Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Archives Collections List


Michel Adanson (1727–1806)

Naturalist, taxonomist

Papers, 1724–[1764–1804]–1848

HI Archives collection no. 52
Manuscripts in Library
4 green boxes in Archives
4 exhibit items, oversized drawer 28
folder file, box 2

Michel Adanson, bronze bust
by Jean-Baptiste Defernex, 1772.
©1985 Bernard Black, Black-Nadeau Ltd.,
London. HI Archives portrait no. 12a

 Biographical note
“One may look on 1763 as one of the richest years in all of Adanson’s career. He published reports; he published his Familles des Plantes; he carried on his communications and reports for the Académie; he spent much time herborizing in the environs of Paris. Since 1762 he had undertaken experiments on the growth and productivity of wheat varieties, conducted by means of plants grown in small pots. But it is only during the next years that he extended his experimental activities, when he had at his disposal his own garden in rue du Jardin du Roi.…

“It is necessary to consider Adanson’s financial situation along with the production of this book [Familles des Plantes]. Sale of the Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (1757) was slow and the funds invested in it were not recovered. Following the publisher’s bankruptcy and the reimbursement to subscribers, Adanson estimates the cost of the book to him had been 5,000 livres. It is most probable that the winter of 1763–1764 was financially his most difficult up to that time, and that he was unable to give his book the energy and attention he wished, especially for corrections and additions to Volume II. He had scarcely touched the first volume, although he had much more material to incorporate into it” Adanson, Part One, Pittsburgh, 1963, p. 49.

Born in Aix-en-Provence on 7 April 1727, Michel Adanson rejected an ecclesiastical future to pursue natural history. He attended lectures at the Jardin du Roi and the Collège Royal in Paris from 1741 to 1746. The Jardin inspired dreams of contributing to universal knowledge, and he focused on the natural world, at the expense of financial security, for the rest of his life.

As a youth Adanson experimented with biological phenomena, such as raising silkworms and studying plant growth. He studied Greek in order to read natural science works in their original language, and he attended the botany lectures and field trips of Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu. At this time he also made a connection at the Jardin with René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683–1757) and had free access to his collections. He received a small microscope from l’Abbé Needham (1713–1781), so that he might not only compile but also observe. At 19 he compiled a catalogue, based on previous lists, of 5,000 species of plants grown since 1740 at the Jardin du Roi. Such projects caused him to compare and analyze classification systems, leading eventually to his work on the Familles des Plantes.

Title page of Familles des Plantes (AD 5)

The director of the Compagnie des Indes arranged for Adanson, age 20, to travel to Senegal, West Africa. Adanson did extensive preparatory research on the flora and fauna of that region, some notes of which survive in the Adanson collection. After returning to Paris, he presented two papers to the Académie and published the first volume of his Natural History of Senegal in 1757. This provided his entrée into the Académie.

Belief in the unity of human knowledge led Adanson to propose not renaming organisms already named by others, but rather bringing together all names of objects into a single scientific lexicon. His contemporaries were unable to grasp his central idea, however. When he published the first volume of his Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal, few understood that it represented a new approach to natural classification.

Title page of Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (AD 4)

In 1759 Adanson was working with Bernard de Jussieu (1699–1777) and Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836) on a manuscript of plant classification for use at the Garden Trianon at Versailles, the palace of Louis XV and a rich collection of plant species. Adanson believed that no plant character should be considered singly, but that the relationship of a plant to the rest of nature should be understood based on the sum of its characters. That year he rushed to complete his work on natural plant families in classification, and at the Académie’s opening meeting discussed an outline of the Familles des Plantes, along with his principles of classification. Thus he effectively preceded Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s planned work and established himself as the father of plant families. Adanson went on to publish the full work in 1763 to mixed reviews that led to animosity between him and Linnaeus.

In 1764, after six years of negotiations, Adanson sold his cabinet of herbarium specimens, shells, and animal remains to the Cabinet du Roi for 40,000 livres, receiving the first payment in June 1765. In 1769 the king became ill, and the Garden Trianon closed. Adanson drew a king’s pension, along with his salary as a member of the Académie, but his hope to succeed as chief of the botanical garden or as a professor of botany was not to be realized. His pension ended during the French Revolution, and he was impoverished until the Académie was revived.

