Georges Cuvier, Father of Paleontology

Georges Cuvier was born on 23 August 1769 and came from a humble background. His father was a lieutenant in the Swiss Guards and his mother, a homemaker who diligently schooled him. He was baptized Jean-Léopld-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, and later added Dagobert. However, after his older brother Georges Charles Henri died, he adopted the name Georges.

Georges Cuvier, Author's Collection

Georges Cuvier. Author’s Collection.

When Cuvier was ten he discovered a copy of Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, the first modern zoological work that attempted to describe all the animals known. He read and reread it along with other natural history books, so that by the time he was 12 “he was as familiar with quadrupeds and birds as a first-rate naturalist.”[1] In addition, his school years proved exceedingly fruitful. He excelled above all other students and graduated from the Caroline Academy with top honors. However, because of his humble origins, he found it necessary work and obtained a job in Normandy where he began tutoring the only son of the Count of Héricy, a Protestant noble.

While in Normandy, Georges Cuvier studied the anatomy of fishes, compared fossils against recent species, and recorded his observations, thereby gaining a reputation as a naturalist. He also began attending agricultural meetings in a nearby town. One night an address was given by a venerable looking gentleman who was introduced as Monsieur Henri Alexandre Tessier, but Tessier had escaped the Terror and was using the alias Monsieur instead of his title of Abbé, a title given to lower-ranking Catholic clergymen. When he spoke, Cuvier recognized Tessier from his written works and later that evening spoke to him calling Abbé Tessier, which caused Tessier to be initially alarmed, but Cuvier reassured him he was safe.

The two men became close friends. Tessier also took Cuvier under his wing and wrote to his colleagues in Paris, several of who were leading naturalists, and said of Cuvier:

“[He] is a violet … concealed among common herbs. He has great acquirements; he draws plates for your work, and I have urged on him to give botanical lectures this summer. He has consented to do so … I doubt if there is to be found a better comparative anatomist; he is indeed a pearl worth the picking up.”[2]

Correspondence then began between Cuvier and Tessier’s colleagues in Paris, who were also impressed. They invited 26-year-old Cuvier to come to the city. He arrived in Paris in the spring of 1795 and soon became assistant to Jean-Claude Mertrud, who had been newly appointed to chair comparative anatomy in the Jardin des Plantes and was a collaborator with the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. That same year, Georges Cuvier also joined the fledgling National Museum in Paris and quickly became the world’s leading expert on the anatomy of animals.

A year later, on 4 April 1796, Cuvier became a professor and began lecturing at the École Centrale du Pantheon and was elected as a member of the Institute of France. It was around this same time he presented his first paper. It was published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d’éléphants vivants et fossils. The paper analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants, mammoth fossils, and a fossil skeleton known at that time as the “Ohio animal,” although later Cuvier would identify it as a mastodon. For the first time, Cuvier also demonstrated African and Indian elephants were not the same species and that mammoths were different from both African and Indian elephants, thereby proving mammoths were extinct.

Georges Cuvier

Georges Cuvier’s proof of extinction. Courtesy of Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

Cuvier was extremely devoted to his work, and this devotion was demonstrated in 1798. Napoleon Bonaparte was preparing an expedition to Egypt and asked Claude-Louis Berthollet, a Savoyard-French chemist, to create a scientific team to accompany the expedition. Berthollet specifically chose Cuvier. However, despite the honor and the opportunities offered for Cuvier to have “frequent and personal communication with Napoleon,”[3] he declined. Apparently, he felt “he could much more advance the science of natural history by the steady prosecution of it at the Jardin des Plantes, than by any casual study of it elsewhere.”[4]

Georges Cuvier never tired of research and his writings related to fossils were numerous. In 1799, an opening was available and Cuvier became a professor at the Collége de France, and, in 1800, he began his celebrated Lectures on Comparative Anatomy. After Napoleon returned from Egypt, Cuvier was elected secretary to the class of physical and mathematical sciences, of which Napoleon was president. Moreover, Napoleon soon realized the “value and variety of Cuvier’s talents, and selected him as one of the six general inspectors appointed in 1802 for the purpose of establishing a lyceum school in each of the thirty cities of France.”[5]

In 1803, as Cuvier’s reputation and achievements continued to grow, he married. His wife was Madame Duvancel, a woman described as amiable and affectionate and “whose conversation … [was] the most fascinating and brilliant that perhaps ever flowed from a woman’s lips.”[6] She was the widow of a fermier-général, who had been guillotined in 1794, and she brought four children to the marriage. Later, she and Cuvier had four additional children.

