Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, was born Sep. 7, 1707. Buffon was director of the Royal Botanical Gardens and Menagerie in Paris, and, in that capacity, he began publishing a natural history encyclopedia, the Histoire naturelle. The first volume appeared in 1749, and when Buffon died in 1788, volumes were still rolling off the press at regular intervals. The entire set of 44 volumes and an atlas is a remarkable testament to both vision and persistence. Buffon is best known for his rejection of the taxonomic natural history that was advocated by his exact contemporary, Carl Linnaeus, and for his proposal of an approach to nature that focused on animal communities and ecological relationships rather than classes, orders, and species. Buffon famously said that, in his volumes, the dog follows the horse, because in nature, the dog follows the horse. We have in the Library several sets of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle–an original quarto edition, which we made the subject of a special exhibition in 1998, and a beautiful set with smaller volumes and hand-colored plates. This Deux-ponts edition, as we call it from its place of publication, was displayed in our Grandeur of Life exhibition in 2009.

The first four images above are from the first quarto edition (1749-1804) and depict, in order: a chameleon, an owl, Clara the rhino, and a 9-banded armadillo. The last two images are from the Deux-ponts edition (1785-91) and show the title page with Buffon’s portrait opposite, and a plate with several species of sloths.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.