Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire



THE name of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is most intimately associated with the establishment of the doctrine of the unity of the organic plan of the animal kingdom. This great naturalist was born at Étampes, France, April 15, 1772, and died in Paris, June 9, 1844. He came of an honorable family, of only a moderate fortune, another branch of which had given three members to the Academy of Sciences. His father, Jean Gérard Geoffroy, an attorney and magistrate, designed him for the ecclesiastical profession. So, after having taken his primary studies at home, he obtained a bursarship in the college of Navarre, and, about 1788, a canonry and a benefice at Étampes. Everything thus promised well for his ecclesiastical advancement; but he felt drawn toward the natural sciences by an irresistible taste, which the experimental lessons in physics of Brisson had contributed to develop. On leaving the college, he asked permission of his father to remain in Paris, to attend the courses of the Collége de France and the Jardin des Plantes. The father consented, and toward the end of 1790 the young man became a bachelor-in-law. He went no further in this profession, but sought in medicine a calling more congenial to his tastes, without remaining faithful to that. He entered the college of Cardinal-Lemoine as a pensionnaire, where he attracted the notice of Lhomond and Haüy, who were teaching there. Daubenton, whose lectures in the Jardin des Plantes he was attending, remarked him among his pupils, invited him to his house, charged him with commissions relative to the lectures, and intrusted to him the determination of some of the objects in the collections of the Jardin.

The French Revolution was now (1792) raging furiously, and all the professors in the college were arrested on the 13th of August for the crime of being priests. Haüy was released on the next day, through the most active exertions of Geoffroy, and Lhomond was delivered by one of his former pupils. The other priests were detained in the prison of Saint-Firmin, near Geoffroy's residence; and he, on the 2d of September, getting access to the prison under a disguise, signified to them that he intended to help them escape. "No," said the Abbé de Keranran, "we will not leave our brethren, for that would only make their destruction more certain." Geoffroy, however, got a ladder, and took it after nightfall to the corner of the prison-wall which he had designated, and waited for eight hours before the first priest appeared. One of the prisoners hurt his foot in jumping, and our hero carried him in his arms to a neighboring yard. Twelve of the priests had been rescued, when one of the guards fired a gun, the shot from which went through Geoffroy's clothes, and aroused him to the fact, which he had not noticed, that the sun had risen. He then returned home; but, though he had arranged to meet the priests afterward, he was not destined to see them again; and, when he went to the appointed rendezvous, he found himself alone. Exhausted by his efforts, Geoffroy hurried home to Étampes, where he fell dangerously ill, but was brought back to health under the salubrious influence of the fresh country air. Haüy's letters to him at this time attest the affection which existed between the master and his pupil. In one of them the great mineralogist wrote (October 6, 1792): "Your letter reached me just as I was going out to dinner; it was like a delicate dessert, of which I immediately gave a part to M. Lhomond; we were never so happy at the table except when you were really with us"—and then he advises Geoffroy to suspend for a while, for the sake of the restoration of his health, the hard study of crystallography, and attach himself to plants, "which present themselves under a more graceful mien and speak a more intelligible language. A course in botany is all pure hygiene." Geoffroy resumed his studies in Paris in November, and in March following, at the request of Daubenton and on the nomination of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, he was appointed sub-keeper and assistant demonstrator in the Natural History cabinet of the Jardin des Plantes. On the reorganization of the Jardin des Plantes as the Museum of Natural History, in June, 1793, he was named to the chair of Zoölogy of Vertebrated Animals. He hesitated to accept the position because his studies had been in mineralogy, but Daubenton persuaded him to do so. Immediately after his installation, he began the foundation of the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, beginning with three itinerant collections of animals that had been confiscated by the police and taken to the museum. Of what he accomplished in this department he has written: "When I began to direct my studies to the natural history of animals, that science had not been encouraged at Paris. It had never been made a branch of instruction, and I did not expect that I should shortly be made the first one to treat it in a public course. Established in the year II (1793-94) as Professor of the Natural History of Mammalia and Birds, I became also an administrator in the museums of the collections of these classes. There were then only a few quadrupeds in the national collection. My duty was to try to increase the number. I entered into correspondence with the principal naturalists, I was powerfully seconded by their zeal, and the collection of viviparous quadrupeds or mammals is now the richest of that class in existence. I have likewise greatly enriched the collection of birds. Finally, I have made the collections useful to young naturalists by making rigorous determinations of the animals intrusted to my administration."

