Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/August 1884/Sketch of Professor Felipe Poey
"AH, but you must see Don Felipe—he knows all about fishes!" is the first advice which the naturalist receives when he begins to make collections of fishes in the markets of Havana. The writer once had occasion to make such a collection, and he found soon that, among fishermen and fish-mongers, the phrase "amigo de Don Felipe" was ever a passport to honest dealing and to a real desire to aid him in his work. For every fisherman in Havana knows "Don Felipe," and looks upon him as a personal friend. Each one regards the fame which Don Felipe's studies of the fishes is vaguely understood to have brought him in that little-known world outside of Havana as in some sort reflected on himself. The writer was told, by a dealer in the Pescadería Grande, that for twenty years Don Felipe Poey was there in the markets every day, when at noon the fishes came in from the boats, and that he knew more about the fishes of Cuba than even the fishermen themselves. And, now that Don Felipe no longer visits the markets, he is not forgotten there, and many a rare specimen still finds its way from the Pescadería to Don Felipe's study in the Calle San Nicolas.
Felipe Poey y Aloy was born in Havana, May 26, 1799. His father was French, his mother Spanish, but Poey early renounced his French citizenship for that of Cuba. His education was received in Havana, and after studying law he became, in 1823, an advocate in that city. But his tastes lay in the direction of natural history, and for this he gradually abandoned his practice as a lawyer. Very early he had made discoveries of mollusks, insects, and especially of fishes, which were new to science. In 1826 he sailed for Paris, taking with him eighty-five drawings of Cuban fishes and a collection of thirty-five species, preserved in a barrel of brandy. These drawings and specimens he placed at the service of Cuvier and Valenciennes, who were then beginning the publication of their work on the "Natural History of the Fishes." The notes and drawings of Poey proved of much service to the great ichthyologists. A few new species were based on them, and Poey had the satisfaction of finding his own name and observations cited by Cuvier and Valenciennes even more frequently than those of his famous predecessor, Don Antonio Parra, who had published, in 1787, the first account of the "Fishes of Cuba." A set of duplicates of these notes and drawings is still retained by Professor Poey. While in Paris, Poey was one of the original members who founded the Entomological Society of France.
On returning to Havana in 1833, Poey gave himself still more fully to the study of natural history, and greater practice gave to his drawings and notes more exactness and value. With the appearance of the successive volumes of the "Histoire Naturelle des Poissons," he attempted to identify the fishes of his market, as well as to study their osteology and general anatomy. Animals other than fishes he also tried to study, but in most groups he found the literature in so scattered and unsatisfactory a condition that he rarely ventured to publish the results of his observations. Among the fishes, however, thanks to the general work of Cuvier and Valenciennes, and later to that of Dr. Günther, he felt himself on comparatively firm ground, and ventured to name as new those which he could not identify. Among the land-snails, too, Poey and his associate, Dr. Gundlach, were able to act with certainty, as all the species then known were included in the “Monographium Heliceorum Viventium” of Dr. Ludwig Pfeiffer.
In the year 1842 Poey was appointed to the professorship of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology in the Royal University of Havana, which chair he still holds, after forty-two years.
The University of Havana occupies an ancient monastery building in the heart of the city. Like most similar edifices in Cuba and Spain, it is a low building around a hollow paved court, and its whitewashed, time-stained walls have an air of great antiquity. The university has now some twelve hundred students, the great majority of whom are in those departments which lead toward wealth, or social or political preferment, as law, medicine, and pharmacy. Comparatively few pursue literary or philosophical studies, and still fewer are interested in the biological sciences. In the department of botany there are now but two students, and the number in zoology is probably not much greater.
Although Professor Poey is evidently held in very high respect in the university, in which he has long been dean of the faculty of science, I can not imagine that he ever received much help or sympathy in his scientific work from that quarter, or indeed from any other in Cuba. His friends and countrymen are doubtless glad to be of assistance to so amiable a gentleman as the Señor Don Felipe, but for the claims of science the people of Cuba, as a class, care very little.