In keeping with the encyclopedic spirit of his times, after 1765 Adanson devoted himself to the preparation of an encyclopedia of natural things, l’Ordre Universel de la Nature, in 27 volumes. He declared the plan at the Académie in 1774, but it was too large for them, and they rejected it. He fell out with friends at the Académie afterward. In May 1770 Adanson married Mlle Jeanne Bénard, and they later had two children. In 1784 he turned his attentions to experimentation, to completing l’Ordre Universel, and to a series of public lectures on the genera of the three kingdoms in nature. Manuscripts of these lectures can be found in the Institute’s Adanson Library [AD 282–285]. By the 1770s Adanson had come to see his family as a source of strife, and in 1784 he parted from them. Family expenses remained, however, and Adanson’s financial situation never stabilized. As time went on he led an increasingly lonely and eccentric life, confined to his study and devoted to his work. Adanson died in Paris on 6 August 1806.

See also “Senegal Notes,” below.

Original poster for series of lectures by Adanson (AD 7)

Scope and content notes
The Michel Adanson Library at Hunt Institute includes mostly botanical books owned and used by Adanson, along with correspondence, manuscripts, and a large number of plant illustrations clipped from published sources. This collection was purchased by Roy A. Hunt for the Hunt Botanical Library in 1961, with additional purchases made in 1962. The collection comprises 391 items composed of about 15,000 pieces. The books are curated by the Library, the manuscripts and correspondence by Archives, and the prints by the Art Department. For more information, see Adanson: The Bicentennial of Michel Adanson’s “Familles des Plantes,” Part One (1963) and Part Two (1964). The Institute’s Adanson Library is a great resource for scholars interested in tracing royal patronage of science, Adanson’s arguments with Linnaeus, his collaborations with the de Jussieus, or his experiments with wheat.

Adanson collection in Hunt Institute's Reading Room

The Adanson material under the care of our Library is a collection of published texts, but I begin my notes about these books by referring to one of the unpublished manuscripts. This is a catalogue of Adanson’s books made by him in 1767, titled “Catalog de Mes Livres.” Because what we acquired were primarily his botanical books, there are many items on this list that we do not own; yet the list is interesting for many reasons and is an important document. I mention it here because the care with which it was developed shows how important Adanson’s library was to him. Adanson numbered his books and wrote the numbers both on the title pages and on the list. The list also shows authors and titles, edition dates, formats (octavo, quarto, etc.), number of volumes per title, and a price estimate for each book. On some of the title pages he wrote a short note to say when and where he bought the book. It is believed that this manuscript list of books was an early draft, superseded later by a more extensive one.

The Adanson book collection includes works by many whose names are familiar, such as Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), Pierre Joseph Buc’hoz (1731–1807), Abbé Antonio José Cavanilles (1745–1804), Casper Commelin (1668–1731), Johann Georg Gmelin (1709–1755), Jan Frederik Gronovius (1611–1671), Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1711), Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), John Parkinson (1567–1650), Caius Secundus Plinius (dates unknown), Leonard Plukenet (1642–1706), Pierre Sonnerat (1749–1814) and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708). Many of these works have been extensively annotated by Adanson in the course of his studies. The annotations provide a window onto his reactions to the writings of his predecessors and contemporaries.

We know a bit about how Adanson built his book collection. In 1739, when he was 12 years old, he won copies of works by Pliny and Aristotle as a reward for his work in Greek and Latin poetry. That same year, he bought himself a copy of Tournefort’s Institutiones Rei Herbariae (Paris, 1700, AD 124). Two of these early acquisitions, the Tournefort book and Pliny’s Historiae Mundi Libri XXXVII (Genève, 1631, AD 103), are in our Adanson Library. Both texts are annotated by Adanson throughout. The Tournefort work is bound with another, his Corollarium Institutionum Rei Herbariae (Paris, 1703, AD 124).

During the course of Adanson’s studies, he had access to the libraries of several of his teachers. He acquired few books of his own before his voyage to Senegal in 1749. These included the aforementioned work by Tournefort and Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum, ed. 2 (Paris, 1743, AD 081), and Systema Naturae, ed. 4 (Paris, 1744, AD 86). His interest in botany was strong. In the 1740s he undertook the task of classifying thousands of plant species using Tournefort’s system, and he also began a personal herbarium. He annotated his copy of Genera Plantarum in 1744. Another acquisition from this period was his copy of Boerhaave’s Aphorismi de Cognoscendis et Curandis Morbis in Usum Doctrinae Domesticae Digesti, bound with his Libellus de Materie Medica et Remediorum Formulis Quae Serviunt Aphorismis de Cognoscendis et Curandis Morbis (both ed. 9, Paris, 1745, AD 20). Inscribed on the inside cover is this note: “Acheté 4 l[ivres] chez Cavelier 1748.” Both works are heavily annotated.

