Parmentier – The First Pharmecist of the Great Army

Antoine Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), the first pharmacist of the Great Army and great promoter of the potato


Xavier Riaud[1], FINS, Medal of honour of the INS, Legion of Merit of the INS

Antoine Augustin Parmentier (© BIUM).

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the famous French anatomist and paleontologist, said about him: « Everywhere one could work a lot, give favours and receive nothing in return; everywhere one gathered to do good, he would be the first to come running and one could be sure that he would give some of his time, his pen and when needed, of his fortune (, no date). »

Antoine Augustin Parmentier was born on August 12, 1737. His father died when he was very young and his mother taught him his first rudiments of Latin. When he was 13, the pharmacist de Montdidier was his professor. When he was 18, he went to Paris to join a relative who also was a pharmacist.

A Brilliant student during his stay in Paris, he soon gained a remarkable scientific knowledge. In 1757, he enlisted in the army of Hanover as apothecary and was under the supervision of Bayen, himself a pharmacist whom he soon befriended. When he was 24 years old, he got a certificate of second pharmacist in the army. During the war of Hanover, the young man gained everyone’s trust and encouraged the other pharmacists to remain brave during the epidemic that hit the local hospitals. He succeeded in checking its progress and put an end to it. Captured five times by the Prussians, he was taken into a fortress and was kept as a war prisoner. There he was only fed with potatoes which were considered at the time as degrading food. Parmentier soon realized that potatoes had nutritive virtues. It was in that context that he decided to promote this plant (De Beauvillé, 2010; Fougère, 1956; Muratori-Philippe, 2006).

Once he was made free, Parmentier went to Frankfurt and lived for a while with his friend Meyer, a famous German chemist, but soon he missed his motherland. He went back to Paris in 1763. He attended Nollet’s teachings of physics, Rouelle’s teachings of chemistry and Jussieu’s teachings of botany. He worked very hard and spent his money buying books. On October 16, 1766, he passed the competitive examination of apothecary “gagnant-maîtrise” at the Invalides (Gourdol, 2010). He held this position for six years, cultivated a small vegetable garden and carried out experiments on plants to improve their food virtues. Eventually, he became Master Pharmacist. Appealed by the scientist, the Governor of the Invalids, Baron Espagnac created the post of Apothecary-Major of the French armed forces and Chief Pharmacist at the Invalids especially for him on July 18, 1772. And yet, the nuns who owned the land did not want to be dispossessed of their property and issued a complaint which resulted in the suppression of Parmentier’s post at the Invalides on December 31, 1774 (De Beauvillé, 2010; Blaessinger, 1948).

In 1772, He won the prize of the Academy of Besançon thanks to his memoirs in which he sang the praises of the potato as nutrient. In 1774, free from any commitment, he devoted his time to his research. In 1773, he published a book entitled Examen chimique des pommes de terre, dans lequel on traite des parties constituantes du froment et du riz [Chimical examination of the potatoes dealing with the constituting parts of wheat and rice]. In 1774, he produced Récréations physiques de Model [Physical recreation by Model]. Those two books were resounding works for which he became notable. In 1774, he was elevated to the rank of royal censor and his objective was to go to different regions in order to find out why bread was so rare. That year, in reply, he published a booklet entitled Méthode facile pour conserver à peu de frais les grains et les farines [Easy method to preserve grains and flours cheaply]. Passing through Montdidier, his hometown, his fellow citizens put forward the problem of the rot of wheat which devastated the surrounding fields. After some chemical tests, he determined the cause of the problem and gathered his notes in memoirs read in front of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1776, Analyse de la carie du froment [Analysis of wheat rot]. In 1777, his Avis aux bonnes ménagères des villes et des campagnes sur la meilleure manière de faire le pain [Recommandation to good urban and rural housewives on the best manner to bake bread] was published and was instantly a great success which changed the rural and urban economy (De Beauvillé, 2010; Blaessinger, 1948). That same year, he officiated at the Collège de Pharmacie as botany and natural history demonstrator (Gourdol, 2010). Le Parfait boulanger [The Perfect Baker] followed and was also a great success in 1778. Other publications on other meals followed. On June 8, 1780, a school for bakery was founded in the capital city. Parmentier was one of its professors. He went on with books dealing with various topics. In 1782, he was offered the position of chemist for the German monarch. He refused the position. In 1784, his memoirs devoted to the use of maize in the South of France were awarded with a prize from the Academy of Bordeaux. His memoirs were once again published in 1812 and were paid for the Empire and contributed to improve the cultivation of this starchy food (De Beauvillé, 2010; Fougère, 1956; Muratori-Philippe, 2006).

