At first glance they may look like pebbles. Look again and you’ll see that it is potatoes that are lined up along the ledges of this monument in Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the tomb of Antoine Parmentier, an eighteenth century pharmacist who pioneered research into nutritional chemistry and brought the potato into French kitchens.
Potatoes were domesticated, from unpromising wild ancestors, by early farmers in the mountain valleys of the Andes. For millennia they remained an exclusively Andean crop until Spanish explorers arrived in the region in 1532 and discovered the exotic diet of the local population. By the end of the sixteenth century potatoes were being cultivated on a small scale by farmers in Spain and were known quite widely in Britain and continental Europe, but they were generally regarded as a botanical curiosity and treated with suspicion as a potential foodstuff.
A degree of wariness was a healthy reaction. Potato leaves and green tubers contain poisonous alkaloids, also present in their European relatives such as deadly nightshade. Myths quickly grew around the strange crop and the potato was variously credited with being a cause of plague or leprosy, an aphrodisiac, a temptation to ‘popery’ or the food of Satan. More rational analysis showed that potato varieties adapted to European conditions could give high yields of nutritious tubers. Easily cultivated, prepared and stored, potatoes could yield well in conditions where a cereal crop might fail, offering the prospect of food security in a continent plagued by frequent famines.
By the second half of the eighteenth century potatoes were established as a staple crop in Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Prussia. In most of France potatoes were still considered to be only fit for animal feed, following an act of parliament of 1748 which prohibited cultivation of potatoes for human food because of their supposed association with leprosy. Potatoes needed a French champion.
Born in 1737 in Picardy, Antoine Parmentier rose to influence at a time when the ancient, mysterious art of the apothecary was gradually giving way to modern, rational pharmacy. He learnt the basics of the science as assistant to a pharmacist in Montdidier and then as an apprentice to a pharmacist in Paris. Lacking the resources to set up in business on his own account he decided to join the army where apothecaries and pharmacists were in demand. Enrolled as pharmacist third class in 1757, he quickly rose through the ranks and was appointed apothecary major of the army hospital of Les Invalides in 1772.
While serving as pharmacist to the French troops stationed in Hannover during the Seven Years War, Parmentier and was captured and imprisoned in Prussia, where he was well fed on a diet of potatoes and convinced of their nutritional value. On his return to Paris in 1763 Parmentier embarked on the study of chemistry, botany and agricultural science in addition to his duties in the army. His research and innovations were wide ranging, in nutritional chemistry, plant pathology, control of epidemics and the use of vaccination, but he became best known, and is best remembered, for his campaign on behalf of the potato.
In 1772, largely thanks to Parmentier’s efforts, the faculty of medicine of the university of Paris conducted a review of the use of potatoes as human food. The learned professors finally declared that potatoes could be eaten without danger but the general public were yet to be convinced. Parmentier resigned his post as apothecary major in 1774 to devote himself full time to his various research projects, as well as hosting potato banquets, with influential guests including Benjamin Franklin and the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.
In 1785 Louis XVI offered land on the outskirts of Paris as a trial ground for potatoes and the following year Parmentier presented the first of the crop, and a bouquet of potato flowers at Versailles. The benefits of royal support were short lived but Parmentier and potatoes were both rehabilitated soon after the revolution. Before long the food of kings had become the food of the people.