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Reuss Olry Terquem

1797 - 1886

Reuss Olry Terquem was born in Metz (Moselle), France on September 26, 1797 and died on June 19, 1886. He was one of the original Lorraine paleontologists. Terquem was the nephew of a well-known mathematician also named Olry Terquem (1782-1862). He grew up in a progressive Jewish family, was a supporter of liberal movement and, like his uncle, condemned the exclusion of women from worship and religious education.

In 1822, Terquem graduated from the Faculté de médecine de Paris with a pharmacy degree. He returned to Metz, became a pharmicist, and taught courses in industrial chemistry at the Central School of Metz. After selling his pharmacy in 1852, he devoted himself to geology and paleontology. He was a member of many societies: the Royal Academy of Metz, the Society of Natural History Department of Moselle from 1836, the Society of Medical Sciences of the Moselle, the Geological Society of France from 1850, the Society of Natural History of Luxembourg from 1851, the Geological Society of Vienna, and was curator of the geology section of the Museum of Metz.

At the museum in Metz he gave classes in geology and organized the collections of rocks and fossils of Moselle. He met Louis Agassiz in Switzerland and worked for a time to review his classification of fossil mollusks. From 1845 to 1865 he surveyed the Lorraine region, the Ardennes, and Luxembourg, making major contributions to the paleontology and stratigraphy. In 1856, he discovered well preserved foraminifera during the construction of railway lines in Moselle. Terquem was the discoverer of Hettangian, the lowest stage of the Jurassic era.

After Napoleon’s defeat of 1870, when he was 73, Terquem and his family left Metz and the Moselle and took refuge in Paris. He then worked for nearly 15 years in the paleontology laboratory of the Museum d'Histoire, classifying and storing d’Orbigny‘s collections of foraminifera. He also continued his microscopic observation and study of foraminifera.

Terquem’s paleontological ideas led to evolutionary concepts—his ecological and taxonomic ideas were particularly insightful for his age. This is far from unimportant as Charles Darwin had published his theory on the origin of species in 1859 (1862 for the French version) and his theory of evolution received a hostile reception in France (as it had had in England).

Relative to his contemporaries, Terquem adopted a unique position regarding the definition of species. His choice of study material was foraminifera. He found many abrupt changes in species in successive geological strata. These observations were interesting as Darwin seemed to ignore or at least overlooked these types of changes because of their apparent rarity. Darwin advocated only slow and graduated changes in taxa.

Terquem noted that some foraminifera fossils of the Lias epoch seem to never have changed. This almost-static, non-visible change corresponds to a stabilizing selection, a concept recognized by Stephen J. Gould, the eminent American paleontologist and author of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. The notion of stasis is not in agreement with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Terquem discovered the age of the stratigraphic geological formation located at the base of the Jurassic system whose stratotype is Hettange-Grande. He did remarkable stratigraphic work on the floor Rhétien in collaboration with Edouard Piette. His discoveries were sometimes fought strongly, as was the case for Hettangian, but have since been proven correct.

The controversy about the geological position of the Hettangian was primarily between 1842 and 1868—a time of revolution in geology. The quarrel was purely geological and to understand it one must take into account both human and corporate conflict. Victor Simon, an early researcher of the geology of the Lorraine, made the first study in 1828. Renevier, a Swiss geologist, raised the Hettangian to become the floor in 1864. Terquem was the geologist who best understood the problems of the Hettangian, and gave paleontology its true significance. He was, in fact, the only geologist to integrate both the paleontological and stratigraphic aspects.

Two schools of thought developed in France around this problem:

  • The first is that of paleontology stratigraphy, inspired by the work of Orbigny and Oppel. It was formed by a nucleus of amateurs, members of the Society of Natural History Moselle; in particularly Terquem. It also included university paleontologists and geologists (Edouard Piette, Edmond Hebert and Deshayes, of the University of Paris, Jean-Baptiste d'Omalius of Alloy, and G. F. Chapuis Dewalque Belgium, who would join Terquem in his theses).

  • The second is that of applied geology - industrial and agricultural - and for them the fossils didn’t matter; only the physical stratigraphy. This group was represented by the all powerful mining engineers, inspired by Léonce Elie de Beaumont: Jean-Jacques Levallois, Eugene Jacquot, Nicolas-Armand Buvignier and for neighbouring countries, Poncelet and André Dumont.

Both schools coexisted without interference, until 1900 when the contributions of paleontology to applied stratigraphic geology proved indispensable to the growth of geological prospecting and mining in the Lorraine.

The work of this pioneer of French micropaleontology well deserves a return to our memory: an amateur with an enormous workload, he knew how to understand the ecosystem of stratigraphic foraminifera, organisms from which surprising discoveries evolved. Terquem approached the delicate problem of the definition of species in which he found changes in the speed of evolution, stases, transitions, and, at the end of his life, concepts as modern as the study of ecosystems, and the limits of taxonomy.

His last scientific publication was the year before his death at the age of 89. Throughout his long scientific practice his theories were often not in agreement with the theories of that era and generated contention. However, he never let go of the assumptions and beliefs that his observations had generated. It is important to remember the scientific context of the era: ideas circulated slowly, specialized publications were rare or non-existent, foreign publications (German, English, and Italian) were difficult to access and had to be translated. Yet Terquem, unlike many of his contemporaries in the Lorraine, had many publications in the highest quality international scientific journals.

Material for this article adapted from:

  • [Google translation service used.]

  • [Google translation service used.]



















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