Georges Cuvier


Georges Cuvier : biography

23 August 1769 – 13 May 1832

The Institut de France was founded in the same year, and he was elected a member of its Academy of Sciences. In 1796 he began to lecture at the École Centrale du Pantheon, and at the opening of the National Institute in April, he read his first paleontological paper, which was subsequently published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d’éléphants vivants et fossiles. In this paper he analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, and a fossil skeleton known at that time as the ‘Ohio animal’. Cuvier’s analysis established, for the first time, the fact that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct. He further stated that the ‘Ohio animal’ represented a distinct extinct species that was even more different from living elephants than mammoths were. Years later, in 1806, he would return to the ‘Ohio animal’ in another paper and give it the name Mastodon.

In his second paper in the year 1796, he would describe and analyze a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he would name Megatherium. He concluded that this skeleton represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers were a landmark event in the history of paleontology and in the development of comparative anatomy as well. They also greatly enhanced Cuvier’s personal reputation, and they essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

In 1799 he succeeded Daubenton as professor of natural history in the Collège de France. In 1802 he became titular professor at the Jardin des Plantes; and in the same year he was appointed commissary of the Institute to accompany the inspectors general of public instruction. In this latter capacity he visited the south of France; but in the early part of 1803, he was chosen Permanent Secretary of the Department of Physical Sciences of the Academy, and he consequently abandoned the earlier appointment and returned to Paris. In 1806, he became a foreign member of the Royal Society and in 1812, a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He now devoted himself more especially to three lines of inquiry: (i) the structure and classification of the Mollusca; (ii) the comparative anatomy and systematic arrangement of the fishes; (iii) fossil mammals and reptiles and, secondarily, the osteology of living forms belonging to the same groups.

In 1812, Cuvier made what Bernard Heuvelmans called his "Rash Dictum": he remarked that it was unlikely that any large animal remained undiscovered. The word "dinosaur" was coined in 1842.

During his lifetime Cuvier served as an Imperial Councillor under Napoleon; President of the Council of Public Instruction and Chancellor of the University under the restored Bourbons; Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, a Peer of France, Minister of the Interior, and President of the Council of State under Louis Philippe; he was eminent in all these capacities, and yet the dignity given by such high administrative positions was as nothing compared to his leadership in natural science.Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom Appleton (1922) p.64

Official and public work

Apart from his own original investigations in zoology and paleontology Cuvier carried out a vast amount of work as perpetual secretary of the National Institute, and as an official connected with public education generally; and much of this work appeared ultimately in a published form. Thus, in 1808 he was placed by Napoleon upon the council of the Imperial University, and in this capacity he presided (in the years 1809, 1811 and 1813) over commissions charged to examine the state of the higher educational establishments in the districts beyond the Alps and the Rhine which had been annexed to France, and to report upon the means by which these could be affiliated with the central university. Three separate reports on this subject were published by him.

In his capacity, again, of perpetual secretary of the Institute, he not only prepared a number of éloges historiques on deceased members of the Academy of Sciences, but he was the author of a number of reports on the history of the physical and natural sciences, the most important of these being the Rapport historique sur le progrès des sciences physiques depuis 1789, published in 1810.

Prior to the fall of Napoleon (1814) he had been admitted to the council of state, and his position remained unaffected by the restoration of the Bourbons. He was elected chancellor of the university, in which capacity he acted as interim president of the council of public instruction, whilst he also, as a Lutheran, superintended the faculty of Protestant theology. In 1819 he was appointed president of the committee of the interior, and retained the office until his death.

In 1826 he was made grand officer of the Legion of Honour; he was subsequently appointed president of the council of state. He served as a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres from 1830 to his death. A member of the Doctrinaires, he was nominated to the ministry of the interior in the beginning of 1832.