Benjamin Franklin, Farts, and Belgium


George Sassoon wrote: When the Kingdom of Belgium was created, it had to have a Royal Academy of Sciences, which was duly created.  Franklin, being a distinguished American scientist, was asked to contribute to an early volume of the Proceedings.  He expressed his opinion of the new Kingdom by writing a paper on farts, Hank Greely comments: George Sassoon's comment on Franklin and farts prompted me to do some Internet research, which revealed the following fairly lengthy and discursive discoveries. Franklin did publish a humorous, satirical letter about farts, addressed to "the Royal Academy of *****" in about 1781.  Presumably, it wasn't written for any real academy, but, in any event, he could not have done it for an Academy of the Kingdom of Belgium, because that kingdom would not come into being until 1831 and  Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790.  He had been overseas on diplomatic business for the United States from 1776 until 1784 or 1785.   His letter on farts can be found in a little book - available at Amazon for very little money - called Fart Proudly, which contains various satirical works by him.  These include essays on subjects such as On Choosing a Mistress and Rules on Making Oneself Disagreeable.

The letter on farts can also be found separately on the Internet at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=470. It appears to me to be satirizing the lack of utility of questions posed by Royal Academies . . . and to be humor.  The actual Academy being addressed, if any, is not mentioned.  At least some sources, though, call it a letter to the the Royal Academy of Brussels.  The letter (only about 1000 words) does start off by quoting, in French, the mathematical prize question set by this unnamed academy; it is certainly possible that this question really did come from a Royal Academy in Brussels (I can't tell), but it could not have been a Belgian Royal Academy.  

The Kingdom of the Belgiums was not established until January 1831.  There is a small bit of ambiguity in Belgian history just around the time of Franklin's death (9 years after the supposed date of his writing of the letter).  Belgium was ruled by Austria for most of the 18th century, as a result of the disposition of the previously Spanish Netherlands after the War of Spanish of Succession (Europe wouldn't let the Bourbons rule France, rule Spain, and rule Belgium).  The Belgians revolted against the Austrians in the aftermath of the French Revolution (though for local reasons - it isn't clear how much their so-called Brabant Revolt was influenced by the French situation) with their forces declaring the end of Austrian rule in October 1789 and declaring independence as the United States of Belgium on January 11, 1790.   The Austrians reconquered the territory by December 1790.  The French invaded in 1792 and after 3 years of back-and-forth control of the territory by the French and the Austrians, the French took sole control and annexed the territory in 1795, an action recognized by the Austrians in a 1797 treaty.  Belgium went to the Netherlands in the Congress of Vienna and became independent (and guaranteed neutral) only after its revolt against the Netherlands in 1830.

Unless transatlantic crossings were particularly slow in early 1790 (or his dying was prolonged), Franklin probably learned of the declaration of a United States of Belgium.  It seems very unlikely that this ephemeral state created any kind of learned academy or that Franklin had time to write anything for it before his death. On the other hand, there was a Royal Academy in Belgium before there was a Kingdom of Belgium.  Empress Maria Theresa founded The Imperial and Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters of Brussels in 1772.  It operated until the French invasion of 1795, resumed under the Dutch in 1815 and became the Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres, et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.

So, in summary, Benjamin Franklin did write a satirical letter (not a treatise) on the subject, it was addressed to an unnamed royal academy, it might have been the Imperial and Royal Academy in Brussels, but it could not have been an academy of the Kingdom of Belgium.

RH: We used to call the Lowlands "the cockpit of Europe". It is happily ironic that they are now the seat of the peace-seeking European Union and peace-keeping NATO.

 George Sassoon writes: One of your postings about Lincoln mentioned Benjamin Franklin, who was another hero of that time.  A story about him which I heard years ago and never had the opportunity to check, was that he was in Paris at the time when the Kingdom of Belgium was created.  Being a Kingdom, it had to have a Royal Academy of Sciences, which was duly created.  Franklin, being a distinguished American scientist, was asked to contribute to an early volume of the Proceedings.  He expressed his opinion of the new Kingdom by writing a paper on farts, the effluvia that they caused, and the effects of different foods on them.  I wondered if a learned WAISer could confirm this or not.  Apparently Franklin read and wrote French very fluently, but his spoken
accent made him almost incomprehensible.

Regarding Ben Franklin's essay on farts, Ed Jajko says: The little essay has been reprinted several times in various anthologies.  It may be found on-line at http://webits3.appstate.edu/apples/health/Gas/fart_proudly.htm.


Ronald Hilton 2005

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last updated: June 11, 2005