Plateau has often been termed a "martyr for science". This was an understandable approach at the time of his death, but it has unfortunately appealed too much to people's imagination. In many (popular) publications the blindness of Plateau is ascribed to his experiment of 1829 in which he looked directly into the sun for 25 seconds. Recent research definitely refutes this. The exact date of the blindness is difficult to formulate simply. It was a gradual process during the year 1843 and early 1844. Plateau publishes two papers in which he painstakingly describes the scientific observations of his own blindness. After 40 years of blindness he still has subjective visual sensations. For his experiments, as well as for the related deskwork colleagues and family help him. On a daily basis, his wife, Fanny Clavareau, reads to him papers and articles, and acts as his secretary. His sister Joséphine is an accomplished artist and probably helps with the drawings.

For the irradiation and hydrostatics experiments he can count on the help of family members and colleagues Duprez, Lamarle, Manderlier, Donny, and of course Quetelet. One can only admire the enormous mental prowess of the blind Plateau in solving complicated analytical problems. It is his son in law, Gustave Van der Mensbrugghe (1835-1911) who does the demonstration experiments at the lectures Plateau gives for different societies. In fact Van der Mensbrugghe becomes a keen observer, especially in the field of hydrostatics.

Plateau dies on 15 September 1883. On 18 September he is buried in the cemetery of Mariakerke (near Ghent) in the presence of many dignitaries. To day the grave no longer exists.

Joseph Plateau
Daguerreotype Pelizarro, Ghent, 1843.
© Museum for the History of Sciences, Ghent.
Digital restoration MD.

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