Dieudonné Sylvain Guy Tancrède de Gratet de Dolomieu (1750-1801)

by Philip Greenspun; created 1995

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Dolomieu was born to aristocratic French parents on June 24, 1750. His father got him inducted into the Order of Malta at age 2 and enlisted in the army at the age of 4. By 16, he was a second lieutenant and shipping out with the Order of Malta. In 1768 he killed a man in a duel and was sentenced to life in prison. Intercession on the part of government officials and the Pope gained his release to a regiment at Metz. Dolomieu learned the natural sciences from a pharmacist there and fell in love with his daughter, Mademoiselle Thyrion.

By the late 1770s, Dolomieu had published some essays and established himself as a mineralogist and geologist. He resigned from the military in 1779, aged 29.

In the 1780s, Dolomieu traveled extensively in Spain, Sicily, Italy, and France. He became an authority on volcanism and his 1788-1789 expedition in the Trentino and Tyrol districts resulted in naming of the particular type of rock found in this region dolomite. Dolomieu's life was a little different from the average MIT geologist's, though. In 1786 he wrote "Every moment that is not spent in the company of the most loving of women is spent at the Laboratory of Natural Science."

In 1797, Dolomieu sailed for Egypt with Bonaparte. In failing health, he left Alexandria in 1799 to return to France. A storm forced the boat into port at Taranto (in the south of Italy) which happened to be part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, with which France was at war. The prevailing state of hostilities landed Dolomieu in prison for 21 months, during which he was mistreated due to a denunciation by angry rivals in the Order of Malta. Bonaparte's victory over the Court of Naples in Feburary 1801 finally resulted in Dolomieu's freedom and return to Paris. He died on November 28, 1801 of a "putrid fever."