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Alcide d'Orbigny
1802-1857

 

by
Y. LE CALVEZ

École Pratique des Hautes Études, Laboratoire de Micropaléontologie,
8 rue de Buffon, Paris Ve, France

Attempting a new account of the life and work of Alcide d'Orbigny after the outstanding biography published in 1917 by Heron-Allen, is no easy task. Yet it is not possible to deal with the "Great Names in Micro­palaeontology" without beginning with the man who was truly the founder of the subject; the scholar to whom we owe so many of the fundamental facts concerning foraminifera. Although d'Orbigny accomplished much in other fields, notably stratigraphy and macropalaeontology, comment is here reserved exclusively for his micropalaeontological publications.

Alcide d'Orbigny was born in Couëron (Charente-Maritime) on September 6th, 1802. His family, records of which can be traced back to the 15th century when barons of that name were in the service of King Louis XI, later emigrated to San Domingo in the Caribbean and was almost totally exterminated during the revolt of the black slaves. Of the eighteen d'Orbigny children, only two sons, in France to complete their education, escaped the massacre. One of them, Charles-Marie d'Orbigny married Marie-Ann Pipat in 1799, this union producing five children of whom one was Alcide d'Orbigny. A naval surgeon by profession, Charles-Marie eventually settled at Esnandes on the coast of Vendée, where he practised medicine and was able to pursue his interest in marine life as an amateur naturalist. Indeed, he and his friend Fleuriau deBellevue assembled a collection of shells of the region and founded our first regional museum—that of La Rochelle.

Alcide d'Orbigny and his brother Charles were thus initiated into Natural History at an early age. They searched for and examined shells, and were enabled to portray them owing to their precocious talents for drawing. Alcide was only 11 years old when he began to examine fora­minifera found in the local beach sands, this activity soon being followed by studies of material from Rimini and Corsica. Until this time all microscopic shells were classed with the "Céphalopodes polythalames" of Lamarck, and no one had tried to separate them. D'Orbigny undertook this great task. In April 1825 he went to Paris, examined the collections of Defrance and Lamarck, and some months later (1826) published his "Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes" in which he distinguished the microscopic species from the other cephalopods, and called them Foraminifera. In a report to the Academy of Sciences on 12th December 1825, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire et Latraille was able to write on this subject "nous voilà arrivés au 3 ème ordre, celui des Foraminifères, le plus compliqué et le plus embarrassant de tous, vu la quantité presque innombrable d'espèces dont il se compose et leur extrême petitesse, ordre qui est une création de Monsieur d'Orbigny".

This work attracted much attention at the time, and led to its author being charged by the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle with a mission to South America. D'Orbigny left in June 1826 and until March 1834 he travelled the American continent from "the cold and arid regions of Patagonia to the torrid zone, from sea level to the highest plateaux of the Andes, from the shores of two oceans to the centre of the continent; visiting in turn, Brazil, the Pampas of Buenos Aires, the borders of Paraguay, and the republics of Chile, Bolivia and Peru" as he himself wrote in his detailed report of 1850.

This long voyage enabled him to amass a great quantity of material, the study of which occupied the years following his return, the results being expressed in the publication of nine volumes and about 500 plates. Amongst these were three of particular concern to us: "Les Foraminifères de l'Amérique méridionale", "les Foraminifères de l'île de Cuba et des Antilles" and "les Foraminifères des îles Canaries", all of which were published in 1839.

In his study of the Foraminifera of Cuba, d'Orbigny gave a detailed historical account of the work carried out on these organisms between 1731 and 1839 before describing his own observations made during twenty years of research. He stressed the coloration, "yellow, fawn, russet, red-violet or bluish", of the cytoplasm, and the length of the pseudopodia, which he called "filaments" attaining up to five or six times the diameter of the body, thus indicating that his observations, far from being restricted to the shell, also extended to the living animal. He then proposed a classification of the Foraminifera based on their mode of growth and showing the relationships of the orders.

But while preparing these works, d'Orbigny also concerned himself with other matters. He turned to Palaeontology and interested himself in the foraminifera of the Chalk, a study which led to the production of a large memoir (1839) in which fifty four species were described and figured, all but three or four being new. These observations, moreover, led him to think that during the Cretaceous the Paris Basin was invaded by a warm sea lacking strong currents, and to conclude that species diversity increased with the passage of time, i.e., towards the present day.

In 1846 his study of the fossil foraminifera of the Vienna Basin appeared—a work intended to be a complete exposition of the Foraminifera. Everything was included: systematics, with the description and illustration of two hundred and twenty eight species; geological distribution (Palaeozoic to Recent); the proportinate increase in the number of genera and species as the present epoch is approached; the characterization of warm regions by some forms and of cold regions by others, each species being more or less restricted to a particular area; the comparison of Recent and fossil genera. In other words, most of the problems posed by the study of foraminifera were already foreseen if not resolved by d'Orbigny, who wrote in 1846, "ils peuvent servir à déterminer sûrement l'âge d'un terrain géologique" thus anticipating the preeminent place which oil geologists would reserve for these microfossils one hundred years later.

Finally, d'Orbigny worked for more than 14 years on the "Prodrome de Paléontologie stratigraphique des animaux Mollusques rayonnés". This immense work, to which he devoted so much time yet never actually finished, appeared in 1850-52 in the form of a stratigraphical list of genera and species. The illustrations, in the form of plates, remained unavailable until their publication (as outline drawings only) by Fornasini between 1897 and 1908.

Having become the acknowledged authority in the field of Palaeontology, d'Orbigny sought a post as professor, but he was opposed by many zoologists who did not accept his discoveries, and by geologists who scarcely appreciated his views on stratigraphical terminology. At last, by a decree of 1853, he obtained a Chair of Palaeontology in the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle. However, he hardly profited by it, for he died on June 30th, 1857, at the early age of 55.

The study of foraminifera represents but a small part of d'Orbigny's immense output of admirable work, and I have given here only an outline of the publications that concern us. One is overwhelmed by the number of genera and species which he described; by the drawings, the originals of which are preserved in the Palaeontological Institute of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, and which testify to the ability of the man who executed them as well as to the quality of his observations; by the models, sculpted with his own hands and carefully reproducing the shells of these microscopic animals to an enlargement of from 40-200 times.

D'Orbigny has been reproached for his anti-evolutionary ideas: in his view, microfaunas disappeared at the end of each stage, making way for new associations composed of different species. Moreover, he did not believe that species enjoyed a wide geographical distribution, and thus gave new names to similar individuals found in the Mediterranean and Antilles. However, in certain cases he realized that he was mistaken. For example, Planorbulina mediterranensis was renamed vulgaris when he realized that this foraminifer, first discovered in the Mediterranean, also occurred off Cuba.

D'Orbigny's conceptions are explained by the fact that he lived at the dawn of micropalaeontology—at a time when the shell was all that was known of the animal. How was it possible to speak of evolution in animals which lacked organs, and when the fossiliferous strata studied were of such different ages that the connecting links between the genera and species were not visible?

Today, d'Orbigny still remains the first and most famous of all micropalaeontologists; the first to recognize the importance of foraminifera and to foresee the place they would one day occupy in stratigraphical geology.

Reproduced from:
Le Calvez, Y. 1974. A. d’Orbigny—a biographical sketch. In R. H. Hedley and C. G. Adams, eds. Foraminifera 1:261-264. Academic Press, London

 

 

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