Biographies of Scientific Men/Cuvier

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CUVIER

1769-1832

WHEN George III. and Louis XV. were on the thrones of England and France respectively, there was born one of the world's greatest naturalists. Georges Chrétien Léopold Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier was born on 23rd August 1769, at Montbéliard, in the Department of Doubs, then belonging to Würtemberg. His father, an officer and a Protestant, retired in order to escape religious persecution, and settled in the town previously mentioned. He had three sons—the eldest died young, the second became the hero of our story, and the third was Frédéric Cuvier (1772-1838), the naturalist.

Georges Cuvier, on account of his delicate constitution, was first taught by his mother an excellent and praise-worthy woman. At ten years of age he went to school, and there acquired an excellent knowledge of Greek, Latin, mathematics, and other subjects; and at the age of fourteen the Duke of Würtemberg sent him to the Academy of Stuttgart. He had studied Buffon, and thereby became acquainted with the natural history of
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birds and quadrupeds. His scientific studies were encouraged by one of the professors of the Academy giving him a copy of Linnæus' Systema Naturæ. At this time he was studying philosophy and political economy, natural history, and the German language.

During a period of great anxiety and unrest (namely, in 1788), and at the age of nineteen, Cuvier became private tutor in the family of the Comte d'Héricy, whose estate was near Caen in Normandy. In this position he remained for six years—all through the Great Revolution; in the last year of his tutorship he heard of the execution of Lavoisier (1794), and during the same year his country was at war. The French conquered Flanders, overran the Palatinate, and took Treves; they also took Coblenz, Maëstricht, and Venlo, and nearly the whole frontiers of Holland, and many places in Spain. At the same time the French were defeated by the English in various sea-fights, and lost nearly all their West Indian islands. During this period of storm and unrest Cuvier was working quietly on his favourite subject. In the nobleman's family, besides learning the manners and etiquette of refined society, he was studying with great zeal natural history, comparing fossil forms with living species, dissecting molluscs, classifying animals, etc. It was at this period that he conceived the idea of his two great works, the Ossemens Fossiles and the Règne Animal—and he placed classification on an anatomical basis, which was a great stride upon the work of his predecessors. Lamarck arranged the various groups of animals in linear order from lower to higher—a scala naturæ; Cuvier opposed this system, and established the idea of diverging branches (embranchements), although, unlike Lamarck, he was no evolutionist.

While at the Normandy town, with its beautiful cathedral of St Pierre, Cuvier made the acquaintance of the old Abbé Tessier, then hiding from the fury of Robespierre and other revolutionists. Disguised as a surgeon, the learned old man discovered the worth of young Cuvier, and this introduction was the means of putting the latter into communication with Jussieu, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Daubenton, Lapécède, and other men of science.

In 1795 Cuvier was appointed an assistant to the professor of anatomy in the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle. The same year saw him established as professor at the École Centrale du Panthéon—and here he composed his Tableau élémentaire de l'Histoire Naturelle des Animaux—the basis of the modern system of classification of the animal kingdom. At this time Mertrud, aided by the brothers Cuvier, commenced the famous and extensive collection of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris; and the next year Cuvier was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences.

In 1796 he discovered red blood in leeches (Hirudo), and the following year appeared his paper on the nutrition of insects.[1]

In 1799 he succeeded Daubenton (the collaborator of Buffon) in the chair of natural history at the Collège de France; and finally succeeded Mertrud in the chair of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes.

In 1800 he published his first palæontological paper, Mémoires sur les Espèces d'Eléphants vivants et fossils, and the quantity and quality of the palæontological work which he turned out is simply astounding.

After the publication of his great work, Leçons d'Anatomie Comparée, in 1802, Napoleon (then First Consul) appointed Cuvier one of the inspectors-general for establishing lycées in thirty towns. At the same time he was elected Secrétaire perpétuel de l'Académie des Sciences (l'Institut de France), and was consequently brought into contact with all the celebrated men of science in the French capital.

In the same year (1804) that saw Napoleon created Emperor and crowned by Pope Pius VII., Cuvier married a widow—Madame Duvaucel (whose husband was a fermier général, and along with Lavoisier and others suffered death by decapitation). His marriage was a happy one.