Adanson's annotated copy of Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum (AD 81)

Adanson's annotated copy of Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum (AD 81)

Upon Adanson’s return to Paris from Senegal, he began working closely with Bernard de Jussieu, under whom Adanson had studied, and among other duties the two were administrators of plants at the Garden Trianon at Versailles. For a time Adanson lived in de Jussieu’s home and had access to his library. Among the 14 Linnaean works in the Adanson collection is a copy of the first edition of Species Plantarum (Holmiae, 1753, AD 85), inscribed by Linnaeus to de Jussieu and heavily annotated by Adanson. He presented two papers to the Académie Royale des Sciences and then published volume one of his Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal in 1757. In 1759 he presented a description of the first volume of his Familles des Plantes at a meeting of the Académie, along with some of his general principles of classification. The two-volume work was published in Paris in 1763–1764. The collection here contains a copy of Familles des Plantes in unbound sheets, along with some earlier page proof sheets. The sheets are heavily annotated, possibly as part of the preparation for a second edition, although it was noted in our Adanson catalogue that these sheets were apparently not used in producing the second edition published by Payer.

By virtue of his functions in relation to the Académie, Adanson received numerous publications sent to him for review. He also conducted a considerable amount of correspondence with members of the Académie and with others, and he made regular reports to the Académie. He collected plants locally and conducted experiments on the growth of different varieties of wheat and on grapes and wine production, and he had many correspondents on these and other topics.

In addition to the numerous works received in connection with his work for the Académie, Adanson continued to acquire books on his own, although at times his financial situation was strained. He apparently purchased Plukenet’s six-volume Phytographia: Opera Omnia Botanica (London, 1691–1705, AD 104) in 1769, although in a few of these volumes Adanson seems to have replaced his acquisition date of 1769 with 1754. This was one of a number of works in which he annotated the plates, possibly in preparation for adding them to his collection of illustrations. In 1775 he acquired a copy of Kaempfer’s Amoenitatem Exoticarum (Lemgovia, 1712, AD 71), which he also annotated. In 1786 he received a copy of Cavanilles’ Dissertatio Botanica de Sida (Paris, 1785, AD 28). Inscribed on the title page is the note, “doné le 10 janvier 1786 par Cavanilles abbé.” The plates are heavily annotated with names and details. We don’t know when Adanson acquired a copy of Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (London, 1640, AD 101), but what remains of this work of some 1,767 pages are only pages 1689–1720; the rest Adanson cut up for his plate collection.

Plate from Cavanilles' Dissertatio botanica de Sida, marked for clipping (AD 28)

In the later period of his life, growth of Adanson’s library slowed, and much of his work focused on his plans for a large-scale universal encyclopedia, to be called l’Ordre Universel de la Nature. Our Adanson Library contains an 18-page reprint of a plan for this project. He was still acquiring books at this time, e.g., Dictionnaire Raisonné Universel des Plantes, Arbres et Arbustes de la France, by Buc’hoz (4 vols., Paris, 1770–1771, AD 22). Annotations by Adanson appear in the main part of the dictionary, in the index of diseases, in the “Méthode de Linn.,” and in the end pages. Another late acquisition, Essai sur la Physiognomonie des Corps Vivants, Considérées depuis l’Homme jusqu’ à la Plante, by Jean-Joseph Sue (Paris, 1797, AD 122), is heavily annotated in the botanical sections. And a work by Benjamin Thompson, Comte de Rumford, Mémoires sur la Chaleur (Paris, An XIII – 1804, AD 117), is inscribed to Adanson by the author and heavily annotated by Adanson. Considering the ongoing annotations of books as he acquired them, it seems that Adanson’s restless and capacious mind was constantly collecting and assimilating material to apply toward his encyclopedic knowledge and his efforts to apprehend the “big picture” of the natural world, to be presented in his universal encyclopedia.

Acquiring Adanson’s library gave us the opportunity to safeguard and make available to researchers this large physical remnant of the life and work of an extraordinary man.

— Charlotte A. Tancin

Senegal notes
Michel Adanson was commissioned by the French Compagnie des Indes to sail to the tropics as a bookkeeping clerk; he spent the four years from 1749 to 1754 in the West African territory of Senegal. He had with him Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Institutiones Rei Herbariae, ed. 2 (1700, AD 124), and Carolus Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum, ed. 2 (1744, AD 81, copiously annotated) and Systema Naturae, ed. 4 (1744, AD 86). These texts guided his natural history analytical method in Senegal.

