logic. From 1772 onwards, a chemical revolution took hold, the 'father' of which was Lavoisier, and his famous "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed". A genius chemist, he was also a lawyer and a fermier général - a kind of tax collector, which led to his being guillotined in 1794. Modern chemistry therefore took off without him... The French Revolution was in full swing. By decree of the Convention, the Jardin du Roy became the Muséum d'Histoire naturelle in 1793 and two chairs of chemistry were created. Antoine-François Fourcroy, a chemist and member of the Convention, taught Lavoisier's new "theory", of which he was an ardent advocate. While Vauquelin discovered chromium, Chevreul isolated, characterized and named cholesterol. The textile industry, led by the printed cotton cloth factories (the "indiennes"), turned to chemistry to improve the technique of printing fabrics and their colouring.

Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed

Maurin, Langlumé, « Nicolas Louis Vauquelin », XIXe siècle, estampe, 128x208 mm, PO 1189

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Julien, Blaizot, « A.F. Fourcroy», [sans date], estampe, 127x216mm, PO 450

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Anonyme, [Edmond Frémy], [avant 1894], photographie noir et blanc, 200x300 mm, PO 1671

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As the country entered the industrial era under the Second Empire, a school of chemistry opened at the Museum in 1864 under the impetus of Professor Fremy. This was a first in France, which did not yet have any engineering courses! Another original feature was that the courses were free of charge and experimentation was given pride of place. In 1872, Fremy inaugurated the buildings at 63 rue de Buffon, where the current chemistry laboratory is located.

From 1864 to 1892, when the school was closed, more than 1,400 students were trained there. The most famous of these were Moissan, the first Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1906), Arnaud, Chevreul's successor and a pioneer in plant chemistry, Étard, Bertrand, Verneuil, Becquerel and Curie.

Anonyme, [Chevreul], estampe, 60x80mm, PO 1611

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Anonyme, [Gabriel Bertrand], photographie noir et blanc, 185x275 mm, PO 3016

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Anonyme, « A. Verneuil 1856-1913 », [sans date], photogravure noir et blanc, 180x235 mm, PO 2232

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Today, chemistry at the Museum is still focused on molecules of natural origin, but with a stronger focus on the environment: toxic plants, pharmacological interest in relation to socio-cultural aspects, the role of chemical mediators in the interactions between living organisms that govern the functioning of various ecosystems in terrestrial and marine environments, etc. It is the golden age of green chemistry. It tends to reduce the use of fossil raw materials, energy and by-products, the production of waste and toxicity... In favour of more renewable raw materials, more efficient natural catalysts and recycling.

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