Cuvier’s daughters Clementine begin working as his assistant. She was pretty and adored by several men, including Jean-Jacques Ampère, who also adored the French socialite Madame Récamier. Clementine lived long enough to become betrothed to Charles Duparquet but then died within a few days of her appointed marriage from tuberculosis. About two months after her death, Cuvier attended his first event where he was presiding. When it came his turn to speak, his grief was still palpable and his firmness suddenly abandoned him:

“The illustrious legislator gave way to the bereaved father, he bowed his head, covered his face with his hands, and was heard to sob bitterly. A respectful and profound silence was observed … All present had known Clementine, and there all could understand the parent’s deep emotion. At length Cuvier raise his hand, and uttered … ‘Pardon me gentlemen, I was a father, and have lost all; then with a violent effort he resumed the business of the day with his usual perspicuity, and pronounced judgment with his ordinary coolness and clearness of mind.”[6]

In looks Cuvier was moderately tall, and although he had a slight build in his youth, his sedentary lifestyle resulted in him becoming corpulent as he aged. In addition, his nearsightedness caused him to stoop, but everyone still agreed he was a fine-looking gentleman: “the nose aquiline, the mouth full of benevolence, the forehead most ample, and his eyes sparkled with intellect and expression.”[7] He loved minutiae, which was seen in his appearance as his clothes were always properly adjusted. Moreover, he was always on his best behavior, polished and stately. He was also courtesy and polite to everyone and attentive to females.

He embraced life and was constantly involved in some occupation or facet of learning. He also loved solitary strolls in the Jardin and readily embraced laughter and mirth, sometimes even proposing parties. He was also a prodigious reader and would read and write in his carriage as he had a special desk made to accommodate this habit. He also embraced a daily routine: He rose at seven, prepared his papers for the day, received visitors, read the newspaper as he ate breakfast, dressed, and, then when working at the Jardin, took walks among the garden’s trees. Despite being busy and occupied all day long, every evening, generally before dinner, he spent a few moments alone with his wife and family before offering his wife his arm, “and leading her to her seat.”[8]

Jardin des Plantes in 1820, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jardin des Plantes in 1820. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cuvier served in many capacities and in a diverse numbers of ways during his lifetime. For instance, in 1806, he became a foreign member of the Royal Society, and, in 1812, a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, as well as a correspondent for the Royal Institute of the Netherlands, which he joined in 1827. He also served as imperial councilor under Napoleon, president of the Council of Public Instruction and chancellor of the university under the restored Bourbons, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, a Peer of France, Minister of the Interior, and president of the Council of State under Louis Philippe.

Despite Georges Cuvier’s many forward thinking ideas and discoveries, he was critical of the idea of evolution and did not support the idea of gradual transmutation. He found that nearly all the animal fossils he examined were remains of species that had become extinct. He also studied articles brought back from Napoleon’s expedition and determined they were no different from their living counterparts, which furthered his belief that fossils did not evolve over time. In fact, Cuvier was so well-respect and so critical of gradual transmutation of species, he discouraged naturalists from speculating on it until Charles Darwin came onto the scene and published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Georges Cuvier Working, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Georges Cuvier working. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Georges Cuvier was busy until the last few days of his life. He opened his third and concluding part of his Lectures on the History of Science on 8 May 1832. That same evening, he felt pain and numbness in his right arm. The following day, he was attacked by partial paralysis in his arms. Aware the end was near, he made his will. Two days later his legs were paralyzed, and, on the 12th of May, he said to his friend, “I had great things still to do. All was ready in my head. After thirty years of labor and research, these remained but to write, and now the hands fail and carry with them the head.”[9] The following day, he attempted to swallow lemonade and unable to do so gave a draught to his daughter-in-law remarking it was delightful that those he loved could still swallow, after which he quietly expired.

As to his wishes, Cuvier was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery without ceremony. One of his biographer’s said of him:

“This one man … carried his enlightened principles into all his employments; scorned no detail which could bear on their improvement; saw, at one glance, the influence which their progress would have over society at large; and yet, while his mind was filled with these great and general views, he never for one instant forgot that which belonged to his character as a friend, a husband, a brother, and a father; or that he had fellow-creatures who needed his assistance.”[10]

George Cuvier's Grave, Courtesy of Wikipedia

George Cuvier’s Grave. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Nichols, John, The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1835, p. 452.
  • [2] Chambers, William, Chambers’ Pocket Miscellany, Volume 10, 1853, p. 32.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 36.
  • [6] Nichols, John, p. 456.
  • [7] Ibid, p. 458.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 459.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 462.
  • [10] Ibid.

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