Edouard Dupont (1841-1911)

Edouard Dupont

Dupont received a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Leuven. He had developed an interest in geology under influence of J.-B. d’Omalius d’Halloy, a well known Belgian scientist. In 1868, he became director of the state Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, in Brussels. It is now said that he strongly improved the institution by introducing research in its main purposes. Dupont claimed that he wanted to bring natural sciences in Belgium to the same prestigious level that Germany had achieved. To do so, he would have liked to put all the disciplines that belonged to natural sciences under his own authority, in his museum.

When Belgium bought the famous Brazilian herbarium that the late von Martius had left, there was no administrative section dedicated to the Botanic Garden in the national budget, for the botanic garden was planning to open only a few months later. That is why the expenses for the herbarium were paid on the budget of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. It is, needless to say, that Dupont claimed the dried collections were his and that botanical science had to find a home in the Musée. But Barthélémy Dumortier, famous catholic politician and botanist, was the man behind the idea of creating a "Belgian Kew" in Brussels, and he would not let Dupont torpedo his project. They became arch-enemies, of course, and they would use all official and unofficial ways to succeed. Let us mention, in passing, that Dupont’s project looked pretty much like the French Museum d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris) while Dumortier’s own point of view looked like the one that prevailed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew : keeping botany separated from zoology. Two philosophical/methodological stances were struggling, though Dumortier won. The botanic garden officially got the von Martius Herbarium in 1871, and the right to develop into the major center for botanical studies in the country. Strangely enough, Dupont’s Museum maintained a department of botany in the Museum.

In 1875, Dupont’s dream seemed to come true. Dumortier had created so many problems and fights in the botanic garden that the board had resigned, the botanists had went on strike and the herbarium was in decay. The Home Office then made the decision to put both Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and State botanic garden under Dupont’s only authority. Nevertheless, since Dumortier was a member of the same party as the Home secretary, he stayed at the botanic garden as a scientific director and chairman of the board,. The merging of the institutions put the two enemies in the same room, in a sense.

What happened during the 11 months Dupont ran the botanic garden remains some kind of a mystery. He asked for reports from the departments in order to set his priorities, and seemed to want a reformation of the institution. Nevertheless, disagreements and controversies soon happened. Dupont was authoritarian, disrespectful and arrogant and a clouds began to meet over the botanic garden again.

At the beginning of 1876, Dupont resigned. This was said to be only a dramatic blackmail attempted to get more money, privileges and rights from the Home Office. But it failed, when François Crépin who was both head of department in the Museum of Natural Science and Dupont’s own secretary at the botanic garden, became director of the garden. From then on, Dupont tried to bring him back to the Museum under his authority and to humiliate him. It is not until 1888 that the botanist was officially withdrawn from the Museum team of scientists.

Dupont brought the Museum of Natural History to a higher level. But, on the other hand, he turn out to be a major threat to the garden: first he wanted it to be dedicated only to horticulture while the Museum would take charge of botanical science; then, as a director (1875-1876) he ran the place with arrogance and provoked much trouble; finally, he did his best to subdue Crépin and to hinder his management.

by Dr. Denis Diagre

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