In 1787, Louis XVI of France entrusted him with fifty-four arpents to cultivate. During the day, soldiers guarded the land and at night, Parmentier let poor people to steal plants of potato that then they could cultivate for their own needs. In 1789, his Traité sur la culture et les usages de la pomme de terre, de la patate et du topinambour [Treaty on the cultivation and the use of potato, spud and Jerusalem artichoke] was published on Louis XVI’s order. Parmentier had succeeded. Potato was cultivated everywhere in France (, 2010).

In 1790, Parmentier and Nicolas Deyeux, another pharmacist, were awarded with the prize of the Royal Society of Medicine for their memoirs giving details on the chemical study of milk. In 1791, the two men won this prize once again analyzing blood, the title of the memoirs presented to the institution (De Beauvillé, 2010; Blaessinger, 1948).

When the Revolution broke out, Parmentier lost everything. He was even seriously lambasted and threatened by the new regime but he was sent in the South of France to gather medication as much as he could to equip the military pharmacies. And yet, after some time, his help for the sake of humanity was finally acknowledged. In 1793, the “Collège de Pharmacie” was dissolved. In 1796, the pharmacists constituted a Society of Pharmacists in Paris. This society provided free education which was acknowledged as acting for the benefit of the general interest by the Directory in 1797 (Gourdol, 2010; Fougère, 1956).

In 1795, he was chief pharmacist, chairman of the Council of Salubrity of Paris, member of the Commission on the Health of the armies, of the Commission of Subsistence and Supply, and of the General administration of the hospices of Paris. Associated with Bayen, he published his Formulaire pharmaceutique [Pharmaceutical Form] which was also translated in Italian and republished several times. When Bayen died in 1798, he was the only Inspector General of the military pharmacies. In 1802, he generalised his work co-authored with Bayen, and gave it another title Code pharmaceutique à l’usage des hospices civils [Pharmaceutical code to the use of civil hospices]. It was a huge success re-issued four times (1803, 1807, 1811 and 1818) (De Beauvillé, 2010; Gourdol, 2010; Muratori-Philippe, 2006).

He carried out his first experiments of vaccination at home. Then, he fought for the access to vaccine for the poorest and the efficient implementation of inoculation centers in each French territorial department. His memoirs on the healthiness of hospitals, on the soldier’s bread and on water as being the troops’ drink, etc. led him to become a member of the French Institute, in the Department of Physical Sciences and Mathematics on December 13, 1795 (Meylemans, 2010).

In 1800, he took part in the Bakery School in France (Gourdol, 2010).

On December 15, 1803, the First Consul confirmed his new position as Inspector General of the Health Service. He had been holding this position since 1796 and would hold it until his death in 1813. By decree, Bonaparte appointed him first pharmacist of the armies in 1800. The soon-to-be Emperor really trusted Antoine Augustin (De Beauvillé, 2010; Gourdol, 2010; Muratori-Philippe, 2006). 

That same year, he became chairman of the Society of Pharmacy in Paris as soon as it was created. He contributed much to it. In 1803, the School of Pharmacy opened (Gourdol, 2010). In 1804, he held the position of first pharmacist of the armies for the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean (Armée des Côtes de l’Océan) and in 1805, he was responsible for supplying the hospitals of the Great Army.

When Napoleon implemented the Legion of Honour, he promulgated a decree awarding ten crosses of the Legion of Honour to the civil and military services of the pharmacy department. Everybody was surprised to see that Parmentier did not receive it. Soon, everyone knew that Parmentier had made the list himself. Subsequently, he was awarded the eleventh medal. He was elevated to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour (Riaud, 2010). His knowledge was tremendous but his humility was also proverbial. Parmentier was a faithful admirer of Napoleon. A staunch advocate of prevention, he was convinced that appropriate food and medical measures could only be planned by a strong reaction from the government. According to Parmentier, the Emperor was the man of the moment (De Beauvillé, 2010; Muratori-Philippe, 2006).

After the Continental Blockade, sugar became a rare commodity which was not affordable. From 1808 to 1813, to offset this lack of sugar, he studied grapes and vines, carried out numerous experiments and wrote many memoirs on the topic. In 1810, he associated with Chaptal and he defined an extraction technique of sugar from grapes. Nevertheless, his research was in vain because of the cultivation of beet. During all that period of food shortage for the French people, Parmentier tried to found new sources of food. He broke his back to find new solutions. He made some research on wine and flour preservation, on cold-storage, on meat refrigeration and on the use of dairy products. He also took part in the development of cans boiled in water. He was a forerunner in all the food sectors (Gourdol, 2010; De Beauvillé, 2010; Blaessinger, 1948).

