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Haverford College

Gabriel de Broglie, Institut de France chancellor.

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President of Haverford College, Madam Permanent Secretary of the Académie Française, Permanent Secretary [of the Institut de France], my dear colleagues.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, it's a great honor to welcome you here to this place on such a pleasant occasion. Who would have foreseen that the destinies of the Institut de France and Haverford College would intersect one day? The circumstances that bring us together are exceptional; they represent a rare moment in the centuries-old histories of the Institut de France and Haverford College. An autograph manuscript of major importance, a letter from René Descartes, stolen from the Institut in the nineteenth century, has unexpectedly been returned by the American educational institution, Haverford College.

Haverford had received it as a gift from one of its former students, who had no idea of its provenance. As the representative of the Institut de France, I do not hesitate to express my deepest feelings and gratitude to Professor Emerson, President of Haverford College, in response to the nobility of his gesture, which reflects the high moral values of Haverford College.

By a curious coincidence, in 1833, at the same time as a group of Quakers were founding Haverford School to provide excellent instruction framed in accordance with Quaker values of integrity, Count Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja, scion of an ancient Florentine family, became a French citizen, and, like a wolf in the sheepfold, was welcomed at the Institut de France as a member of the Académie des Sciences. Guillaume [Guglielmo] Libri was an authentic mathematician, a historian of science, his erudite publications respected for their strong scientific value, and associated with influential political figures. He became a professor of mathematics at the Faculté des Sciences, then at the Collège de France, then General Inspector of Public Instruction.

This last position allowed him to visit numerous French libraries and to deploy the darker side of his personality - that of passionate collector (can one call him a collector?) of books and manuscripts and excellent connoisseur of their rarity and market value. Once having gained access to these public collections, very rich but still little-known and badly catalogued at the time, and after having gained the trust of the conservators, he asked to be left alone to examine at length the old documents. Thus it was that he made the transition from bibliophile to bibliopath, a criminal who committed extensive thefts, whose extent was only discovered several years later, when Libri had fled to England, taking with him much of his booty with the intention of selling it. After a trial held in Paris in 1850, he was convicted in absentia, and never returned to France. Only a small part of the documents he had stolen was retrieved.

The Institut de France was one of Libri's principal victims, because his academician's status placed him above suspicion. A contemporary witness reported that Libri regularly came here to the library, dressed in a loose coat that swept the ground, even when the weather was hot, and that he made a point of coughing to justify the coat, ceasing to cough when he thought he was unobserved. Libri's two greatest depredations in the Institut library, which houses our archives, were without a doubt his theft of a quarter of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts and of Descartes's letters to Father Mersenne, which had been given to the Académie des Sciences in the seventeenth century by Gilles Personne de Roberval, inventor of the Roberval Balance; many of these letters are still scattered around the world.

I honor Mr. John Anderies, head of Special Collections at Haverford College, who listed the collection of autographs under his care on the Web, which permitted Dr. Erik-Jan Bos, whose research I likewise recognize, to discover the unknown Descartes letter. I also want to thank Prof. Theo Verbeck, of Utrecht University, who is directing the publication of Descarte's correspondence and who offered precious help. Nor am I forgetting to congratulate Mr. Conrad Turner, who, while a student at Haverford in 1981, wrote a history paper on this letter.

The century that this letter spent in the United States was profitable; it was perfectly preserved, and contributed to the solid tradition of study at Haverford College. Nor should we forget that Professor Stephen Emerson is a biologist of repute, but also chose philosophy as a minor for his B. A.

President of Haverford College, having chosen with great grace to return to us the letter discovered in your library, you have made up for the bad memories with which Libri left our institution. From now on, when we think of Descartes, we will not only remember the virtues of Haverford College and the warmth of the relationship which will link us henceforth as members of that longstanding and living republic of letters, which has no sense of borders, but also our gratitude to you, happy to celebrate a further link in the historical chain, currently a very solid one, of Franco-American friendship.