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Home > Timeline > 1519 - 1818 > François Fresneau

The web site of ‘La Gataudière’ shows a plump not-unattractive individual
who is reputedly Francois Fresneau but his descendent – the Compte de Chassloup Laubat
– claimed in 1942 that there is no image of him in existence.

Born: 29 September 1703 in ‘La Gataudière’ Marennes, France.

Died: 25 June 1770 in ‘La Gataudière’ Marennes, France.

Another mystery!

François Fresneau was born in the house which his mother had brought with her as her dowry when she married François’ father, also called François, in 1700. It, and the town of Cayenne in French Guiana were to be his physical and spiritual homes for all his life.

In 1726 he moved to Paris to study mathematics and drawing under M Duplessis and after two years became a certified engineer. A very severe attack of smallpox interrupted his studies and left him permanently disfigured (perhaps the reason for the lack of paintings etc) but he recovered and went on to become a certified astronomer in 1730. Soon afterwards he went to stay at the house of the Marquise d’Ambres, whose husband was ‘Lieutenant Général de la Haute-Guyenne, to draw up plans of ‘La Gataudière’. She was to be his protector until her death some 30 years later and one of her first actions was to introduce him to the ‘Minister of the Marine’ – Maurepas – who obtained for him in August 1732 the post of engineer at Cayenne in Guiana with a specified brief both to design and construct new fortifications for the town and to investigate the local flora in the hope of finding some new plants for the ‘Jardin du Roy’.

He set off for the New World in late 1732 and by 1733 had written to the Minister describing the poor state of repair of the fortifications and giving his ideas as to how they should be reconstructed. Three years of frustrations followed as political in-fighting took place in France but in 1736 the plans were approved by the King. He was still unable to begin work in Guiana so, in the winter of 1737/8 he returned to his home, ‘La Gataudière’, where he met Cécile Solain-Baron whom he married on 10th June 1738. The two of them returned to Guiana, again to be involved in political manoeuvrings, until on 9th November 1740 it was made clear to everyone by Maurepas that the plans had the King’s approval and must go ahead immediately. Money was made available and he was at last able to start work. He was happy at last and felt able to pursue the second part of his brief: to examine the flora of Guiana. It was during this period, in1846, that he and la Condamine met and carried out some scientific researches together.

In a letter to Maurepas dated 19th February 1746 Fresneau makes his first reference to the milk of a tree which the Portuguese use to make a variety of objects including syringes but here it was regarded as a curiosity amongst a long report on the various flora which could be transplanted to the ‘Jardin du Roy’.

In 1748 Fresneau returned home in ill health to find his wife dead, worn out by seven pregnancies and life in Guiana. It was whilst recovering at Marennes that he wrote his first ‘Memoire’ describing the physical properties of rubber and how he saw its potential for uses in the west. He particularly emphasised the benefits for France and Guiana in its promotion. The memoire went to the new Minister for the Colonies, Rouillé, in the summer of ’49. He was not interested but it eventually fee into the hands of The Academy of Science in Paris and thence to la Condamine who, having known and worked briefly with Fresneau gave it his support and presented it to the Academy on February 21st 1751.

In the same year Fresneau married Anne-Marie Horric de Laugerie and the two of them, together with Fresneau’s only surviving child, Charles, settled in Marennes to rebuild ‘La Gataudière’. The re-build included a laboratory on the ground floor where he could continue his researches into rubber and particularly his search for a solvent so that he could prepare solutions which could be used for dipping, coating etc. in the same way that fresh latex was used in Amazonia.

This research continued for a number of years and gradually some interest was shown by the government. In 1762 Vaucanson asked M Bertin, the Controller-general of Finances, to write to Fresneau asking him to set down the results of his labours and this he duly produced in February 1763. A document of note for being the first scientific research paper on natural rubber. With the documents was a letter explaining that he had prepared waterproof fabrics by dipping in solutions of rubber with turpentine as solvent. Having received a ‘thank you’ from Bertin and nothing more, Fresneau asked his old friend, la Condamine, if his research could be presented to the Academy of Science. La Condamine said there would be no problem but suggested that it be rewritten as a scientific paper rather than retain its existing form as a report to the minister. This Fresneau did and it was submitted in March 1765.

However, sometime in 1763, two scientist friends of M Bertin, Hérrisant and Macquer, claimed independently to have discovered turpentine as the best solvent for rubber and they went down in history for that discovery. Unfortunately there is no record in the Academy’s records for the year 1763 of their submissions so we are left to wonder whether they had a private briefing from Bertin or whether it was just a coincidence! Fresneau certainly believed the former as an exchange of letters between himself and Macquer clearly show.

That was how things stood when François Fresneau died on 25th June 1770.