Dr. Antoine Francois Saugrain, father of the donor of this collection, was born in Paris in 1763, the scion of an old family of booksellers and printers who had long been in the service of the French royal family. Interestingly, Saugrain's sister Marie Louise became the wife of Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who in his attempts to find a painless means of execution for criminals invented the guillotine.
After thorough grounding in scientific studies Saugrain made his first trip to America, perhaps under the influence of Benjamin Franklin, America's representative in France. There is a tradition that it was the impression produced upon the young Saugrain by the great American that inspired the former to seek his fortune across the sea.
Saugrain appears to have entered the service of the King of Spain around 1783, and at 21 was conducting mineralogical investigations in Spanish America. By 1787 Saugrain was back in Paris helping to organize an expedition to the Ohio River area under a Frenchman named Piquet, the object of which was to look into the founding of a French colony as well as to study the natural history of the area. Bringing a letter of introduction to Franklin, Saugrain arrived in America with his party in 1788.
After being attacked by Indians on their way down the Ohio, Saugrain and his surviving companions appeared at Louisville, Kentucky. Saugrain spent some time traveling in the area before returning to Philadelphia, where he visited Franklin and supposedly received from him a portrait medallion that Saugrain later credited as an inspiration to him as he attempted to bring Franklin's spirit of scientific inquiry to the Mississippi Valley.
Saugrain was back in Paris in 1790, where he was engaged by the Sciota Land Company to aid in the founding of the French emigrant colony of Gallipolis. During several years at Gallipolis Saugrain became known for his inoculations against smallpox as well as his scientific experiments with the natural resources of the region. Around 1795 he, his wife, whom he had married in Gallipolis, and their children moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and by 1800 they had settled in St. Louis at the request of Governor Trudeau.
In 1801 Saugrain was appointed surgeon at the military hospital established in St. Louis by the Spanish government. When the region passed to the United States in 1804, he was the only doctor in St. Louis. In 1806 he gained the position of army surgeon at Fort Bellefontaine on the Missouri River.
Saugrain died in 1820, having attained fame as the "First Scientist of the Mississippi Valley." It is said that his discoveries with phosphorus antedated the European invention of friction matches.