From 1809 to 1813 Cuvier was sent on an important educational mission to Holland, Italy, and Germany; and during his sojourn in those countries, Napoleon (then master of Europe) dethroned the Pope, annexed Rome, made Bernadotte King of Sweden, incorporated Holland with France, divorced Josephine and married Maria Louisa of Austria, declared war against Russia, retreated from Moscow, but still alert and intrepid. Such were the times in which Cuvier did work of the highest importance. He was made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1811, and three years later a Councillor of State, and in 1812 appeared his monumental work, Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles.

During the nine years' reign of Louis XVIII. he was Chancellor of the University of Paris, and held many State appointments. In 1817 he published Règne Animal distribué d'après son Organisation, a work which had the greatest influence upon naturalists, and his system became of world-wide fame.

Cuvier visited London in 1818, and was delighted with the liberties enjoyed by the people in this country, and more than once he alluded to it in his writings. During his sojourn in England Cuvier was made an "immortal"—as a member of the Académie Française is designated. In 1819 he was created a baron.

On the death of Louis XVIII., his brother Charles, the Comte d'Artois, ascended the throne as Charles X., and Cuvier took part in the coronation of that monarch, on which occasion he was promoted in the Order of the Légion d'Honneur, was created a Commander of the Order of the Crown of Würtemberg, and received other distinctions.

Three years after the succession of Charles X., Cuvier refused the odious office of press censor, but accepted the position of administrator of the non-catholic religions in France.

Cuvier formed a most extensive library, and permitted naturalists of all nations to work in it. The spirit of jealousy was entirely foreign to his nature. He rejoiced in the discoveries and work of others. "The man who has made a permanent addition to our knowledge of facts has rendered an imperishable service to science," said Cuvier. After his death his library was purchased by the French Government, and it now belongs to the Jardin des Plantes; and the vestibule of the library of St Geneviève contains a fine bust of Cuvier.

In 1828 Cuvier, in collaboration with Valenciennes, commenced the famous Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, which, however, was not completed until after his death.

In 1830, or the year that saw the abdication of Charles X. (the last of the Bourbon dynasty in France), la petite révolution de trois jours, and the election of Louis Philippe to the throne by the title of King of the French (not as the King of France), Cuvier was in London when the petite révolution was consummated, and remained there two weeks. In 1832 he was created a peer of France, and just before his death (which occurred on 13th May 1832) was made Ministre de 1'Intérieur. Cuvier died in harness, for he was lecturing at the Collège de France only a few days before his death. He was buried in the celebrated Cimetière du Père la Chaise, and his funeral was attended by an enormous concourse of people, his death being looked upon as a national calamity.

Cuvier was of a religious nature; his lectures and speech were clear, precise, and animated, often rising to the highest eloquence; he was a brilliant writer, and an expert draughtsman. In private life he was kind and affable, a lover of order and regularity, and was accessible to all, except during hours of study. He conscientiously performed his various and manifold duties, both to the State and to science, with increasing industry. So vast were his labours that he shortened his days.

Cuvier was the first to indicate the principle upon which the classification of animals should be based—from the standpoint of comparative anatomy. He was the founder of comparative anatomy, and the discoverer of the law of the "correlation of growth," and was the first to apply this law to the reconstruction of animals from fossil fragments, and hence the student of nature might see pictures of the earliest epochs in the world's history—before the advent of man. To the older zoologist, classification was based on external resemblances, but to Cuvier zoology was nothing without comparative anatomy. By founding palæontology, he showed that extinct forms were just as important as living forms in a natural system of classification; and he also showed that the anatomy of recent animals aided in the reconstruction of the fossil forms, these reconstructed extinct animals filling up many morphological gaps.

Cuvier's work in comparative anatomy and allied subjects is a monument of intense labour; his teaching dominated most of the zoology of the first half of the nineteenth century, and his Anatomie Comparée has furnished a model for all students of the science of animal life.

When living at Caen, the digging up of some Terebratulæ proved the necessity of studying fossil with recent forms, and it was these specimens which formed the nucleus of the great collection of natural history objects which he formed, and is now in the Jardin des Plantes. "Palæontological investigations have imparted a vivifying breath of grace and diversity to the science of the solid structure of the earth." says Humboldt in his Cosmos; and if anyone has a right to be called the founder of palæontology, that right belongs to Cuvier, although Lamarck and William Smith were also associated with the foundation of the science of fossil forms. In 1796 Cuvier studied the Tertiary mammals of France, making clear for the first time that fossils were in most cases remains of extinct organisms; and he insisted that in any system of classification they must find a place along with living animals.

