Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 36 of 79

When this pious writer died, his papers were intrusted to his friend Dr Derham, who, having arranged and selected such as seemed of most importance, published a part of them in 1718, under the name of Philosophical Letters between the late learned Mr Ray and several of his ingenious Correspondents, natives and foreigners, to which are added those of Francis Willughby, Esq. The same person, as has been already mentioned, also edited the Synopsis of Birds and Fishes, and prepared for publication his posthumous work on Insects. He moreover got ready for the press his Travels in England, Wales, and Scotland, to which he intended to prefix an account of the author; but, although the life was written, the book did not make its appearance until a later period, when, as has been noted above, it came forth under the direction of Mr George Scott, bearing the title of the Select Remains of the learned John Ray.[Pg 182]

The principal authorities for his life and writings are, the Select Remains just mentioned; Dr Pulteney's Sketches of the Progress of Botany; the article Ray, in Rees' Cyclopædia, by Sir James Edward Smith; and that by Cuvier and Du Petit-Thouars, in the Biographie Universelle. In the two latter, his botanical and zoological labours are carefully recorded; and from the former we learn, in conclusion, that "his handwriting was peculiarly fair and elegant;" which has been the case with few of the more distinguished naturalists. His portraits are not numerous, but there is one in oil, taken at an advanced period of his life, remaining in the British Museum; a miniature, in the possession of Dr John Sims, having been engraved in the first volume of the Annals of Botany, published in 1805; and two prints, the one by Elder, the other by Vertue, from a picture by Faithorne, being prefixed to the third edition of the Synopsis, and to the Historia Plantarum. We may add that, in the fifteenth number of the Gallery of Portraits, published under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, is a beautiful engraving by Meyer of the painting in the British Museum.

In the likeness of Ray the phrenologist will look in vain for indications of those intellectual faculties which are displayed in his writings. The forehead is contracted in all its dimensions; so as to form a direct contrast to that of Cuvier, another naturalist of equal industry and zeal, but perhaps of not more comprehensive mind.


[I] Biographic Universelle, art. Ray, tome xxxvii. p. 161.

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Account of the Life and Writings of Reaumur.

Birth and Education of Reaumur—He settles at Paris, where he is introduced to the Scientific World by the President Henault, and becomes a Member of the Academy of Sciences—His Labours for the Improvement of the Arts—His Works on Natural History, of which the Memoirs on Insects are the most important—His Occupations and Mode of Life.

René Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur, one of the most ingenious naturalists whom France has produced, was born at Rochelle in 1683. He commenced his studies in his native place, continued them at Poitiers under the Jesuits, and finished his professional course at Bourges; but feeling less inclined to the practice of law than to the investigations of natural science, he resolved to devote himself entirely to the latter. In this respect he was the more justified in following his inclination, that he possessed a fortune sufficient to support him without engaging in any occupation merely to procure the means of subsistence. He began to prepare for his new pursuits by studying mathematics, and when he thought his proficiency such as to qualify him to make a respectable figure among the naturalists and philosophers of the capital, he removed thither in the year 1703.[Pg 184]

The President Henault, who held a distinguished station among the literati of Paris, and who was his relative, introduced him to the scientific world. In 1708, when only twenty-four years of age, he presented some geometrical memoirs to the Academy of Sciences, who were so much pleased with his performance as to admit him into their society,—an honour which he enjoyed nearly fifty years. His exertions were directed successively to the improvement of the arts, to natural philosophy, and to natural history. From his entrance into the academy he scarcely allowed a year to pass without publishing some work of importance. Soon after his admission he was appointed to assist in drawing up a description of certain arts and trades; but not confining himself to a simple elucidation, he endeavoured also to improve them, by applying the principles of physics and chemistry. On the other hand, by observing the ingenious combinations employed in some of the arts, he had frequent opportunities of adding to his knowledge of the phenomena of nature.

In his inquiries into the business of ropemaking, for example, he proved by conclusive experiments that, contrary to the common opinion, twisting impairs the strength of ropes. Again, while describing the labours of the goldbeater, he took occasion to show the prodigious ductility possessed by certain substances. But, more especially, when examining the processes by which artificial pearls are coloured, he discovered the singular matter which gives lustre to the scales of fishes, and even explained the formation and growth of those scales. The colouring principle in glass pearls is obtained from the bleak (Cyprinus alburnus), an[Pg 185] inhabitant of fresh water, and about six inches in length. This silvery ingredient is procured by macerating its scales in water, and is then mixed with a little isinglass. The small globes which are to represent pearls are first furnished with an internal coating of the solution, and then filled with melted wax to give them suitable weight. The pearly matter occurs also in the membrane which envelopes the stomach and intestines, and is supposed by Reaumur to be produced in the latter, from which it is conveyed by the blood-vessels to the scales. He likewise made inquiries into the formation and growth of shells, which he proved to be developed by accessions to their outer edge. He is even said to have examined the structure of pearls, with the view of forcing the shell-fish to produce them. When describing the turquoise-mines of the south of France, and the means adopted to make the mineral assume a blue colour, he discovered that these alleged stones were the teeth of a large animal, which is now known under the name of the mastodon.

His most important labours, however, with reference to the arts, were his researches respecting iron and steel, which he published in 1722, in a separate work under the title of Traité sur l'art de convertir le fer en acier, et d'adoucir le fer fondu. At this period all the steel that was used in France was imported, none having previously been made in that country; and one may imagine how numerous and patient were the trials made by Reaumur before he succeeded in his object. The Duke of Orleans rewarded him for this valuable discovery, by bestowing on him a pension of 12,000 livres. In like[Pg 186] manner, he found out the method of manufacturing tin-plate or whiteiron, which until then had been brought from Germany. In his various experiments, he had frequent occasion to observe that melted metals assume regular forms on cooling, and he accordingly gave an account of the crystallizations which they present. The manufacture of porcelain also engaged his attention, and received considerable improvements from him, although he did not succeed in perfecting it. In 1739, he made known a method which he had discovered of giving a whiteness and opacity to glass, which causes it to assume the appearance of chinaware. He was also the first who tried in France the expedient practised by the Egyptians for hatching eggs,—a subject which, being of a nature suited to popular apprehension, procured for him at least as much estimation as all his other researches.

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