Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/August 1887/Sketch of Paul Gervais
PAUL GERVAIS was eminent as a zoölogist and as a paleontologist. Born in Paris on the 16th of September, 1816, he died in March, 1879, having lived a life exclusively devoted to science. By his entire consecration to study, says M. Blanchard in his "Eulogy," he reached the most enviable positions, conquering them with only his natural talents, courage, perseverance, and assiduity in work; for he had at the beginning of his career neither the resources which make existence easy, nor the certainties which give confidence as to the future. In early youth, yielding to his native tastes, he was accustomed to frequent the woods around Paris, to observe and study natural objects. His first scientific paper was published when he was seventeen years old, in the "Magasin de Zoölogie," and was an account of a new species of Souï, the Cinnyris Adalberti. His attention was directed at an early period of his investigations to animals which had been somewhat neglected by naturalists, and the fruit of his studies among them appeared in his work upon "Myriapods and Fresh-Water Polypi." In this work he defined accurately for the first time the characteristics of the animals, and followed out some of the changes which are gone through by certain of the species at various ages. In 1835 M. Gervais was admitted as preparator into the laboratory of comparative anatomy of the Museum of Natural History, and a special direction was given to his studies. Professor de Blainville was preparing a grand work on the bony frame of living and fossil mammals; and the young naturalist, exerting his whole effort in assisting his master, attached himself with marked preference to researches on extinct species, of which he had the satisfaction of describing definitely not a few that had been hitherto unobserved or inadequately studied.
In 1841, according to Larousse's "Dictionnaire Universelle," after having spent ten years in the Museum, according to M. Blanchard, M. Gervais was called to the chair of Zoölogy in the Faculty of Sciences at Montpellier, where he successfully continued his researches; and here he prepared and published his great book on the living and fossil vertebrates of France ("Zoölogie et Paleontologie Françaises," 1841-52), which was regarded as in continuation of Cuvier's and Blainville's publications on the same subject. He became Dean of the Faculty in 1856; was chosen correspondent of the Institute; and, on the death of Gratiolet, in 1865, became his successor as Professor of Anatomy, Comparative Physiology, and Geology, in the Sorbonne. In 1868 he became Professor of Comparative Anatomy in the Museum of Natural History, "returning as master to the laboratory in which his early youth had been spent." In the collections of this institution he found subjects of a most interesting character which were still awaiting an historian; and applying himself to the tasks thus pointed out to him, he engaged in those researches which resulted in the publication of his excellent work on the fossil mammalia of South America. The remains of aquatic mammalia that lived in the ancient seas having been exhumed in enormous quantities, M. Blanchard continues, a general study of the Cetaceæ seemed to impose itself upon him as indispensable to the progress of an essential part of zoölogy. M. Gervais undertook this long and difficult study in co-operation with his friend Professor Van Beneden, of the University of Louvain, and after several years the fruit of their conjoint studies appeared as the "Osteography of Living and Fossil Cetaceans" ("Osteographie des Cétacés Vivants et Fossils").
M. Stanislas Meunier has given, in "La Nature," careful accounts of M. Gervais's principal writings, with estimates of their scope and value. The "Documents pour servir à la Monographie des Chiroptères Sud-Américains" ("Documents in aid of the Monography of the South-American Chiropteræ") included descriptions of many species which were entirely new. This was followed by numerous accounts of mammals, birds, and reptiles, which were largely inspired by the study of the specimens which Alcide de Orbigny, Eydoux, Soleyet, Castelnaud, and other travelers brought back from their long voyages. The examination of the series of birds led him to general conclusions respecting their natural division. These conclusions, drawn from the character of the skeleton, and particularly of the sternum, have been widely accepted. He interested himself in the study of the geographical distribution and classification of reptiles, in the course of which he made various investigations upon the batrachians, particularly the salamanders and tritons. In connection with his researches in the fishes, he was in charge for twenty years of the administration's experiments in pisciculture in the department of Hérault, the chief object of which was to acclimatize the true salmon, species which were not known to exist in any of the streams emptying into the Mediterranean. In co-operation with M. Walckenaer, he prepared a "Natural History of Wingless Insects" ("Histoire naturelle des Insectes aptères").
M. Gervais's first work in paleontology was the thesis which he prepared for the degree of Doctor in Science, on fossil birds. In it he demonstrated the existence, in the Tertiary period, of birds belonging to several genera common in the present age. Cuvier had proceeded in this line of investigation hardly further than to give approximately the order, and in only a few cases the possible genus to which his specimens might belong. M. Gervais, having better material at his command, was able to make more precise determinations.
In fossil mammalia he made known a new simian, the Semnopithecus monspessulanus, a hyena, several deer, a porcupine, and numerous cetaceans. His memoir on the distribution of the fossil mammalia among the several Tertiary beds of France deserves particular mention. It exhibited the association of the different species among the various faunas that succeeded one another, from the earliest Tertiary epoch, corresponding with the lignites of the Soissonais to the period of the large animals whose remains are found in the breccia of the caverns. The author shows that these different faunas, which he makes to number seven, never lived simultaneously, either in France or any other country, and that no species was common to more than one of them. The fauna which left its bones in the breccia is the only one which is not entirely extinct. Some of these faunas present only animals of terrestrial species, while others furnished in some of the beds both marine and land species. This feature gave useful indications for determining by the comparison of the land species buried in the marine beds with those which are found at other places in fresh-water deposits, the contemporaneity of land and marine animals for each epoch. It also enabled M. Gervais to determine, under certain conditions, the comparative age of the two kinds of formations. Contrary to the opinion of some paleontologists, the author showed that real cetaceans were not yet known in the deposits anterior to the Miocene. To M. Gervais are owing, in the study of fossil reptiles, some valuable observations on the footprints of the large batrachians called cheirotherium in the Triassic sandstones of Lodève.
Most of M. Gervais's publications were both zoölogical and paleontological. Some were of a more general character. Among these was the "Medical Zoölogy" ("Zoölogie Médicale"), which was published conjointly by him and M. Van Beneden in 1850, and is remarkable for the prominence given to the lower animals and to the theory of parasitism which is developed in it; and a natural history of the mammalia ("Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères"), 1855, in which attention is given to the habits of animals, and to their relations to the arts, commerce, and agriculture. This work, which is in two volumes, abounds in original observations, the fruit of the personal researches of the author, which have in many instances modified the views previously held by mammalogists. He was also the author of "A Theory of the Human Skeleton" ("Théorie du squelette Humain"), 1856; of the "Metamorphosis of Organisms and Alternating Generations" ("De la Metamorphose des Organisms et des Générations Alternantes"), 1861; on the "Antiquity of Man" ("De l'Ancienneté de l'Homme"), 1863; of "Elements of the Natural Sciences" ("Élements des Sciences naturelle"), 1856; and of many notes, memoirs, and articles in the "Dictionary of the Natural Sciences," "Patria," "A Million Facts," "The Jardin des Plantes," and "La Nature." The wide range of subjects covered in these books testifies to the extent of his knowledge and the diversity of his talents. "In a science prodigiously vast," says M. Blanchard, "he showed himself familiar with most of the subjects, and was accounted among the most erudite." M. Gervais was elected to the Academy of Sciences in January, 1864, and with this he gained one of the great objects of his ambition. After working for nearly forty-five years, to the great profit and advantage of science, he died, from an illness of several months' duration, as poor as he had been in the earlier days of his career.