Louis de Jaucourt  

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Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt (Paris, September 16, 1704 – February 3, 1779, Compiègne) was a French scholar and the most prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie. He wrote about 18,000 articles on subjects including physiology, chemistry, botany, pathology, and political history, or about 25% of the entire encyclopedia, all done voluntarily. In the generations after the Encyclopédie's, mainly due to his aristocratic background, his legacy was largely overshadowed by the more bohemian Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, but by the mid-20th century more scholarly attention was being paid to him.

Biography

Jaucourt studied theology in Geneva, natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, and medicine in Leiden. Upon returning to France, he spent the next 20 years writing the Lexicon medicum universalis, a six-volume work on anatomy. He sent it to be published in Amsterdam to avoid French censorship but the ship carrying the sole manuscript sank, and 20 years of labor was lost. He also wrote a biography of Leibniz in 1756.

He volunteered to work on the Encyclopédie, recruited by publisher Michel-Antoine David starting with the second volume of the work. He began modestly, with only a few articles in each of the next several volumes, but gradually became more and more involved. Between 1759 and 1765 he wrote on average 8 encyclopedia articles per day, for a total of 17,266 out of 71,818 articles (or about 25%), making him by far the single most prolific contributor to Encyclopédie. His contributions come to some 4,700,000 words. He was especially active in the later volumes, writing between 30% and 45% of the articles in volumes 10 to 17. This earned him the nickname l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie (the slave of the Encyclopedia).

Unlike other editors, Jaucourt was independently wealthy and asked for no payment for his full-time labors. Most of his works consisted of summarizing full books and other longer works into encyclopedia articles, with much content copied verbatim from existing sources. He employed a group of secretaries, out of his own pocket, to help with the effort. He wrote mainly on the sciences, especially medicine and biology. He took a firmly mechanist approach to the subject. This is in sharp contrast to the other major contributor in this area, Ménuret de Chambaud, who had a firmly vitalist view.

While his main focus was on science and biology, he also covered a wide array of other subjects. It is in his works on history and society that his political and philosophical views become clearly evident. He wrote articles of central importance on war, monarchy, people, and Muhammad. His writing is never as openly political as other contributors such as Diderot and Voltaire, but it is clear that he possessed deeply held views. Some of his works, such as those on historical subjects clearly contain radical and anti-clerical messages through implied comparisons between the ancient past and modern France. He also did important works on slavery, the slave trade, and Black people, all strongly condemning slavery as counter to both natural rights and liberties.

Jaucourt practiced medicine and was a member of the Royal Society in London and the academies of Berlin, Stockholm (elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1756), and Bordeaux.




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