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LOUIS JEAN PIERRE VIEILLOT (1748-1831)


Vieillot is hardly a household name, unless one happens to be deeply involved with avian taxonomic issues, in which case the abbreviation “Vieill.” after a bird’s binomial name, denoting Vieillot as the first describer of the species, will be familiar. In the brief time he was active – roughly 1800 to 1825 – he described 387 currently valid species, a number exceeded only by that of Linnaeus (710), who, of course, had the advantage of providing the original binomials for every species known to science in the mid-eighteenth century, in the various editions of his Systema Naturae (Peterson 2009). Some of Vieillot’s descriptions were of North American birds. As a young man, he went to the French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), where he established a business and developed a passion for natural history (Oehser 1948, 571).  He was forced to flee the slave rebellion in the early 1790s and came to the United States, where he focused on ornithology. He wrote the first descriptions of some of our most familiar birds: northern pintail, cinnamon teal, wild turkey, broad-winged hawk, house wren, winter wren, cedar waxwing, northern shrike, boat-tailed grackle, scarlet tanager, and twenty-two other species (ibid., 569). He returned to France in 1798, enduring a tragic crossing during which his wife and three daughters died from yellow fever. If, as is sometimes noted, he had a difficult disposition, the loss of his home and the loss of his family might serve as sufficient explanation.

However, for a man passionate about avian taxonomy, he arrived at the right place at the right time. “Between 1812 and 1820 no one studied more eagerly than Vieillot the exotic birds exhibited in the galleries of the Paris Museum” (Stresemann 1975, 123). Vast collections of specimens (such as those from Azara’s explorations – see next entry) were arriving in the city, and “though the scientific staff thought little of him, the number of bird species he described (especially in the second edition of the Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle, 1816-1819) was very considerable” (ibid.).  Most of the birds he described were from the Neotropics.  By all accounts the last years of his life were not happy. Although he continued to do some taxonomic work, he was desperately poor and “lived out his days as an eccentric.  At the end of his life he was in Rouen, where he died, old and blind, at the beginning of 1831” (ibid., 124).