Rousseau’s herbariums available online

- EN - DE- FR- IT
The University of Neuchâtel publishes all of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s herbariums online. The recently inaugurated website brings together the dried plant collections of the Genevan writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment. A passionate botanist, the famous thinker created rich herbariums that a team of researchers studied at the University of Neuchâtel. The site is aimed at scientists and the general public alike.

The literary and philosophical works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) are still very much alive. It is read, taught and debated with remarkable intensity. Yet we often overlook the fact that this major thinker of the Enlightenment was also a seasoned botanist. His collections of dried plants, in particular, remain little known. Rousseau created herbariums during the last fifteen years of his life. Precious and fragile, fragmented and rarely exhibited, the collections that have come down to us are difficult to consult.

The website provides access to their digitizations. It brings to light almost 3,700 plant specimens that Rousseau picked and dried himself, or received from his correspondents. Each plant and handwritten note is accompanied by botanical or historical data. Visitors to the site discover a wide range of European and exotic flora of the eighteenth century, accompanying Rousseau on his herborizations in the plains and mountains, and gaining an insight into his scientific passion for plants.

Fourteen collections

The fourteen collections on display are highly diverse. Housed in eleven institutions in Switzerland and France, they range from single specimens acquired by bibliophiles and Rousseau enthusiasts, to vast herbariums containing up to 1,600 plants. Some collections are veritable works of art: Rousseau composed them with great care to offer them to botany enthusiasts, and to encourage them to practice this science.

Other collections come from Rousseau’s last herbarium. Among these collections, the complex herbarium of the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Neuchâtel (1,242 plants) provides an insight into the botanist’s workshop, where plants are dried, fixed, named and classified. Finally, a significant number of the specimens in Rousseau’s collection come from the French botanist Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Fusée-Aublet (1723-1778), who explored French Guiana and brought exotic plants back to France.

Interdisciplinary research

Innovative in both scientific and IT terms, the site is the result of an interdisciplinary research project conducted at the University of Neuchâtel between 2020 and 2024, in partnership with the Neuchâtel Public and University Library, and financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Nine scientists, historians and computer scientists have combined their efforts to satisfy the requirements of Rousseau specialists and botanists, while producing a site accessible to the general public. This tool enables users to leaf through Rousseau’s herbariums, almost as if they were consulting them in their place of preservation, and to carry out transversal searches across all the collections.

Partner institutions

Project supported by the University of Neuchâtel, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Neuchâtel Public and University Library.

Museums and archives: Association Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Neuchâtel), Bibliothèque centrale de Zurich, Bibliothèque de Genève, Bibliothèque Inguimbertine de Carpentras, Conservatoire et jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève, Institut de France, Jardin botanique de Lyon, Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs (Paris), Musée Jacquemart-André (Domaine de Chaalis), Musée Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Montmorency), Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (Paris).