The course was opened in May, 1794, and in the following December Geoffroy read to the Society of Natural History an essay on the aye-aye, in the introduction to which, criticising the views of Bonnet on the scale of beings, he attacked a theory that was but slightly different from the one which he himself afterward adopted.

In 1795 the Abbé Tessier had found in Normandy a youth who was strongly interested in natural history, and gave an account of him to Geoffroy, to which the young man added a communication describing some of his researches. Geoffroy wrote back to the youth: "Come to Paris without delay; come, assume the place of another Linnæus, and become another founder of natural history." The youth came, and thus was opened the career of the illustrious Georges Cuvier. He and Geoffroy became fast friends, and together composed five memoirs, of which one, on the classification of mammalia, contained the theory of the subordination of characters, fundamental to Cuvier's system. In a memoir on the Makis, or Madagascar monkeys, published a year afterward by Geoffroy alone, appears the principle of unity of composition, to which the author afterward related all comparative anatomy. The minds of the two friends had already begun to diverge toward opposite systems.

In 1798 Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire were invited to accompany Bonaparte on his expedition to Egypt. Cuvier declined, Geoffroy went. There he was one of the members of the scientific commission that explored the Delta, and of the Commission of Seven for the organization of the Institute of Egypt, which distinguished itself by its archæological labors. He made in succession journeys through the Delta, to Upper Egypt, and to the Red Sea. After his return from the Cataracts, at the end of 1799, he established himself at Suez, and began a collection of the fishes of the Red Sea.

On the evacuation of Egypt by the French, the scientific party were confined to Alexandria, where, amid all the perils of the siege, Geoffroy continued his scientific investigations and his examinations of the electrical fishes of the Nile. When the city was given up, no reservation was made of the collections, but Geoffroy managed to save them. General Hutchinson demanded a strict execution of the terms of surrender, and sent Hamilton to enforce them upon Geoffroy's treasures. "No," said Geoffroy, "we shall not obey the orders; your army can not get in here for two days: we will take that time to burn our cabinets, and then you can do with our persons as you please. Yes," he added, to the astonished officer, "we shall do it. You are seeking for fame. Depend upon it, history will give it to you, for you also will have burned an Alexandrian library." These bold words were reported to Hutchinson, and he rescinded the order for seizing the collections.

Returning to France in 1802 with the magnificent zoological and zoötomical collections thus literally saved from the fire, Geoffroy proceeded to classify them and prepare the description of them for the grand work on the expedition to Egypt, and began the series of monographs that served as the point of departure and as supports for his system of natural philosophy. He was already outlining his theory of unity of composition, in memoirs which, aside from novelty and elevation of ideas, contained, according to Cuvier, "facts very curious and generally new, and added much to the knowledge of naturalists and anatomists on the interior organization of fishes." These memoirs secured the author's admission to the Academy of Sciences in September, 1807.

In 1808 Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was charged with a scientific mission to Portugal, then occupied by a French army under Junot. He was exposed to many perils in passing through Spain, where the people were restive against the French invasion, and was held a prisoner for several months at Merida. He used his influence with Junot, an old comrade of his in Egypt, to make the condition of the Portuguese more easy under military rule, and took away from the country many cases of mineralogical specimens, plants, and animals, including Brazilian ones, but in turn enriched the museum at Lisbon with a valuable cabinet of minerals from Paris, and set in order the collections there, which had hitherto been only the object of an unintelligent curiosity; and, by his tact and reputation for a general benevolent disposition, he managed to keep what he had acquired from Portugal when the French were obliged to give up everything else they had taken from foreign nations.

In 1809 Geoffroy was appointed Professor of Zoölogy in the Faculty of Sciences at Paris, and toward the end of the year he began a course of instruction which was destined to have a great influence upon his hearers and on himself. "From this moment," says M. Dumas, "his thought, sustained by the respectful attention of distinguished pupils, and particularly by their philosophical studies, sprang more freely into the fields of abstraction, and succeeded in fixing those laws of organization to which his name will continue to be always attached, and which he had long perceived. Till then anatomical philosophy, as he conceived it, had no existence; it was with us and for us that he founded that doctrine, endeavoring every year to overcome new difficulties, fortifying his convictions with new proofs, and confirming himself in his views by their success, even while they were yet new." Sickness in 1812, and the disasters of the country in 1813-'14, interrupted his scientific work. In 1815 he was chosen a representative by the electors of Étampes, and performed the functions of his office with credit, till the Restoration put an end to them. Restored to science, he expounded his system in a work entitled "Philosophic Anatomique" ("Anatomical Philosophy"), the first volume of which, treating of the respiratory organs and skeletons of vertebrates, appeared in 1818. The second volume, devoted to researches on human monstrosities, was published in 1822. The dominant feature of these two volumes was the principle of unity of composition. This principle was not entirely new to science. It had been glanced at by Aristotle, Pierre Belon, Newton, Buffon, and Vicq-d'Azyr; but it remained for Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire to create a theory embodying the views which they had only mentioned sporadically.

