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ALCIDE D’ORBIGNY (1802-1857)


In November 1825, d’Orbigny was designated Naturalist-voyageur du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle [Paris]” (Heron-Allen 1917, 23).  His destination: South America.  Like many of his contemporaries he was inspired and supported by Alexander von Humboldt, who provided him with letters of introduction, as well as a long list of questions about South America that he thought merited d’Orbigny’s attention (ibid.).  D’Orbigny spent the time between his appointment and his departure (on July 31, 1826) raising money, learning some Spanish and Portuguese, and expanding his knowledge of natural history beyond the foraminifera, the tiny shelled protozoa that he (and his father) first described and with which he was chiefly associated as a young scientist (Vénec-Peyré 2004). He was seasick for the first few days aboard the corvette La Meuse, but by the time he landed in Rio de Janeiro he was ready to respond to the New World in the way so many had before him: “I was finally going to set foot in this land I so dreamt of . . . never mind the perils, the disappointments, the fatigue!  Nothing spoilt my happiness . . . I was in America!” (ibid., 152).

His happiness was shortlived, however: In Montevideo he was thrown in jail– “a putrid hole full of malefactors and chained murderers” (Heron-Allen 1917, 49) over peculiar suspicions raised by a barometer Humboldt had given him. The judicious expenditure, in the form of bribes, of some of the money he had raised procured his freedom after a few months, and he was again on his way, through Paraguay and down the length of Argentina. Eventually, he worked his way back up to Bolivia, where he stayed three years, doing his most important work. He became close with Andrés de Santa Cruz, the first president of newly independent Bolivia; with that support he explored the country, crossing the Andes five times despite suffering from soroche, the altitude sickness that is the bane of travelers in the high Andes.  Bolivia has always been off the beaten path, and d’Orbigny – who saw a lot in South America – was impressed by what he encountered: “For a long time I contemplated the magnificent panorama spread before my eyes,” he said of a day on the San Mateo River. “Everywhere I saw impetuous torrents, white with foam, separated by wooded mountains which rise gradually showing their pointed peaks. It is probably the most wild and picturesque place I have ever been” (von Hagen 1948, 191). He also encountered what modern travelers still fear, the narrow, winding roads (paths, in the nineteenth century), “having on one hand the almost perpendicular wall-like cliffs, and on the other the terrifying precipice” (ibid., 195).

D’Orbigny returned to France in January 1834, bringing with him collections that expressed the breadth of his interests. Included were specimens of over 9,000 species: 157 of mammals, 783 of birds, 94 of reptiles, and so on down the line to his specialty, the foraminifera, of which he found 81 species (Vénec-Peyré 2004, 154).  The collections were deposited with the museum that had sponsored his journey, and d’Orbigny enlisted the help of Frédéric de Lafresnaye, a French aristocrat and ornithologist, to work up the birds. The avian collection was “very important and rich in novelties owing to the fact that [d’Orbigny] was the first European naturalist to visit Bolivia and the inner districts of Argentina” (Hellmayr 1921).  D’Orbigny and Lafresnaye are credited with describing seventy-eight new species.

They published the first descriptions of the birds in the Magasin de Zoologie in 1838, but their list was never finished, and it remained for Carl Hellmayr to publish a complete account eighty-three years later. D’Orbigny’s attention returned to his first fascination, fossil invertebrates, and in the remaining years of his life he published several substantial works on the subject. In 1853 Napoleon III created for him a position as professor of paleontology at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, a position he held for the few remaining years of his life.