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Valenciennes, Achille


(b. Paris, France, 9 August 1794: d. Paris, 13 April 1865), zoology.

Valenciennes, whose father had been an aide to Daubenton since 1784, was born in the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and spent all his life associated with that institution. He attended the Collége de Rouen, but the premature death of his father cut short his further education and brought to an end his hopes to attend the École Polytechnique. Instead, in order to help support his family, Valenciennes became a préparateur at the Muséum in 1812. He aided successively Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Lamarck, and Cuvier with their zoological collections, and he eventually became an aide-naturaliste associated with the chair of reptiles and fish held in turn by Lacépéde and Constant Duméril.

Early in Valenciennes’s career Cuvier obtained for him the task of classifying the animals described by Humboldt on his journey to Latin America from 1799 to 1803. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Humboldt and Valenciennes. Humboldt acted as a patron for Valenciennes, assisting his entry into the Academy of Sciences in 1844.

Valenciennes’s major scientific achievement was his collaboration with Cuvier on the classic work Historie naturelle des poissons. After Cuvier chose him, Valenciennes visited the cabinets of Holland, England, and Germany to obtain additional materials for the work. Cuvier and Valenciennes published eight volumes jointly from 1828 to Cuvier’s death in 1832. Valenciennes then continued the series until 1849 with fourteen more volumes. Even so, the work remained incomplete, for the classification of cartilaginous fish had not been treated. Cuvier was responsible for the general scheme of classification, a modification of his classification of fish in Le règne animal. Valenciennes excelled at the descriptive aspect of the work. Because of his recognized expertise in the classification and description of fish, he was asked to publish the ichthyology of several scientific voyages of navigation.

In 1832, after a bitterly contested election in which he was opposed by Jean René Constant Quoy, Valenciennes succeeded Henri Ducrotay de Blainville in the chair of annelids, mollusks, and zoophytes at the Muséum. Although he greatly increased the collections associated with his chair, Valenciennes did not specialize in the subject area. He continued to write in all areas of zoology, including zoological paleontology. Although best known as an ichthyologist, his memoirs on mollusks and zoophytes include studies of the simplicity of the gills of the corbicula and lucina as compared to other lamellibranch mollusks, a monograph on the panopea, researches with Frémy on the chemical composition of eggshells in the animal series, and his classification of the gorgoniae based on the composition of the axis rather than on the external form.

Although he planned a large work on the sponges. Valenciennes never published a general work on the areas connected with his chair at the Muséum. A protégé of Cuvier, he tended to exaggerate Cuvier’s insistence on facts as opposed to hypotheses. Valenciennes was not an original thinker, and most of his work consists of monographs on genera or descriptions and classifications of new species brought to Paris by travelers. He had a wide knowledge of zoology, but he never synthesized it.

In addition to his position at the Muséum, Valenciennes became master of conferences in zoology at the École Normale Supérieure in 1831 and professor of zoology at the École de Pharmacie in 1856. He married Alphonsine Gottis in 1831. Personally a rather brusque man, he was prone to forming enemies. He has been described by detractors as a “bon gros,” corpulent, lazy, and hedonistic.


I. Original Works. Valenciennes’s only major work is the Histoire naturelle des poissons, 22 vols. (Paris, 1828–1849). A list of his memoirs can be found in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VI 95–97, and VIII, 1141. A more complete listing of his works on fish and reptiles, including the ichthyologies he wrote for several voyages of navigation, can be found in Maurice Blanc, “Travaux ichthyologiques et herpétologiques publiés par Achille Valencinnes,” in Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Afrique noire, 68 (1963), 71–75. Manuscripts left by Valenciennes are catalogued by Théodore Monad, “Achille Valenciennes et l’Histoire Naturelle des Poissons,” ibid., 9–45, also see 34–43. Jean Théodoridés has published a series of more than sevently letters written by Alexander von Humboldt to Valenciennes from 1818 to 1858 in “Une amitié de savants au siècle dernier: Alexandre von Humboldt et Achille Valenciennes (correspondance inédite),” in Biologid médicale, 54 (1965), i-cxxix.

II. Secondary Literature. The entire Mémoires de l’Institut français d’ Afrique noire, 68 (1963), is devoted to a collection of historical and ichthyological papers dedicated to Valenciennes (Mélanges ichthyologiques dédiés à la mémoire d’Achille Valencienes [1794–1865]). The article by Théodore Monad (see above) contains an account of Valencienes’s entry into the Academy, a useful bibliography (pp. 43–45), an iconography, a list of manuscript sources, and detailed information on the publication of the Histoire naturelle des poissons.

Contemporary biographical studies include L. Hallez, “Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Cours de M. Lacaze-Duthiers. Valenciennes,” in Revue des cours scientifique, 3 (1866), 377–384; and Alphonse Milne-Ed-wards, “EÉ de M. Valenciennes,” in Journal de pharmacie et de chimie, 4th ser., 5 (1867), 5–17.

Toby A. Appel

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