Barrabé, Louis

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(b. Bonneval, Eure-et-Loir, France, 16 March 1895; d. Paris, France, 13 February 1961)

economic geology, geology of continents.

Barrabé was the son of a distinguished amateur naturalist who was a member of the Soeiété Linnéenne de Normandie. His studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he fought, receiving the Croix de Guerre. From 1919 to 1921 he attended the École Normale Supérieure, and in 1921 he passed a national competitive examination to receive the degree Agréuation des sciences naturelles. During the 1920’s he was active as a field geologist, even though his legs were paralyzed following an unexplained poisoning in Martinique in 1927. From 1931 to 1961, Barrabé taught at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Paris.

Barrabé made a profound and lasting impact in his field. No narrow specialist, he was one of the last of a breed, a geologist in the broadest sense of the word, able to carry out the most detailed analyses as well as the most far-reaching syntheses. He was also the main founder of the teaching of applied geology in the French universities.

Barrabé’s scientific career began with the structural deciphering of the Corbières region in southern France, located between the southern drop of the Montague Noire and the eastern tip of the Pyrenees, where he began work in the early 1920’s By drawing remarkably accurate contacts on a poor topographic background, he was able to show the presence of a stack of nappes separated by slices of Triassic rocks. He published his findings in 1922 and 1923. Thirty years later this reconstruction was confirmed by oil drillings.

In Barrabé’s comprehensive investigation of northwest Madagascar—which he expounded upon in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris (1929)—and in his geologic synthesis of the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, he showed himself to be a complete geologist, equally versed in petrology and stratigraphy.

Barrabé’s scientific contributions in the fields of applied geology are equally impressive. With his teacher Léon Bertrand and his colleagues Pierre Viennot and Daniel Schneegans, Barrabé was one of the discoverers of hydrocarbons in France, first the small oil deposit at Gabian in Languedoc (1924) and more important, in the summer of 1939, the large natural gas deposit at St. Marcet in the Mesozoic of the North Pyrenean trough. The first drill hole—made after long resistance from adversaries who had estimated that the French subsurface was devoid of oil—produced a significant strike on the eve of World War II. Later hydrocarbon discoveries and petroleum geology in France have their roots in this discovery.

The first discoveries of uranium ore deposits in France were made by geologist-prospectors trained by Barrabé and his associate Jean Oreell. On the basis of their predictions, the first deposits were found in the Massif Central, an area that later became a major source of uranium, particularly the pitch-blende vein of La Crouzille, discovered in 1948.

Barrabé’s teaching emphasized three guiding principles:

1. Integrate all regional studies within a geologic synthesis. In this spirit he offered courses on the geology of the continents and the French possessions overseas. These courses had a profound influence on his students and his followers, especially on the work of François Ellenberger. Unfortunately, the course material was never published.

2. Consider mineral deposits as normal products of the geologic evolution that must be integrated into the local geologic history so that more can be discovered. This view has left a lasting imprint on French metallogeny through the works of geologist-prospectors and the books of Pierre Routhier. Of Barrabé’s teaching there remains but one publication, his work on the geology of coal and coal basins, collected and completed by Robert Feys in 1965.

3. Never hold to theories, and he alert to anything new. He heeded his own advice and regarded Alfred L. Wegener’s continental drift theory with respect at a time when it was being described by main leading scientists. He was also the spiritual father of the first group of French academic geochemists.

Barrabé was self-denying, completely oblivious to questionable compromises, mindful of others’ arguments, most solicitous about his students and colleagues, and a pioneer in academic unionization. During the German occupation, he was a member of the French resistance in the University of Paris. Despite his contributions, however. Barrabé never received the honors he deserved. For example, he was not elected to the Academy of Sciences, which at that time paid little attention to the applied sciences.


I Original Works. From 1922 to his death. Batrabé published more than one hundred scientific papers. He also wrote twelve unpublished reports and prepared several geological maps. Among these numerous works are “Sur la présence do nappes de charriage dans les Corbiéres orientales,” in Camples rendus hebdomadaire des séances de l’Académie des scientcs. 175 (1922), 1081–1083; “Tectonique des Corbières orientates,” in Bulletin des Services de la carte géologique de la France, 27 , no. 151 (1923), 21–31; “Sur la découverte d’un gisement pétrolifére à Gabian (Héruult).” in Comptes rendus hebdmnadaires des séances de l’ Académie des sciences. 179 (1924). It 1179–1181, written with Pierre Viennot; “Rapport stir les résultats d’une mission effecutée en 1927 dans le sud el l’est de la Martinique,” in Annates de l’Office national des combustibles liquides. 3 (1928). 7–42: “Contribution à l’étude statigraphique et pétrouraphique de la région médiane du pays sakalave (Madagascar)” in Mémoires de la Soviété géologique de France. n, s. 5, no, 12 (1929), 1–270, his dissertation; “Sur la récente déeouverte d’un important gisement d’hydrocarbures dans les Petites Pyrénées au nord de Saint-Gaudens,” in Complex rendus hebdomadaire des séances de l’ Académie des sciences, 209 (1939), 399–401, written with Léon Bertrand; and Géologie du charbon et des bassins houillers, collected and completed by Robert Feys (Paris, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. Pierre Bellair, “Louis Barrabé (1895–1961),” in Bulletin de la Société géoligique de France, 7th ser., 4 (1962), 227–235, with bibliography and portrait.

Alexis Moiseyev
Pierre Routhier