Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the Royal Garden, Paris

In 1778 a former Paris bank clerk published Flore Francaise (French flora) in three volumes. The work was an immediate success and, with the support and help of France's leading natural scientist, Georges- Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–88), its author was appointed an assistant botanist at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden in Paris. The bank clerk turned botanist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), or to give him his full name and title Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck. Despite his grandsounding name, Lamarck was poor for most of his life, and he died in poverty.

He was born on August 1, 1744, in Bazentin-le Petit, a village in the Picardy region of northeastern France. The Lamarck family was aristocratic but far from wealthy, and Jean-Baptiste was the youngest of 11 children. His father was a soldier, and several of Jean-Baptiste's brothers had joined the army, but Lamarck's father wished him to enter the church and sent him to a Jesuit seminary at Amiens.

After his father's death in 1760, however, Lamarck left the seminary, acquired a horse and a letter of introduction to a colonel, and rode to Germany, where the French army was fighting. He joined the army on the eve of a battle, and the next day he showed such heroism and leadership under fire that he was made an officer on the spot. The war ended in 1763, and Lamarck's regiment was sent to Monaco. While there, one of his comrades lifted him by the head during a bout of horseplay, causing a neck injury that necessitated surgery and a long period of recuperation. It was during this period that he became interested in botany. The army awarded him a commission and pension, but the pension was too small to live on so Lamarck left the army and traveled to Paris to study medicine, taking a job as a bank clerk to support himself. He abandoned his medical studies after four years and turned to botany, studying under the botanist Bernard de Jussieu (1699–1777). Lamarck's Flore Francaise was the product of the 10 years he spent studying French plants.

Lamarck was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1779, and in 1781 he was appointed royal botanist. His position at the Jardin du Roi allowed him to travel, and he collected plants for the royal garden. He also collected mineral specimens and other items for French museums.

The Jardin du Roi had been established in 1626 as a physic garden, and it opened to the public in 1640. Lamarck became a professor of botany there in 1788 and was placed in charge of the herbarium. During the French Revolution, the name became an embarrassment, and in 1790 Lamarck changed it to Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden). In 1793, with Lamarck's warm approval, the institution was reorganized once more, becoming part of the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle. The museum was to be run by 12 professors, and Lamarck was appointed to what his colleagues considered the least important position, as professor of insects and worms—his official title was professeur d'histoire naturelle des insectes et des vers. Until that time Lamarck had not studied zoology, but now he dedicated himself to it and coined the word invertebrates to describe the animals that had become his specialty. He went on to write several books on zoology. In addition to the Flore Francaise, he wrote a three-volume Dictionnaire de Botanique (Dictionary of botany), published between 1783 and 1789; Illustrations des Genres (Illustrations of the genera), published between 1791 and 1800; and Histoire naturelle des vegetaux (Natural history of vegetables), published in 1803.

Lamarck married Marie Anne Rosalie Delaporte in 1778, and they had five children. Marie died in 1792, and the following year Lamarck married Charlotte Reverdy. She died in 1797. In 1798 Lamarck married Julie Mallet, who died in 1819. In about 1818 Lamarck's eyesight began to fail, and after some years he became totally blind. His daughters were devoted to him and cared for him, but the family was desperately poor. He died on December 28, 1829, and received a pauper's funeral and was buried in a rented grave. His body was removed in about 1835, and its present location is unknown. His books and the contents of his home were sold.

Today the Jardin des Plantes is one of the seven departments of the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle. It occupies 70 acres (28 ha) beside the River Seine in Paris and is France's principal botanical garden, with a botany school that trains botanists. The garden has approximately 4,500 plant species arranged taxonomically in a 2.5-acre (1-ha) plot, and 7.5 acres (3 ha) are devoted to ornamental plants. There is a display of alpine plants with about 3,000 species and a rose garden.