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Les Planches inédites de Foraminifères d’Alcide d'Orbigny

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Marie-Thérèse Vénec-Peyré

Alcide d’Orbigny

(1802-1857)

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1Alcide d’Orbigny was born on the 6 th September 1802 in Couëron, a small town located near Nantes (France). He spent his adolescence in the area of La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast, where he studied microscopic shells in his spare time. Impressed by his talents for observation and drawing, which were revealed in the first classification of Foraminifera and in the Planches inédites, the professors of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, directed by Georges Cuvier, chose him as the naturalist traveller for an expedition to South America.

2This expedition led him on the ways of the New World six years before Darwin. He explored Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia from 1826 to 1833. He returned with an impressive collection of materials composed of 9330 species belonging to the vegetal and animal kingdoms, a large range of geological samples (rocks, minerals and fossils), a set of geological and geographical maps as well as ethnographic and archeological materials. D’Orbigny was one of the new generation of naturalists of the beginning of the XIXth century, who aimed to go beyond collection and description of material in order to explain the facts and to deduce rules. Thus, following Humbolt that he met before his departure, he took care to complete his collections with various informations and numerical data allowing statistics to support his conclusions. He was an ecologist and a biogeographer ahead of his time. In the domain of Human sciences, he is considered to be one of the pioneers of “americanist” ethnography due to his researches related to the history of the societies with which he shared his daily life during his journey, their customs, languages, religions, music, agriculture, commerce and industry. The success that he met in these foreign countries was so important that the president of the new Bolivian Republic, Field Marshal Andrés de Santa Cruz, chose him as an adviser for numerous agricultural and industrial questions related to the economic development of this country, and granted him Bolivian citizenship.

3The results of this formidable expedition were published between 1835 and 1847 in a quasi-encyclopedic publication entitled Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale, a work which was been considered by Darwin as “one of the monuments of the science of the XIXth century”. This work, composed of 9 volumes (4747 pages, 550 plates), included the narrative of his journey and his scientific discoveries related to zoology, botany, geology, geography, ethnology and archeology. The volume entitled L’homme américain de l’Amérique méridionale, considéré sous ses rapports physiologiques et moraux was successful and repeatedly re-issued. His concern with communities that he met during this long travel, his belief in a single human species and his defense of the Indian cause reveal that he was a great humanist.

4Back in France, d’Orbigny turned his research towards paleontology in order to classify fossils according to the chronological order in which they appeared in the geological strata and to set forth his interpretation of Earth history. This work is based upon a collection of more than 100 000 specimens collected during his multiple travels in France and his expedition in South America, or that he received from correspondents, as well as on the analysis of 200 000 bibliographical references. This huge work led to numerous publications including 3 magisterial ones: the Paléontologie française (8 volumes published between 1840 and 1860), the Prodrome de paléontologie stratigraphique (3 volumes, 1267 pages, published between 1850 and 1852) and the Cours élémentaire de paléontologie et géologie stratigraphiques (3 tomes, 1138 pages, published between 1849 and 1852). With this work, stratigraphy took a great leap forward. He formalized the concept of stratigraphical stage characterized by a peculiar fossil content, proposed the first geological time scale composed of 27 stages. He selected for each of them a locality that he designated as the standard of reference, later called “stratotype”.

5The Chair of Paleontology of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was created especially for him by Napoléon III in 1853. He died on the 30 th June 1857 leaving behind him an immense scientific production and a huge collection which still serves as reference on an international scale. His list of works includes more than 300 titles among which it will be possible to select “half a dozen, any one of which might have constituted the life-work of any ordinary man” (Heron-Allen, 1917). Founder of micropaleontology and biostratigraphy, promoter of paleontology, pioneer of Andean ethnology, he received several french and foreign awards (he was twice awarded the Wollaston fund by the Geological Society of London).

6All his objectives–to make a census of the foraminiferal shells, to explore South America and to reconstruct the Earth’s history since the beginning of life–were successfully conducted thanks to his tenacity, his great ability to work and his thirst for knowledge. All his writings testify to his acute sense of observation, his great rigour and scientific honesty, his constant concern with pedagogy and his eagerness to share his knowledge. Anxious to bring order into the “chaos” that existed in the fields of systematics and stratigraphy and always seeking for the “truth”, two words often mentioned in his writings, d’Orbigny wanted to make science at the service of all of us.

© Publications scientifiques du Muséum, 2005

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