Letter from Compagnie des Indes (AD 181)

Adanson also developed an interest in native people and their customs. He wrote a paper against slavery and also began collecting biological specimens from the French colony, sending numerous plants and animals back to France, though many of the living plants died from cold. While in Senegal, Adanson was dogged by tropical neurasthenia, infections, and extreme seasickness when traveling; matched with tropical hazards such as mosquitoes, vermin, rain, and, of course, his young age, it is remarkable that Adanson was able to accomplish so much writing.

Michel Adanson, HI Archives portrait no. 2

Items in the Adanson Library relating to his voyage to Senegal

One printed book
AD 4 Adanson, Michel. Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal. Coquillages. Avec la Relation d’un Voyage Fait en ce Pays, Pendant les Années 1749, 50, 51, 52, & 53. (Paris) 1757.

AD 132 Adanson, [?Paris]…, Août 1780, 4 pp. Draft of a letter to de Condorcet defending himself against plagiarism and including a postscript that notes he is sending a copy of his Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal to de Condorcet.

AD 138 [Adanson, Michel], Paris, 15 Mars 1769, [1 p. incomplete, first part is missing. Perhaps addressed to Albert von Haller]. Adanson notes that his second edition of Familles des Plantes is completely ready for publication, with accounts of new genera and other additions; it will not go to the printer before the Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal is published, which the publisher promises to take up without delay.

AD 163 Berliere, ____, Troucheau de la, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 26 Août 1786, 2 pp. Informs Adanson of the visit in France of Chevalier de Boufflers, governor of Senegal. Asks for a list of the most beautiful plants of Senegal. Draft of a reply dated 30 Août 1786 is titled “Catalogue des plus belles plantes du Senegal” and lists nine genera with Ouolof names and Linnaean synonyms in the species. Reviews some memories of Senegal experiences.

AD 181 Compagnie des Indes, Paris, 3 Avril 1751, 1 p. Reports that M. Montaran has been informed that Adanson wrote about a big tree of Senegal whose crushed leaves give a blue color. Adanson sent both green and dried leaves for experimental use in France.

AD 182 Compagnie des Indes, Paris, 3 Mai 1752, 4 pp. Received Adanson’s report of 20 février [1752] that the trees with blue coloring property are only found beyond Bissau. Advises that ships should be ordered to Bissau for this wood, both for Adanson’s experiments and to send to France. The Compagnie is pleased with his experiments and notes that one sample is the true indigo. Adanson is to repeat the experiments on a large scale. Production cost and profit margin are to be determined. If Adanson’s health deteriorates further, the Compagnie will allow him to return to France in 1753 with his collections for the Jardin Royal.

AD 207 La Luzerne, [César-Henri, Comte de], Paris, 4 Oct. 1785, 2 pp. Writes that he is in command of Saint-Domingue on nearly the same latitude as Senegal and asks what products of Senegal are worthy of introduction in Saint-Domingue. Undated draft of reply, 3 pp., includes a plant list with vernacular Senegalese names, suggests also some animals.

AD 251 Adanson, Michel. Systema Naturale. 1748–1749, 2 pp.  A survey of the characters distinguishing the three kingdoms of natural history. According to Adanson’s annotations, this was written in Senegal.

AD 252 Adanson, Michel. [Plantes du Sénégal. Descriptions.] Comprises Latin descriptions of plants collected by Adanson in Senegal. Includes herbarium numbers, Ouolof names, and some Latin generic names.

AD 253 Adanson, Michel. Plantes Seches Envoiées du Sénégal. [1748–1754], 18 pp.  A numerical list of plants collected by Adanson in Senegal and sent to France, with short descriptive phrases.

AD 254 Adanson, Michel. Essai des Teintures. 1751–1752, 45 pp. Data sheets and studies of his experiments on vegetable dyes, especially indigo, including a description of preparing indigo in Senegal, with his calculations for probable production costs and anticipated profits.

AD 255 Adanson, Michel. Observations sur la Culture des Plantes. 20 May 1752, 6 pp. A treatise on culture of plants in general and especially of European vegetables and of fruit trees in Senegal.

AD 256 Adanson, Michel. Methode de Decrire par Articles. 11 pp. Includes a broadsheet with columns for all possible characters useful when preparing a plant description, filled out for the baobab tree as an example. Annotated by Adanson to have been conceived by him in Senegal in 1750 and perfected in 1753.

AD 259 Adanson, Michel. A Monseigneur le Duc D’Ayen. 2 pp.  Adanson’s handwritten dedication to the Duc d’Ayen for his Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (1757, AD 4). Signed by the Duke.