Although he had distinctly before him the idea of a succession of faunas upon the earth, yet he refused to admit the speculative or philosophical conclusions which were arrived at by his contemporaries Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire. He firmly stuck to the doctrines of the immutability of species and successive cataclysms. Subsequent events have proved that this was a misfortune, for Cuvier was one of "the most remarkable intelligences of his own or any time."

Although Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier were bosom friends in their youth, their ideas gradually diverged as years rolled on, culminating in 1830 "in the most famous of all scientific duels." Cuvier was a strict, matter-of-fact man, and could not tolerate the vagaries of the Naturphilosophie school; but in later years he allowed his scientific imagination to run wild by enunciating the doctrines of (1) fixity of species; (2) emboîtement in embryology; (3) physiological deduction as the basis of palæontology; (4) the restriction of natural history to observation and classification; and (5) the successive cataclysms. All these doctrines, and especially the first and last, were destined to be overthrown:—

It must be so, for miracles are ceased;
And therefore we must needs admit the means
How things are perfected.
Shakespeare.

Embryology, or development, was always neglected by Cuvier and his school, being blind to the fact that embryology must play an important part in philosophie anatomique. This fruitful field of research was left for Wolff, Vicq-d'Azyr, Von Baer, and others.

It has already been stated that comparative anatomy was the basis of Cuvier's zoology, and there are numerous and voluminous memoirs of his on the subject from 1795 to 1831—the year before his death. Among the subjects investigated may be mentioned: the structure of the larynx of birds, of the nasal fossæ and organs of hearing in the Cetacea (whales), of the organs of respiration in the perennibranchiate amphibia (in the adult state there are external branchiæ combined with lungs), the development of the teeth; and concerning the vertebrata generally he studied respiration, muscular force, animal heat, the brain and intelligence, and the digestive and nervous systems. His labours were incessant.

In 1796 he published his traité on the skeletons of the Megatherium and Megalonyx, and on the skulls of fossil bears; and between 1796 and 1812 he had examined the bones and skeletons belonging to more than forty different species. Cuvier's Xiphodon was about the size of the chamois, light, graceful, and agile, and it belonged to a tribe of animals between the Pachydermata and Ruminantia. Its fossil bones were found in the Upper Eocene strata of France. Cuvier's Palæotherium magnum resembled the living tapir in the shape of the head, although it differed in other respects. This animal also lived in Eocene times.

This remarkable man, of a rigidly demonstrative turn of mind, when quite young set himself the task of investigating "the unknown" in zoology and palæontology by means of anatomical research. Linnæus and Buffon had described "the exterior"; Cuvier studied "the interior," and found intimate relation between them. Genius directed his studies, and (like Lavoisier in chemistry) he founded a new era in natural history.

Whilst pursuing his researches on the anatomy of the invertebrata, he soon saw that the animal forms he dissected differed from the fossil forms which lay around him. Palissy and Buffon (in different ages) had noticed the same, and were declared to be dreamers; but Cuvier in his Ossemens Fossiles proved that they were so. His work in this line established the laws of geology and palæontology, and upset many of the fanciful theories of earlier times. As a skilled draughtsman he drew pictures of the ancient fauna of the world's history; and even from a bone, or part of a bone, he ventured to restore the form of a fossil animal—simply from the correlation of parts.

In his last great work, the Histoire Naturelle des Poissons, he described 5000 species of fishes—their affinities, anatomy, and ancient and modern nomenclature.

It has been stated that "without Linnæus, there might have been a Cuvier; but without a Cuvier, neither Owen nor Darwin could have existed," so extensive was his work.

Cuvier was far in advance of the age in which he lived, an age of constant political change and disturbing influences—especially to the peaceful work of a man of science. In the words of Euripides:—

Happy the man whose lot it is to know
The secrets of the earth. He hastens not
To work his fellows' hurt by unjust deeds
But with rapt admiration contemplates
Immortal Nature's ageless harmony,
And how and when her order came to be,
Such spirits have no place for thoughts of shame.


  1. See Griffiths' books, The Physiology of the Invertebrata, and Respiratory Proteids.