Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a mathematician, naturalist and author whose beliefs and theories greatly influenced the way other naturalists after his time thought. He is said to be the father of natural history for the latter part of that century.

Early Life and Education

Georges-Louis Leclerc was born on September 7, 1707 into a wealthy family in Montbard, France. His father was Benjamin Francois Leclerc, a local official who was in charge of salt tax and his mother was Anne Cristine Marlin who was also part of a family of minor local officials. Marlin, unlike other women at that time, was a very curious woman and was fond of learning about new things. This trait caused Leclerc to often claim that his curious and intelligent disposition came from her.

He was named after Georges Blaisot, his godfather, who was also an uncle of his mother. He was the Duke of Savoy’s tax collector. Upon his death, he left a considerable amount of fortune to the Leclercs as he remained childless at the time of his birth. They then bought an estate that gave his father the title of Lord of Buffon and Montbard. From then on, he was known as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. They moved to Dijon into a new mansion as his father became one of the ad visors in the Parliament of Burgundy. He inherited the entire estate when he turned 25.

Because they were well off, Leclerc never lacked the education that was considered a privilege for other kids his age. He attended the Jesuit Institute College des Godrans where he studied mathematics. He immediately showed a high degree of curiosity about almost everything he learns and often found the need to question a lot of things that were taught to him. Despite his obvious passions, his father insisted that he study law, which he started doing in 1723. He then attended Angers University in 1728 where he continued studying mathematics, as well as medicine and botany.

In 1752, he married Francoise de Saint-Belin-Malain, but she died 17 years later in 1769. She bore him one son in 1764, who died by guillotine in 1794.

Most Important Contributions

In 1727, while still attending College des Godrans, Leclerc learned about the theory on binomials and its formula that gives you the power of any binomial without having to multiply a long series of numbers. The same year, he theorized that the sun’s collision with a comet caused the formation of the planets. This has of course been proved to be impossible, but this marked a new era in science as it was the pioneering theory about the creation that did not involve God in the equation. It was stated from a purely scientific point of view and relied solely on the laws of physics that were set during that period of time.

Leclerc did not restrict himself to specific fields of expertise. He continued to explore different aspects that surrounded plant physiology, physics, astronomy and even ship construction. With each field of learning also came a lot of questions from him, as he analyzed and doubted a lot of the dogmas that were believed in and taught during his time. He recorded his discoveries and theories in a series of writings that discussed everything from the body structure and living habits of bats from South America and continued on to discuss the possible causes of being cross-eyed, a condition scientifically known as strabismus. There were 36 volumes all in all, with the entire collection called as Histoire Naturelle, Generale et Particuliere, which meant Natural History, General and Particular in English. The series was written as a form of encyclopedia and was completed over a 37-year period from 1749 to 1786.

Leclerc had a solid belief in organic change, but was not entirely able to discuss how these changes occurred and how they were completed. He religiously claimed that he published another set of writings called Les Epoques de la Nature in 1788 which again became controversial because of the way he openly negated the church’s claims that the world has been in existence for 6,000 years at that time. He theorized that this planet has been around long before that.

In 1777, Leclerc decided to do an experiment by dropping a needle on a lined piece of paper or floor. This was an experiment that showed how the probability of this needle crossing any of the lines on the floor or paper is in direct relation to pi’s value. This experiment on probability is now famously called as Buffon’s Needle.

Leclerc was acknowledged by several experts that came after him as someone who introduced a lot of ideas during his time with the highest scientific spirits. Ernst Mayr was quoted as saying that Leclerc was the first one to point out a lot of loopholes in the way evolution was taught. He was also seen to have brought about the early stages of comparative anatomy because of his beliefs in the unity of type. He made the first correlation between parent and child, saying that there are traits that are passed onto the offspring.

Other Contributions and Achievements

Leclerc was the one who translated Fluxions by Isaac Newton into French. He did the same thing for Vegetable Staticks by Stephen Hale. He showed his affinity with natural science when he became the administrator and director of the finest botanical garden in all of France, the Jardin des Plantes formerly known as Jardin du Roi, in 1739. While still holding this position, he was dubbed as a count in 1773. He held this position until his death. He died on April 16, 1788 in Paris, France.

Leclerc was not exactly the most popular scientist during his time mostly because he went against a lot of people, even those who have been scientists long before him. Because of this, his intelligence was not entirely celebrated by many. He continuously challenged the known authorities in chemistry, biology, mathematics, geology and theology. He did not respond to criticism either as he sees this to be beneath his dignity.