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JEAN THÉODORE DESCOURTILZ (1798-1855)


Despite producing the most splendid of all books devoted to Neotropical birds, Descourtilz managed to live out his life in an obscurity that has not been illumined since. The little we know is this: He was born sometime in 1798, a son of Michel Étienne Descourtilz (1775- 1835), a physician and botanist who did important scientific work in the Antilles.  We know nothing of Théodore’s childhood or schooling, but it probably involved some traveling with his father and it must have included art, because he drew over six hundred illustrations for his father’s Flore pittoresque et medicale des Antilles, published between 1827 and 1833.

We know he went to Brazil around 1826, because in 1831 he presented a manuscript on birds to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in which he refers to a hummingbird he had seen only twice in five years.  His first published work on Brazilian birds, Oiseaux brillants du Brésil, a collection of sixty plates, without text, was published in Paris in 1834.  It is a work of legendary beauty and rarity. For the next twenty years he spent time in various parts of southeastern Brazil, doing scientific collecting for the government and the National Museum, all the while developing a more comprehensive work on Brazilian birds, four parts of which were published between 1852 and 1856.  He was unable to do more: On January 13, 1855, while on an expedition in Espíritu Santo, he died from consuming a chemical preparation he was experimenting with as a medicine for birds.