AD 260 Adanson, Michel. Carte Générale du Sénégal.  July 1757, 1 p.  Original manuscript map, on an older printed map, of that published in Adanson’s Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (1757, AD 4). The drawing, executed by Philippe Buache, bears many corrections and additions by Adanson.

Map of Senegal (AD 260)

Map of Senegal (AD 260)

AD 286 Adanson, Michel. Sur l’Acacia des Anciens, et sur quelques Autres Arbres du Sénégal qui Portent le Gomme Rougeatre Appelée Communément Gomme Arabique. 1773, 9 pp.  The manuscript of Adanson’s first mémoire on Acacia for the Académie, read 24 February 1773 and printed in the Mém. Acad. Sci. 1773: 1–17. 1777.

AD 287 Adanson, Michel. Sur le Gommier Blanc Appelé Uérek au Sénégal; sur la Maniere dont on en Fait la Récolte de sa Gomme et de Celle des Acacia et sur un Autre Arbre du Méme Genre. 1773, 9 pp. Adanson’s second memoir on Acacia, read 11 July 1773.

AD 292 Adanson, Michel. Plan et tableau de mes Ouvrages Manuscripts et en Figures, Depuis l’Année 1741 jusqu’en 1775, Distribuées Suivant ma Méthode Naturelle Découverte au Sénégal en 1749. 1775, 31 pp.  The first and the final drafts of the paper read at the Académie 15 February 1775 on Adanson’s large plans for a universal encyclopedia. The rough draft contains details omitted from the final draft, such as Adanson’s definition of système vs. méthode.

AD 330 Adanson, Michel. [Plantes du Sénégal.] 212 pp. Entries from his Dictionnaire de Botanique (AD 333) concerning plant names and synonyms to which are added data on his Senegal collections, usually as a collection number.

AD 359 Grand-Jean de Fouchy, Jean-Paul. Extrait des Registres de l’Académie Royale des Sciences du 4 Decembre 1756. 1756, 1 p.  The original certificate of the approbation of the Académie for Adanson’s Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal.

Annotated prints in the Michel Adanson Library
The description of AD 128, Plate Collection, in Adanson, Part One (Pittsburgh, 1963, p. 307) is confined to a single paragraph: “A collection of more than 10,000 printed figures of plant species cut from more than forty books and other publications. The original plates, when containing more than one species, were cut by Adanson and the figure of each was filed according to his classification. All plates and cut-up portions were arranged by him in paper folders according to his natural method of the Familles des Plantes and grouped in seventeen bundles. Each plate or figure is annotated by him with an Adansonian name and usually with the source of the figure [cf. Figs. 27, 35].” To the best of our knowledge, these figures are the only two images that have been published.

There are some reasons that the collection has not been further studied, catalogued, or occasionally photographed. The collection has, over the years, been transferred from our Archives to our Library and finally to our Art collection, where the cataloguing of prints is fairly straightforward. However, the pages cannot easily be handled as they are extremely brittle. The pages contain copious notes by Adanson and are in folders with his annotations (in French, of course). Maintaining the same order would not be much of an obstacle to examining the pages, but there is one overriding factor. At some time in the history of the artworks—before they were acquired by the Institute, we hope—they were infected by fungal growths, at least one genus of which is often associated with paper products subjected to high humidity.  When the artworks can be handled easily, their publication sources will be identified and entered into the Institute’s online Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection.

— James J. White

Michel Adanson, HI Archives portrait no. 5 & 6

Other resources
Individual portraits of this subject are available from the Hunt Institute portrait collection. Thumbnails of the individual portrait holdings are available as a PDF for research purposes. For publication-quality images, contact the Archivist to place an order.

Biographical citations for this subject are available from the Hunt Institute biographical collection as a PDF.

Accompanying specimens were donated to Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Jacques Mugnier, director of the Laboratories of Agroservice at Villeurbanne, is a researcher specializing in phytopathology and the problems of phylogenetics and the Adansonian classification system.  His Web site on the work of Adanson is at  It includes an enhanced PDF version of part 1 of Familles des Plantes at

There is information about Adanson as a member of the Académie des sciences at

The Agence régionale de l’environnement de Haute-Normandie (AREHN) has a Web page on Adanson and his contributions to science at

The Bibliothèque nationale de France has a Web presentation on Tous les savoirs du monde that includes information about Adanson at

The French Ministère de la culture et de la communication has a page about Adanson as part of their information on Celebrations nationales 2006 at

A page by Doninique Moiselet about the Baobab tree in Senegal at includes some information about Adanson.

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Michel Adanson, HI Archives portrait no. 3c

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