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Which Army pharmacist introduced the potato as a food source for humans in France in 1772?

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Look closer at the photograph, it is a potato and not a pebble that is lined up along the ledge of this monument in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. This is a small but appropriate token of appreciation of the pioneer work of military pharmacist Antoine Augustin Parmentier (12 August 1737 – 17 December 1813). Back in the late 18th century, he popularised the consumption of potatoes in France. Discovered by Spanish explorers, the nutritious tuber was established as a staple crop in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Prussia by the second half of the 18th century. Despite that food shortages were rife in France, especially in Paris, most of France still regarded the "pomme de terre" as a botanical curiosity and considered only fit for animal feed. Moreover, an Act of Parliament of 1748 prohibited its cultivation as human food, treating this legume with suspicion as an aphrodisiac, a cause of plague or leprosy.

Captured by the Prussian Army, Parmentier remembered after his release from captivity in 1763 that all soldiers and prisoners had to eat during the Seven Years' War in Westphalia were potatoes. None were under-nourished or exhausted. This observation prompted him to declare that potatoes were an excellent remedy against dysentery. After submitting a "mémoire" to the Academy of Besançon praising potatoes as nutrient, he won a prize in 1772. He pursued his research and dedicated much time and effort to promoting the value of the pomme de terre as food. He lobbied the Paris Faculty of Medecine that declared potatoes to be edible in 1772. However, French people continued to be reluctant to eat them although food shortages were rife in France, especially in Paris. He then invited Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry, and Benjamin Franklin, commissioner for the United States in France, to dinners where guests were served potatoes. Also, Louis XVI entrusted him with fifty-four arpents to cultivate potatoes in 1787. During the day, soldiers guarded the "royal garden" but intentionally let people at night to steal plants of potatoes facilitating further dissemination.

Throughout his life, Parmentier intended to make science serve human beings and find a scientific approach to solve public health issues. Always concerned with hygiene, he was interested in the preservation of flour, wine and dairy products, and was one of the first scientists to study refrigeration methods for preserving meat and promoted food canning. However, Parmentier's actions should not be reduced to nutrition or the promotion of potatoes, corn, chestnuts, mushrooms and mineral water. His work and his innovative ideas, with more than 189 publications, made advancing scientific knowledge in various areas: blood analysis, preparation of drugs, opium effects, vaccination, exhumation safety or that of cesspools, etc. Outstanding organizer, he left his mark in the military health services, including civilian hospitals, hospices and prisons. The Governor of the Invalides created the post of Apothecary-Major of the French armed forces and Chief Pharmacist at Les Invalides especially for him on 18 July 1772. In 1782, he was offered the position of chemist for the German monarch but declined the position. The French Academy of Sciences made him one of its members in 1795. Appointed Inspector General of the military Health Service in 1796, he remained in post until his death and became the first chairman of the Society of Pharmacy in Paris when created in 1803 with the School of Pharmacy. In 1804, he held the position of First Pharmacist of the Armies and was responsible for supplying hospitals of the Great Army. As a military man, he participated in seventeen campaigns and was captured five times. For all this, Parmentier was honoured by Napoléon, who made him one of the first members of his Légion d'honneur which he created in 1802. Affected by pulmonary phthisis, he died at aged 76 on 17 December 1813 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery – 39th division, 2nd line, plot 26. Nearly five years after his death, on 21 August 1818, a ministerial decision was made designating a 26-metre section of roadway to be called "avenue Parmentier" and located in Paris' 11th arrondissement. Its length grew to a total of 1,670 metres as the result of additional decrees in 1855, 1857, 1876 and 1883. Parmentier also has a Métro station named after him which opened on 19 October 1904 as part of the first section of the line 3 between Père Lachaise and Villiers stations.

On this day, 12 August 2021, we commemorate the 284th anniversary of the birth of Antoine Augustin Parmentier in the town of Montdidier in northern France, as well as more than 249 years since the potato was officially declared as edible food in France.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy / André M. Levesque

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