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Joseph Henri Ferdinand Douvillé
(July 16, 1846—January 1, 1937)
by Jean-Georges Painvin

Henri Douvillé was a leading French paleontologist. He was elected a member of the mineralogy section of the French Academy of Sciences in 1907.

The Fourth International Congress on Rudists (Marseille, September 1996) was dedicated to Henri Douvillé. Henri Douvillé, a French paleontologist, was born on July 16, 1846 in Toulouse. He graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1863 and entered the Ecole des Mines de Paris in 1865. In 1867 he started working on the carte géologique détaillée de la France (The Geologic Map of France). After short stays as a mining engineer in Bourges and Limoges, Douvillé returned to Paris in 1875 to work with the paleontology collections of the Ecole des Mines. He was first appointed an assistant professor of paleontology and then, in 1881, appointed full professor. During his lifetime he wrote nearly 500 scientific notes and memoirs. Because of his extensive work, the Ecole des Mines became the main center for French paleontological research.

To support his stratigraphic studies for the geologic map, Douvillé explored Tertiary landforms in Orléanais and Blaisois and Jurassic rocks on the outskirts of the Paris basin. His detailed study of their fossils provided strengthened his results.

In order to establish fossil equivalences over distance, Douvillé looked for fossils that changed rapidly, over short geological time periods. These he termed “good fossils”. He called fossils that persisted with no appreciable change over one or more geological periods “bad fossils”, because they gave only vague and unspecific information about the ages of the rock layers.

Ammonites had allowed Albert Oppel, a German paleontologist, to make detailed classification of Jurassic rock layers. But they are relatively rare in the Cretaceous neritic formations Douvillé was studying. Henri Douvillé showed that for these periods, rudistes would perform the same service leading to stratigraphic analyses of high precision. He reconstructed the sequences of fossils for each branch, determining their vertical and geographic distribution.

In the same vein, he studied the stratigraphic extension of the Orbitolines into the Lower and Middle Cretaceous. Douvillé showed that the genus Orbitoides, as defined by Alcide d’Orbigny, corresponds in several sections to the Nummulite: Orbitoïdes sensu stricto, Orthophragmina, Lapidocyclina, of the Upper Cretaceous and the Neogene.

He perfected the “scale” of Nummilites proposed by Hantcken and de la Harpe.

With this, we can now follow the stratigraphic horizons of the central sea (or Mésogée), which Douvillé insisted was important for the population of the globe.

For Douvillé, paleontology was not just a branch of geology; it is first and foremost a branch of biology. Fossils are not only the “medals of creating”; they allow the history of live to be reconstructed, looking beyond just the dead animal to the living being and its life.

Douvillé was deeply influenced by Gaudry, and so he determined to reconfirm the phylogenic sequences of many groups of invertebrates. After much diligent work to determine a single structure for such a diverse group as rudists, from Dicras to Hippurites, Douvillé wrote a history of their forms. His phylogentic classification of the lamellibranch is a model of its kind. He was the first to attempt to reconstruct the organizations of the ammonoties, and he convincingly established its resemblance to current agronautes. He continued the always controversial problem of the sexual dimorphism of cephalopods with interesting arguments. He described the sequences of belemites and showed the regularity of their evolution. Douvillé’s classification and ethology of fossil echinoids was quite ingenious. His work on foraminifera was a bit risky but suggestive of the affinities between protozoa and metazoan.

Other areas of Douvillé’s interesting work is whether the animal associations (parasitism or symbiosis) were as common in the ancient world as they are today, e.g., a symbiosis of gastropods and a hydriactien, or a grastrochoene and a cryptocoenia, or the fossils (e.g., taonurus, etc.) and fossil traces (e.g annelids holes) of extinct animals, etc.

After making multiple phylogenic sequences and studying the living conditions of animals across geologic time, Douvillé tried to define the causes of evolution. He remained a Lamarkian and so saw the action of changes in the environment in changes in the living.

Henri Douvillé had started science in Geology. His extensive paleontological work did not interrupt this research. We will mention here only his work on the Pyrenees; it can be said that he contributed significantly to changes in the theories explaining the structure of this chain of mountains.

To appreciate the importance of Henri Douvillé’s work, we must say something about the countless works inspired or whose development was facilitated by them. Geologists and paleontologists have always found in him a guide, saving them time or giving council. His fame was universal. From all parts of the world he was sent fossils. He was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1907 and was twice president of the Société Géologique de France and belonged to several foreign academies.

Douvillé worked until his last days. His death came as a surprise, while he was making the final point in a study of rudists, the latest in a series he had worked on for more than fifty years.

His work was immense writing several important chapters of paleontology. He greatly contributed to the organization of a collection which is currently the principal center of paleontological research in France, he is remembered as a particularly wise and benevolent scientist and an example of a whole life dedicated to science.


Adapted using Google and Babble Fish, and translations from the

Ecole des Mines de Paris Annals of Mines biography of Henri Douvillé.

This page also has a note written by Henri Douvillé in 1903 about his own work.




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