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Joseph Pitton de Tournefort

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‘In [botany], it is absolutely necessary to combine into groups those plants which resemble one another, and to separate them from those which they do not resemble. This resemblance should be deduced solely from the closest sign of relationship, i.e., from the structure of one of the parts of the plant, and must pay no attention to more distant signs of relationship that can be found between certain plants, such as the possession of similar [medicinal] virtues, or the place in which they occur’

Quote from Tournefort’s Élémens de botanique (1694), in Sloan (1972, p.40).


Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Institutiones rei herbariae (Paris, 1700), vol 2, Tab 31, Cucumber.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), studied medicine in Montpellier around 1679 after his father died. Prior to that, he had made his first botanical expedition with Charles Plumier (1646-1706) through Provence and Savoy. Bitten by the bug, he also botanised throughout the Languedoc Roussillon region around Montpellier and around Barcelona in 1681 before coming back to Montpellier at the end of 1681. The fame of his botanical expertise and that of his herbarium spread and he was invited to move to Paris to become became Chief Botanist to Louis XIV and Professor of Botany, in charge of the Royal Garden, the Jardin des Plantes in 1683.  Based on his researches, he published his Elemens de Botanique in 1694 which he subsequently translated into Latin as Institutiones Rei Herbariae (1700) to extend its influence throughout Europe. It was the latter Latin edition which was collected by Worth.

Tournefort was then sent by Louis XIV on a journey through what was then called the Levant with a wide scope not just confined to plants or natural history; he was to bring back information on the peoples and cities (including city plans) and their trade, manufactures and religions. He left Paris in 1700 visiting first Crete, then Greece, the Cyclades islands, Constantinople, Turkey and Georgia, returning in 1702. Tournefort died in Paris in 1708 some months after a street accident eerily like the one suffered by Morison, but an account of the journey Relations d’un Voyage au Levant was published posthumously in 1717 and was rapidly translated into English and Dutch. Worth bought a 1718 Amsterdam edition of this work.

Charles Smith in his entry on the Arbutus in ‘The Ancient and Present State of the County of Kerry’ (1756) refers to Tournefort’s discovery of Arbutus unedo in Crete (called then the Island of Candia). Tournefort was pleased to finally find ‘The Arbute- Tree of Greece a Plant we had till then sought in vain, rejoiced us not a little: it grows between those two Monasteries, in the chinks of a Rock on the Highway’ in an area which he considered to be one of the best places for finding plants on the island (Tournefort, 1718, p. 55). Linnaeus cited a number of the illustrations of plants from this work.


Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Institutiones rei herbariae (Paris, 1700), vol 2, Tab 63, Aubergine.

Tournefort divides plants into two main subdivisions; herbs and trees and shrubs and and then divides them on the basis of their flower and fruit giving rise to 22 main ‘Classes’ (Sloan, 1972). Tournefort’s main lasting contribution is that of the genus in the modern sense, limiting it to the smallest groups of species and providing formal collated descriptions for nearly 698 genera, many of which had been known since classical times. He recognized two grades of genera – the first based on the fruit and the flower and the second based on vegetative or growth pattern differences. In practice, Tournefort considered in dealing with the flowering plants or angiosperms, the correct procedure was to consider the flower and fruit together. This method is clearly demonstrated in the images of two plants of the Solanaceaea family pictured Melangena (Solanum melongena L.) and Hyocyamus Iusquiame (Hyoscyamus niger L) (another species of Henbane from that described by Bauhin) and in the unrelated Cucumis or Cucumber all from Volume 2 of Institutiones rei herbariae (Paris, 1700).  Only then did one look at other characteristics if necessary to differentiate the genera.


Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Institutiones rei herbariae (Paris, 1700), vol 2, Tab 42, Hyoscyamus.

Although Tournefort wrote very approvingly of Ray and his work in the Élémens de Botanique 1694 and compared him favourably to Morison, Ray disagreed fundamentally with Tournefort’s artificial classification. In the ensuing dispute, Ray’s system was opposed by those of Tournefort and Rivinus, both of whom followed Cesalpino in the main. In particular, Tournefort’s easy to use system had wide appeal and, as Morton (1981) notes, it was particularly popular in France. Indeed, according to Linnaeus in the same letter of 1737 quoted by Vines (already quoted in relation to Morison), Ray’s Methodus plantarum emendata et aucta of 1703 ultimately adopted most of Tournefort’s ideas about the importance of the flower. Linnaeus himself adopted most of Tournefort’s genera based on flower characteristics but rejected those based on growth differences. Currently, however, many of Tournefort’s vegetative differences (i.e. relating to the leaf, stem etc.), are taken into account in modern taxonomy (Davis and Heywood, 1963).


Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Corollarium Institutionum rei herbariae (Paris, 1703), p. 487, Asteroides.


Davis, P. H. and Heywood, V. H. (1963), Principles of Angiosperm Taxonomy 1st Edition (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd).

Jarvis, C. (2007) Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types (The Linnaean Society of London in Association with the Natural History Museum, London).

Leroy, Jean F. (1976), ‘Tournefort, Joseph Pitton de’ in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), vol XIII, pp. 442-444.

Mottram, R. (2002), Charles Plumier, the King’s Botanist – his life and Work. With a Facsimile of the original cactus plates and text from Botanicon Americanum (1689-1697):

Morton, A. G. (1981), History of Botanical Science (London and New York: Academic Press).

Nottle, T. (2006):

Pavord, A. (2005) The Naming of Plants (London).

Smith, C. (1756) “The Ancient and Present State of the County of Kerry” 1756

Sloan, Philip R. (1972), ‘John Locke, John Ray, and the Problem of the Natural System’ in Journal of the History of Biology vol 5, no. 1 (1972), pp 1-53.

Tournefort,  J. P. (1718), A Vovage into the Levant (London), 2 vols.

Vines, S. H. (1913), ‘Robert Morison 1620-1683 and John Ray1627-1705’  in Makers of British Botany A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists, edited by F. W. Oliver (Cambridge University Press).


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