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The Scientist Who Inspired the Count of Monte Cristo

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Alexandre Dumas' famous story, The Count of Monte Cristo, was a fictional story based on real events. One of its characters, a mad-genius of a scientist who writes his greatest work in prison, was based on a real person. Learn of the imprisonment of Déodat de Dolomieu.

As adventure stories go, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most far-fetched. Alexandre Dumas tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a wrongfully imprisoned man. He spends eight years in a dank fortress, under the tutelage of an aristocratic, if mad, genius, and escapes to get his revenge. Incredibly, this may be Dumas' most true-to-life story. Dumas was directly inspired by a news item in the paper, about an escaped prisoner who started hunting down those responsible for his imprisonment. He based the character of Edmond Dantès on his father, a brilliant French officer, who was unjustly imprisoned in southern Italy. But what about the mad genius, the aristocratic polymath who was writing his opus on scraps on material with prison-made ink? That had to be made up, right?


Enter Déodat de Dolomieu, the eccentric but brilliant man who spent his life under threat from a gang he once was part of. Dolomieu joined the Knights of Malta as a child. At eighteen, he killed another member of the order in a duel, and was sentenced to life in prison. The Pope interceded for him, and he was released after only a year.

The Pope got involved in the case of a brawling teenager because Dolomieu was from a prominent family, and one of the greatest scientists of the age. A geologist, he examined, and explained, how volcanoes and waters had changed the world over time. He guessed at the age of the Earth, and outlined the many forces that shaped it over the years. He has a mineral, dolomite, named after him, and a mountain range, the Dolomites, also named after him. He quite literally left his mark on the planet.


In between all of his geologizing, he lit up fashionable society and got along very well with the ladies. Basically, he was a flower of the age, and he soon came to the attention of Napoleon. About to embark for Egypt, Napoleon assembled a crew of academics to go along with his army. Dolomieu couldn't resist the trip, although it turned out to be more of a military expedition than he expected. At one point, he actually had to deal with the Knights of Malta again, negotiating the surrender of the island of Malta to Napoleon. This turned out to be a bad mistake.

After staying some time in Egypt, Dolomieu started back to France for the sake of his health. He sailed with Alexandre Dumas' father - also named Alexandre Dumas - who was an esteemed military officer. When the ship, a shoddy vessel, started disintegrating under their feet, the crew managed to get it into a port in Taranto: which had recently fallen to anti-French forces. Dumas, as a French officer, was imprisoned for eighteen months. Dolomieu shared space with him for a time. It was only a few months before the Knights of Malta got word of Dolomieu's capture, and had him transferred to a more secure prison in Sicily. There he spent two years in solitary confinement. Not one to succumb to gloom, Dolomieu kept his mind active by whittling a wooden pen, making ink from the soot from his lamp, and scribbling in the margins of his few allowed books. What did he scribble? Oh, a little thing called Minerological Philosophy, one of the most famous and influential books in all of geology.

Unlike his fictional counterpart in The Count of Monte Cristo, Dolomieu was released from prison. He survived the publication of his manuscript by only a few months, but his character, and that of Dumas' father, lives on in fiction to this day.


[Via The Black Count.]