18 November 1727|
Châtillon les Dombes
|Died||13 March 1773
|Institutions||Muséum national d'histoire naturelle|
Dr. Philibert Commerçon (also sometimes spelled Commerson) (18 November 1727 – 13 March 1773) was a French naturalist, best known for accompanying Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation in 1766–1769.
Commerçon was born at Châtillon les Dombes in France. He studied medicine and botany at Montpellier, and for a time was a practicing physician. At the request of Carolus Linnaeus, Commerçon collected and categorized fish of the Mediterranean on behalf of the museum in Stockholm.
Commerçon returned to live at Châtillon les Dombes in 1756 and there occupied himself in creating botanical gardens.
In 1766, Commerçon joined Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation after being recommended for the position of naturalist by the Paris Academy of Sciences. He had previously drawn up an exensive programm of nature studies for the Marine Ministry, in which he elaborated the "three natural kingdoms" which a naturalist should investigate on a voyage around the world. Among the wildlife that Commerçon observed was a particular kind of dolphin in the Strait of Magellan. The animal is now known as Commerson's Dolphin.
Commerçon's housekeeper and assistant, Jeanne Baré, accompanied him on the voyage, dressed as a man since women were strictly forbidden on French Navy ships at the time. Baré acted as a nurse to Commerçon, who was often ill, as well as assisting him in his scientific work. Her gender was suspected but only publicly discovered while the expedition was at Tahiti, but she remained with Commerçon, nursing him and assisting him in his professional activities until the end of his life.
Commerçon was an astute observer of the Tahitian people and culture, thanks in part to a remarkable lack of European prejudice compared to other early visitors to the island. Commerçon and Bougainville together were responsible for spreading the myth of Tahitians as the embodiment of the concept of the noble savage.
Commerçon also studied and collected plants wherever the expedition stopped, included the Bougainvillea. On the return voyage to France, he remained behind at the island of Mauritius, in order to botanize there and on Madagascar.
Death and legacy
Commerçon died at Mauritius at the age of 45. His extensive collections from the voyage did not, unfortunately, received deserved recognition. Although his numerous manuscripts and herbaria were brought to Paris after his death they were never systematically organized and evaluated.
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