Barrois, Charles

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Barrois, Charles

(b. Lille, France, 21 April 1851; d. Ste.-Geneviève-en-Caux, Seine Maritime, France, 5 November 1939)

geology, paleontology.

Barrois belonged to a family of rich industrialists who had been liberals under the Restoration but became conservatives and ardent Catholics under the Second Empire. After studying with the Jesuits in Lille, Charles and his brother Jules wanted to be zoologists, an ambition encouraged by their parents. Jules became a specialist in invertebrate embryology, and Charles wrote his second doctoral thesis on the development of living Spongiae (1876). As early as 1871, however, he was caught up in Jules Gosselet’s contagious enthusiasm for geology. He remained Gosselet’s devoted disciple for half a century.

In 1871 Barrois was named assistant at the Faculté des Sciences of Lille, where he spent the rest of his career. He thereupon began a doctoral thesis on the Cretaceous formations of England, which he explored during four successive summers. His keen powers of observation were focused particularly on fossil fauna, which his training as a zoologist helped him to analyze. His thesis, presented in Paris in 1876 under Hébert’s supervision, became the first volume of the Mémoires de la Société géologique du Nord, which was founded by Gosselet and Barrois himself. In this work Barrois extended to England the same paleontologic and stratigraphic zones found by Hébert in the French Cretaceous formation. Following Godwin-Austen, he observed that the axes of the deformations that affected the English Cretaceous were those active during the Primary era. This discovery was expanded by Marcel Bertrand in 1892 and by Eduard Suess as the theory of posthumous flections.

The English geologists were enthusiastic over Barrois’s thesis. In 1908 Arthur Rowe declared his work to be that of a genius. According to E. Bailey (1940), Barrois was the most illustrious stratigrapher since Murchison. The compliment was slightly excessive, since Barrois owed a great deal to Gosselet and to Hébert. But his reputation benefited from the friendships that he made abroad, facilitated by his thorough command of languages and his personal fortune. His rather cold and haughty manner, the result of his education as a member of the high bourgeois, was mitigated by a gentle spirit and perfect manners. It was impossible to do other than like such a man, who was always as good as his word.

Once his thesis was finished, Barrois began a study of the Cretaceous formation of northern and eastern France. The most ancient formations of the globe had attracted him for many years, however, and after a period of study in the laboratory of Fouqué and Michel-Lévy at the Collège de France (where he became acquainted with the new methods of optical petrography), he undertook research on the Primary formations of northern Spain in 1877. He went on to make other field studies in Asturias and in Galicia that were the subject of an imposing memoir (1882). He also undertook a study of the Sierra Nevada with A. Offret in 1889; their stratigraphic results will long remain authoritative.

In 1878 Barrois had met the American geologist James Hall, who developed a paternal affection for him and took him back to the United States. Hall conducted him on a tour of the most important stratigraphic sequences in New York State, and Barrois wrote to Hébert. “One learns more in one hour in Albany than in a week anywhere else.”

Back in France, Barrois was named lecturer at the Faculté des Sciences at Lille (1878) and embarked on his great work: mapping the geological formations of Britiany. This was a difficult task, for the Precambrian and Primary formations, overthrown by Hercynian flections and made unrecognizable by metamorphism, are practically always without fossils; moreover, they are often concealed by the present vegetation. Barrois hunted for outcrops in road cuts, small quarries, or barren land where the bedrock was visible. From 1880 to 1909 he published twenty geological maps on the scale of 1:80,000, representing more than 25,000 square kilometers. After his retirement from teaching in 1926, he returned to his beloved Brittany, where until his death he tried to improve his previous observations.

Although Brittany did not suggest any original hypotheses to Barrois (who rather dreaded them,) it gave him the opportunity to verify new theories put forward by others. He showed the great diversity in the age of granites, and in the field he followed the transformation, through metamorphism, of bands of sandstone into veins of quartzite or quartz, and that of carbonaceous sediments into graphitic layers. He dated the numerous volcanic eruptions that affected Brittany during the Primary epoch and established the existence of a marine transgression during the Lower Carboniferous. He also collected specimens of Lamballe’s phtanites, which L. Cayeux found to be one of the oldest microfauna of Europe, possibly going back to the Precambrian era.