The university library contains but little which could be of help in Professor Poey's zoölogical studies. He has therefore been compelled to gather a private library of ichthyology. This library has with time become very rich and valuable, many of his co-workers in the study of fishes, notably Dr. Bleeher, having presented him with complete series of their published works.
The museum of the university occupies two little rooms, the one devoted chiefly to Cuban minerals, the other containing mostly mammals, birds, and fishes mounted by Poey himself in the earlier days of his professorship. The number of these is not great, nor have many additions been made during the last twenty years. Of late the types of the new species described by Professor Poey have been, after being fully studied by him and represented in life-size drawings, mostly sent to other museums, notably to the United States National Museum, to the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy and to the Museum of Madrid. Duplicates have been rarely retained in Havana, the cost of keeping up a permanent collection being too great. As a result of this, Professor Poey's work has sometimes suffered from lack of means of comparing specimens taken at different times. There is no zoölogical laboratory in Cuba except the private study of Professor Poey, and here, for want of room and for other reasons, drawings have, to a great extent, taken the place of specimens.
The publication of the observations of Professor Poey on the animals of Cuba was begun in 1851, in a series of papers entitled "Memorias sobre la Historia Natural de la Isla de Cuba." These papers were issued at intervals from 1851 to 1860, and together form two octavo volumes of about 450 pages each. The first volume contains chiefly descriptions of mollusks and insects. The second volume is devoted mainly to the fishes.
As is natural in the exploration of a new field, these volumes are largely occupied with the description of new species. They give some evidence of the disadvantages arising from solitary work, without the aid of the association and criticism of others, and without the broader knowledge of the relations of groups which comes from the study of more than one fauna. On the other hand. Professor Poey enjoyed the great advantage of having an almost exhaustless supply of material, for there are few ports where fishes are brought in in such quantities, or in such profusion of variety, as in the markets of Havana.
The "Memorias" were at once recognized as the most important work on the fishes of Cuba, and, as was said long ago by Professor Cope, this work is a sine qua non in the study of the ichthyology of tropical America.
The nomenclature and grouping of the species in the "Conspectus Piscium Cubensium," contained in the "Memorias," was in 1862 the subject of a critical paper by Dr. Theodore Gill. This article, and subsequent ones by the same author, exerted much influence on Poey's work. He was always ready to profit by the suggestions and advice of other writers, especially of those more favorably situated than he in regard to libraries and museums, and from Professor Gill's papers he drew clearer views of the relations of forms, and of the connection of the Cuban fauna with that of other regions. On the other hand, he was led to adopt, against his own judgment in many instances, that minute subdivision of genera which has been a fashion in American ichthyology, and which has been in some quarters a reproach to American science.
In 1868 the results of the revision of his classification were embodied in a second catalogue of the Cuban fishes, entitled "Synopsis Piscium Cubensium." This forms the concluding chapter of a series of papers, entitled "Repertorio Físico-natural de la Isla de Cuba," which embody the results of a general scientific survey of the island. Of this survey Professor Poey was director. In 1875 the entire list of species was again revised, and the third and best catalogue of Cuban fishes was published under the title of "Enumeratio Piscium Cubensium." Besides these larger works, many shorter papers by Poey occur in the "Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences" of Philadelphia, the "Annals of the New York Lyceum," and the "Anales de la Sociedad de Historia Natural de Madrid." He is also the author of a “Geography of Cuba,” and of a “Treatise on Mineralogy,” used in the Havana schools. A number of poems from his pen have likewise been published, but these I have not seen.
The great work of Poey's life is the still unpublished “Ictiología Cubana.” This is to contain a detailed account of each of the fishes of Cuba. It is to be composed, according to a statement of Poey, published in a Havana paper, “of a thick volume of text, Spanish folio, and of an atlas of ten volumes larger folio (eighteen by thirteen inches). The plates are made with a light indication of the colors, which are described in the text. All are original, drawn from nature by the author. . . . The text contains the scientific name of each species, the common name, the complete synonymy, a description of the colors, distinctive peculiarities, relations of the varieties, comparisons, critical observations, and the history of the fish. It contains, moreover, the characters of classes, sub-classes, orders, families, genera, and species. The total number of plates in the Atlas is 1,040. These show 758 species of Cuban fishes, represented by 1,300 individuals in all stages of growth. All except the sharks are drawn of life-size.
