George Louis Leclerc Buffon, Comte de (1707-1788), French naturalist, was born on the 7th of September 1707, at Montbard (Côte d'Or), his father, Benjamin François Leclerc de Buffon (1683-1775), being councillor of the Burgundian parlement. He studied law at the college of Jesuits at Dijon; but he soon exhibited a marked predilection for the study of the physical sciences, and more particularly for mathematics. Whilst at Dijon he made the acquaintance of a young Englishman, Lord Kingston, and with him travelled through Italy and then went to England. He published a French translation of Stephen Hales's Vegetable Statics in 1735, and of Sir I. Newton's Fluxions in 1740. At twenty-five years of age he succeeded to a considerable property, inherited from his mother, and from this time onward his life was devoted to regular scientific labour. At first he directed his attention more especially to mathematics, physics, and agriculture, and his chief original papers are connected with these subjects. In the spring of 1739 he was elected an associate of the Academy of Sciences; and at a later period of the same year he was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi and of the Royal Museum. This appears to have finally determined him to devote himself to the biological sciences in particular, and he began to collect materials for his Natural History. In the preparation of this voluminous work he associated with himself L.J.M. Daubenton, to whom the descriptive and anatomical portions of the treaties were entrusted, and the first three volumes made their appearance in the year 1749. In 1752 (not in 1743 or 1760, as sometimes stated) he married Marie Françoise de Saint-Belin. He seems to have been fondly attached to her, and felt deeply her death at Montbard in 1769. The remainder of Buffon's life as a private individual presents nothing of special interest.
He belonged to a very long-lived race, his father having attained the age of ninety-three, and his grandfather eighty-seven. He himself died at Paris on the 15th of April 1788, at the age of eighty-one, of vesical calculus, having refused to allow any operation for his relief. He left one son, George Louis Marie Leclerc Buffon, who was an officer in the French army, and who died by the guillotine, at the age of thirty, on the 10th of July 1793 (22 Messidor, An II.), having espoused the party of the duke of Orleans.
Buffon was a member of the French Academy (his inaugural address being the celebrated Discours sur le style, 1753), perpetual treasurer of the Academy of Sciences, fellow of the Royal Society of London, and member of the Academies of Berlin, St Petersburg, Dijon, and of most of the learned societies then existing in Europe. Of handsome person and noble presence, endowed with many of the external gifts of nature, and rejoicing in the social advantages of high rank and large possessions, he is mainly known by his published scientific writings. Without being a profound original investigator, he possessed the art of expressing his ideas in a clear and generally attractive form. His chief defects as a scientific writer are that he was given to excessive and hasty generalization, so that his hypotheses, however seemingly brilliant, are often destitute of any sufficient basis in observed facts, whilst his literary style is not unfrequently theatrical and turgid, and a great want of method and order is commonly observable in his writings.
His great work is the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière; and it can undoubtedly claim the merit of having been the first work to present the previously isolated and apparently disconnected facts of natural history in a popular and generally intelligible form. The sensation which was made by its appearance in successive parts was very great, and it certainly effected much good in its time by generally diffusing a taste for the study of nature. For a work so vast, however - aiming, as it did, at being little less than a general encyclopaedia of the sciences - Buffon's capacities may, without disparagement, be said to have been insufficient, as is shown by the great weakness of parts of the work (such as those relating to mineralogy). The Histoire naturelle passed through several editions, and was translated into various languages. The edition most highly prized by collectors, on account of the beauty of its plates, is the first, which was published in Paris (1749-1804) in forty-four quarto volumes, the publication extending over more than fifty years.
In the preparation of the first fifteen volumes of this edition (1749-1767) Buffon was assisted by Daubenton, and subsequently by P. Guéneau de Montbéliard, the abbé G.L.C.A. Bexon, and C.N.S. Sonnini de Manoncourt. The following seven volumes form a supplement to the preceding, and appeared in 1774-1789, the famous époques de la nature (1779) being the fifth of them. They were succeeded by nine volumes on the birds (1770-1783), and these again by five volumes on minerals (1783-1788). The remaining eight volumes, which complete this edition, appeared after Buffon's death, and comprise reptiles, fishes and cetaceans. They were executed by B.G.E. de Lacépède, and were published in successive volumes between 1788 and 1804. A second edition begun in 1774 and completed in 1804, in thirty-six volumes quarto, is in most respects similar to the first, except that the anatomical descriptions are suppressed and the supplement recast.
See Humbert-Bazile, Buffon, sa famille, etc. (1863); M.J.P. Flourens, Hist. des travaux et des idées de Buffon (1844, 3rd ed., 1870); H. Nadault de Buffon, Correspondance de Buffon (1860); A.S. Packard, Lamarck (1901).