Previous to him, naturalists, giving more particular attention to human anatomy, recognizing only forms, and regarding each new form as a new organ, had multiplied details infinitely without discovering any general law. "The first step toward rising to the ideal type of a vertebrate animal," says M. Flourens, in his eulogy before the Academy, "was to get free from every preconception in favor of human anatomy, as the only means of being able to regard the organs under their more general conditions, aside from the merely relative considerations of form, volume, and use." Geoffroy was convinced that identities can bear only upon relations, and had in this rule, which he called the principle of connections, an infallible guide through all metamorphoses, capable of unmasking the most strangely disguised affinities. Thus, whenever two parts agreed in having similar relations and dependencies, they were analogous. With this precept, Geoffroy was able to declare that the materials found in one family exist in all the others, and to proclaim his law of unity as a law of nature. In his second volume he extended the application of his principle to the formations called monstrosities, which he declared were not original anomalies, but simply cases of abnormal or of incomplete development of some particular part.

As long as the principle of unity was applied simply to vertebrates it was incontestable, and excited no contradiction; but when Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire began to extend it to invertebrates he encountered a vigorous adversary in Cuvier, whose work it had been to emphasize the distinctions between the groups which his former patron was trying to reduce to unity. When Geoffroy, in 1820, brought the articulates under his general type, Cuvier uttered words of impatience and disapproval; but, when in 1830 he proposed to include the mollusks, the long latent contention broke out. "Never," says M. Flourens, "did a more vital controversy divide adversaries more resolute, more firm, or who had by long preparation provided themselves with more resources for the combat, and (if I may say it) more learnedly prepared not to agree." The division spread and extended to all countries where any thought was given to the subjects under debate. Geoffroy was highly applauded by Goethe, who declared the discussion a very important one for science, and made it the subject of the last lines he ever wrote. The controversy was resumed in 1832, and terminated only with the death of Cuvier. Geoffroy sometimes appeared overcome by the ability and brilliancy of his antagonist, but he never gave up, and time has rendered its verdict that, on the essential points, he was not in the wrong.

The Revolution of July occurred in the midst of the discussions in the Academy, and Geoffroy, who sympathized with the popular movement, again distinguished himself, as he had done in the previous Revolution, by an act of hospitality to the clergy, in giving shelter to the Archbishop of Paris, who was in danger of violence.

When Cuvier died, every one hastened to sound the praises of the genius of the great anatomist. Geoffroy ventured upon a criticism of his views on fossil remains and regarding the revolutions of the globe, and was accused of attacking the fame of his late antagonist. Deeply wounded at so unjust an imputation, he gave up the work that had provoked it, saying: "It would perhaps be best to have courage or wisdom enough to pay no attention to such objections. But the question now concerns one of the glories of France, the first zoölogist of our age. It is for posterity, if it deigns to concern itself with the strifes of this period, to do justice to my adversaries and myself." He was stricken with blindness in July, 1840, and with paralysis a few months afterward. He endured the infirmities of old age with great resignation, and preserved to the last the serenity of a good man and a great mind—or, as Edgar Quinet remarks of him, "he approached unveiled truth with a cheerful face, and descended without fear into eternal knowledge."

The list of the works of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire would be a very full one if all were included. Besides the larger works which he composed, or in the composition of which he was associated, the catalogue of the principal only of the papers he presented to learned societies occupies a full page in the "Biographie Générale." His most important publications are the "Philosophic Anatomique" (2 vols., 1818-1820), which contains the exposition of his theory; "Principles de la Philosophic Zoölogique" ("Principles of Zoölogical Philosophy," 1830), which gives a synopsis of his discussions with Cuvier; "Études Progressives d'un Naturalist" ("Progressive Studies of a Naturalist," 1835); "Notions de Philosophic Naturelle" ("Ideas of Natural Philosophy," 1835); and, in conjunction with Frédéric Cuvier, "Histoire Naturel des Mammifères," ("Natural History of Mammals," 3 vols., 1820-1842). Among the best works about him are the "Life," by his son Isidore; the "Eulogy," by M. Flourens; and a sketch in the appendix to De Quatrefages's "Rambles of a Naturalist."