“These 758 species, together with 24 mentioned at the end of the work, make up 782 species of Cuban fishes. Of these, 105 are doubtful, and therefore are left without specific names. I hold them in suspense till I can receive further data from the study of other specimens. There are, therefore, 677 species well determined, of which more than half have been first made known by me. Not more than a dozen species in the list have not been examined by me. These are inserted on the authority of writers who claim to have received their specimens from Cuba, and who appear to be worthy of confidence.
“The preparation of the text has cost me an immense amount of time and labor, by the preparatory studies which it has required. In the determination of the species it is rarely that a single one has not occupied me for an entire week. I have wished to make known the certain as certain, and the doubtful as doubtful, so that I shall declare nothing to be new unless it is so in reality.”
The manuscripts of this great work are now in duplicate. One copy is retained by Professor Poey; the other has been purchased by the Spanish Government for $5,000. It is expected and earnestly hoped by Professor Poey and his friends that the Government will soon order its publication, but, unfortunately, there seems to be no certainty of this.
The manuscripts and drawings of the “Ictiología Cubana” were placed on exhibition by the Spanish Government in the Exposition of Amsterdam in 1883. In testimonial of their worth. Professor Poey has received from King William III the decoration of the order of the “Lion Néerlandais.” Before this, as the most distinguished of Spanish naturalists, he had received from the King of Spain the title of “Encomendador de la Orden de Isabella la Católica.”
Among the manuscripts of Professor Poey, with the title of “Corona Poeyana,” is a list which he is sometimes fond of contemplating, of the species of animals which were first made known by him. This list is a long one, longer perhaps than that of any other zoölogist of our times who has confined his studies to a single fauna.
It is a fashion in some quarters to decry the work of the describer of new fauna. All honest study has its equal place, and, till the pioneer work of exact determination of species is performed, there is little opportunity for the embryologist or the anatomist. It is of little use to record the structure or the development of an animal while the animal itself remains unknown.
There is no characteristic of Professor Poey's work more striking than his entire lack of prejudice, or, in other words, his teachableness. A certain zoölogist was once described to me by Dr. Kirtland as “a little man who couldn't be told anything.” His character was in this regard just the reverse of that of Professor Poey. Among all the eminent zoölogists of our time, I know of none so ready to learn, whatever the source from which information may come. He has no theories which he is not ready to set aside when a better suggestion appears. Unlike some other systematic writers, he exhibits no preference for his own names or subdivisions, but is as ready, if the evidence seems to require it, to smother one of his own species or genera as those of another.
His work shows no sign of falling off in quality. The clearness of his judgment and the accuracy of his memory seem unimpaired. It is difficult in conversing with him to realize that he was born in the last century, and that in his earlier studies he was a cotemporary of Cuvier and Valenciennes, and of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Most men are older at fifty than Poey at eighty-five.
Poey was married in 1825 to María de Jésus Aguirre. He has had six children. Two of his daughters still reside with him at Havana, and their skillful hands have been of great service to him in the preparation of his drawings and manuscripts.
Poey is rather above the medium height, well-formed, and in his younger days he was remarkably active and vigorous. Even yet, time rests lightly on his shoulders. His complexion is fair, and his hair and eyes are not dark. He has little of the appearance of a Spaniard or indeed of any especial nationality. As he himself has said, “Comme naturaliste, je ne suis pas espagnol: je suis cosmopolite.” He is of a happy temperament and has a peculiarly genial and cheery smile. Simple, direct, unaffected, but possessed of a quiet dignity, he is certainly one of the most delightful men I have ever met. Of all men I have known, he has best learned the art of growing old.
- "Y tuve el honor de ser citado por él (Cuvier) y por su colaborador Valenciennee, más frecuentemente que D. Antonio Parra."—Poey.
- "Remarks on the Genera and other Groups of Cuban Fishes," "Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences," Philadelphia, 1862, pp. 286, et seq.