Pierre André Latreille

Pierre André Latreille bigraphy, stories - French zoologist

Pierre André Latreille : biography

November 29, 1762 – February 6, 1833

Pierre André Latreille (November 29, 1762 – February 6, 1833) was a French zoologist, specialising in arthropods. Having trained as a Roman Catholic priest before the French Revolution, Latreille was imprisoned, and only regained his freedom after recognising a rare beetle species he found in the prison, Necrobia ruficollis. He published his first important work in 1796 (‘), and was eventually employed by the ‘. His foresighted work on arthropod systematics and taxonomy gained him respect and accolades. He was considered the foremost entomologist of his time, and was described by one of his pupils as "the prince of entomologists".


Latreille produced a significant body of scientific work, extending across several fields. He was described by Johan Christian Fabricius as ‘ ("the foremost entomologist of our time"), and by Jean Victoire Audouin as ‘ ("the prince of entomology").

Taxonomy and systematics

Latreille was significant as the first person to attempt a natural classification of the arthropods. His "eclectic method" of systematics incorporated evidence from all available characters without assuming a pre-defined goal; Latreille repeatedly dismissed anthropocentrism and teleology.

As well as many species and countless genera, the names of many higher taxa are also attributable to Latreille, including Thysanura, Siphonaptera, Pycnogonida, Ostracoda, Stomatopoda, Decapoda, Amphipoda, Isopoda, Xiphosura and Myriapoda.


Although Latreille named many species, his primary interest was in describing genera. He introduced the concept of the "type species", a species to which the name of a genus is firmly attached. Similarly, he favoured the method of naming families after one of the constituent genera, rather than some defining feature of the group, implicitly designating a type genus for the family.


Early life

Pierre André Latreille was born on November 29, 1762 in the town of Brive, then in the province of Limousin, as the illegitimate child of Jean Joseph Sahuguet d’Amarzit, général baron d’Espagnac, and an unknown mother; the surname "Latreille" was formally granted to him in 1813, and derives from a nickname of unclear provenance. Latreille was orphaned at an early age, but had influential protectors – first a physician, then a merchant from Brive, and later a baron and his family (after the baron’s death), who brought him to Paris in 1778.

He studied in the ‘ to become a priest, initially in Brive, and later in Paris. He entered the ‘ of Limoges in 1780, and left as a deacon in 1786. Despite being qualified to preach, Latreille later wrote that he had never carried out his functions as a minister, although for a few years he signed the letters he wrote "" ("the Reverend Latreille") or "" ("Latreille, Priest").

Even during his studies, Latreille had taken on an interest in natural history, visiting the ‘ planted by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and catching insects around Paris. He received lessons on botany from René Just Haüy, which allowed him to meet Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Necrobia ruficollis

After the fall of the ‘ and the start of the French Revolution, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was declared in 1790, which required priests to swear an oath of allegiance to the state. Latreille failed to do so and was therefore imprisoned in November 1793 under threat of execution.

When the prison’s doctor inspected the prisoners, he was surprised to find Latreille scrutinising a beetle on the dungeon floor. When Latreille explained that it was a rare insect, the physician was impressed, and sent the insect to a 15-year old local naturalist, Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent. Bory de St.-Vincent knew Latreille’s work, and managed to obtain the release of Latreille and one of his cell-mates. All the other inmates were dead within one month. The beetle had been described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1775, but recognising it had saved Latreille’s life.