From 1805 to 1813, with his fellow doctors Pinel and Guillotin, he actively contributed to the vaccination drive against smallpox in 1799 with Bonaparte’s support (Gourdol, 2010).

Affected by pulmonary phthisis, he died on December 17, 1813. He never married. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, in the 39th division, 2nd lign, P, 26 (, 2005).

He was awarded with fourty-eight diplomas throughout his life. The Academies of Alexandria, Bern, Brussels, Florence, Geneva, Lausanne, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Turin and of Vienna counted him among their members. He passed on leaving nearly 165 agronomy books behind him (Muratori-Philippe, 2006).

Moreover, Parmentier published numerous articles, memoirs and dissertations in scientific collections, such as Cours complet d’agriculture by Rosier [Full lesson on agriculture], Bibliothèque physico-économique [Physico-economic library], Journal de physique [Journal on physics], Mémoires de la Société royale d’agriculture [Memoirs of the Royal Agricultural Society], Encyclopédie méthodique [Methodical Encyclopedia], Feuille du cultivateur [The sheet of the cultivator], Journal de la Société de pharmacie de Paris [Journal of the Society of Pharmacy Paris], Annales de chimie [Annals of chemistry], Journal et Bulletin de pharmacie [Journal and Bulletin of Pharmacy], Magasin encyclopédique [Encyclopaedic shop], Bulletin de la Société philomathique [Bulletin of Phylomatic Society], Mémoires des Sociétés savantes et littéraires de la république française [Memoirs of learned and literary societies of the French Republic], Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle [New Dictionary of Natural History], Théâtre d’agriculture d’Olivier de Serres [Agricultural Theatre of Olivier de Serres], Nouveau cours d’agriculture [New lesson on agriculture] or even Recueil de l’Institut national [Anthology of the National Institute] to name but a few (Muratori-Philippe, 2006; De Beauvillé, 2010).

When he gave advice to his young colleagues who were under his command, Parmentier maintained: “My friends, more than any other profession, pharmacy requires seriousness in morals, wisdom in behaviour, a great obedience to the advice of experience, the love of order and of a sedentary lifestyle, a strictness of principles and inflexible probity. Be honest men; virtue itself makes people happy and strives for people to become happy; try through your honesty to get probity and science, a personal consideration which is independent of your title. Meanwhile, through your equity and gentleness, you determine your subordinates to like you and respect you (De Beauvillé, 2010).” Is it necessary to say more about Parmentier? Grateful for his work and devotion, the French society gave his name to streets, schools, put up statues and many other tributes.


Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire (BIUM), personal communication, Paris, 2010.

Blaessinger Edmond, Quelques grandes figures de la pharmacie militaire [Some great figures of the military pharmacy], Baillère (ed.), Paris, 1948.

De Beauvillé Victor, Histoire de Montdidier, Livre IV – Chapitre II – Section LIV [The story of Montdidier, Book IV – Chapter II – Section LIV],, 2010, pp. 1-21.

Fougère Paule, Grands pharmaciens [Great pharmacists], Buchet/Castel (ed.), Paris, 1956., Antoine Parmentier, 2010, pp. 1-6., Parmentier Antoine Augustin (1737-1813), 2005, p. 1-2.

Gourdol Jean-Yves, « Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), pharmacien des Armées, vulgarisateur de la pomme de terre » [« Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), pharmacist of the Armies, popularizer of the potato »], in, 2010, pp. 1-4., Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), no date, p. 1.

Meylemans R., « Les grands noms de l’Empire », in Ambulance 1809 de la Garde impériale [« Great names of the Empire », in The 1808 ambulance of the Imperial Guard],, 2010, pp. 1-22.

Muratori-Philippe Anne, Parmentier, Plon (ed.), Paris, 2006.

Riaud Xavier, « Chirurgiens, médecins ou pharmaciens nobles d’Empire et/ou titulaires de la Légion d’honneur » [Noble surgeons, doctors or pharmacists of the Empire and/or awarded with the Legion of Honour], in The International Napoleonic Society, Montreal, 2010,, pp. 1-5.

[1] Dental Surgeon, Doctor in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and Associate member of the French Dental Academy, Free member of the French Surgical Academy.

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