J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Memory of Jeanne Baret

Earlier this year Live Science reported about the French botanist Jeanne Baré or Baret (1740-1807):
Baret was the live-in companion [officially housekeeper] of Philibert Commerson [Commerçon], a renowned botanist who was tapped to lead scientific work on the [globe-circling 1766] expedition. Commerson was allowed to bring an assistant, but it could not be Baret. Women were forbidden from traveling aboard French naval vessels. . . .

Fast forward to the day of departure, and Baret presented herself at the dock, dressed as a teenage boy, and offered her services as an assistant to Commerson, who, quite conveniently, claimed he’d been unable to find one.

Once on board, the pair were given the captain’s cabin—they had a great deal of scientific equipment. . . .

the crew began to suspect Baret was not what she seemed. The ship was only 100 feet (30 meters) long and 30 feet (9 m) wide, and “the captain of the ship actually interrogated her at one point,” [biographer Glynis] Ridley said, “and she said she was a eunuch.” The only way to verify her claim would have been embarrassing for everyone, and for at least two years, Baret conducted her scientific work with relatively little hassle.

Yet when the voyage reached the island of Mauritius, off the southeast coast of Africa, the captain unceremoniously booted the couple from the expedition. Commerson died there in 1773, and, because they were not married, Baret was left with nothing. She married a marine and in 1775 returned with him to France, where she died in relative obscurity in 1807.
The couple found more than seventy plant species, some of which were named for Commerson. The commander of the expedition, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, is remembered in the bouganvillea vine. But nothing was named after Baret.

Ridley’s 2010 book The Discovery of Jeanne Baret revived interest in Baret. Some reviewers, such as Gerard Helferich in the Wall Street Journal, criticized the book for speculating too much. But the basic facts of her life are clear. Way back in 1785, the French government acknowledged Baret’s voyage in disguise. The picture above comes from an Italian book published in 1816.

A public radio interview with Ridley caught the ear of biologist Eric J. Tepe, now at the University of Cincinnati. He named “a distant relative of the tomato and potato” that he had identified as Solanum baretiae in Baret’s honor.

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