As early as 1888 Barrois was made professeuradjoint at the University of Lille, and in 1902 he became director of the Institute of Geology of Lille, following Gosselet. He also was an ingenious museologist, as is shown by the Musée Houiller, which he founded in 1907 to help train students, engineers, and technicians for the coal-mining industry. Barrois chose valuable collaborators, such as Pierre Pruvost, his successor; Paul Bertrand, a specialist in fossil flora; and André Duparc, who pioneered the microscopic study of coal. In 1905 Léon Bertrand’s views on the structure of the Franco-Belgian coal basin were prevalent. It was conceived as a mildly folded depression where enormous reserves of coal had been deposited, the thick beds at the bottom and the thinner coals on top. Using a detailed stratigraphic and paleontological study, Barrois and his disciples designed a completely different tectonics for the basin, seeing it as crosshatched by faults. This led them to anticipate far smaller coal reserves. It was the triumph of minute observation over simplistic theory.

Barrois, who had a remarkable ability to discover and describe paleontological species, became interested in the fossil corals, the Spongiae, the Bryozoa, the brachiopods, and especially the graptolites. He also wrote an extensive monograph on the Devonian fauna of Erbray (1888). Pierre Pruvost said, however, that Barrois “defined his species in terms of their value as characteristic [guide and index] fossils, and he avoids... philosophical meditation on the origin and relationships of living beings. Paleontology is for him a chronology of organic life, as exact as possible... for the use of the geologist.” When Barrois undertook the unrewarding but useful task of translating into French the five large volumes of Zittel’s Handbuch der Palaeontologie (1883–1894), he made it difficult for others to publish treatises on paleontology that openly praised theories of evolution. Although he wrote “All scientific effort broadens our freedom of action,” he was inhibited from speaking freely by his religious convictions: he and his friend Albert de Lapparent had been among the militants of what he called the Catholic party. He did not scorn honors and became a corresponding member of numerous academies; although not a resident of Paris, he was successful in being elected a titular member of the Académie des Sciences, after several defeats. During the last year of his life the pope made him a member of the Pontifical Scientific Academy.

Barrois was one of the last geologists to be complet, as Pruvost put it—that is, to be capable of carrying his research almost to perfection in both the field and the laboratory, whether the research was paleontological or petrographic. Barrois would have been outstanding among geologists had he been a bit more daring and had he had more of a feeling for synthesis.


I Original Works. A list of Barrois’s scientific works includes 268 titles, of which twenty-five are geological maps; it may be found on pp. 251–262 of Pruvost’s article in Bulletin de la Société géologique de France (see below). His principal works are Recherches sur le terrain crétacé supérieur de lʾAngleterre et de lʾIrlande, his thesis (Paris, 1876), Mémoires de la Société géologique du Nord de la France, 1 “Mémoire sur le terrain crétacé des Ardennes...,” in Annales de la Société géologique du Nord de la France, 5 (1878), 227–287; Recherches sur les terrains anciens des Astruies et de la Galice, Mémoire de la Société géologique du Nord de la France, 2 (1882); Mémoire sur la faune du Calcaire dʾErbray (Loire-inférieure), Mémoire de la Société géologique du Nord de la France, 3 (1889); “Mémoire sur la constitution géologique du Sud de lʾAndalousie...,” in Académie des sciences, Mémoires des savants étrangers, 2nd ser., 30 (1889), 79–169, written with Albert Offret; “Étude des strates marines du terrain houiller du Nord,” in Gites minéraux de la France (1912), pt. 1; “Description de la faune siluro-dévonienne de Liévin,” in Mémoires de la Société géologique du Nord e la France, 6, fasc. 2 (1922), 6–223, written with P. Pruvost and Georges Dubois; and “Les grandes lignes de la Bretagne,” in Livre jubilaire de la Société géologique de France (1930), pp. 83 ff.

II. Secondary Literature. Barrois’s pupil and friend Pierre Pruvost analyzed the man and his work in Bulletin de la Société géologique de France, 5th ser., 10 (1950), 231–262, with a portrait. Charles Jacob attempted a sketch of the social milieu in which Barrois lived in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5 (1947), 287–293, with a portrait.

Franck Bourdier

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Barrois, Charles

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