Belon, Pierre

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Belon, Pierre

(b. Soultière, near Cerans, France, 1517; d. Paris, France, 1564)

zoology, botany.

Belon’s birthplace—or the house traditionally considered as such—still stands at Soultière. Practically nothing is known of his ancestry, and his biographer, Paul Delaunay, has been unable to pierce the mystery surrounding his origins. We know that he came from an obscure family and that as a boy he was apprenticed to an apothecary at Foulletourte. About 1535 he became apothecary to Guillaume Duprat, bishop of Clermont. In the course of subsequent wanderings (in Flanders and England) and zoological research he came back to the Auvergne. About that time he became the protégé of René du Bellay, bishop of Le Mans, a situation that enabled him to go to the University of Wittenberg and study under the botanist Valerius Cordus. In 1542 he went to Paris, where Duprat recommended him as an apothecary to François Cardinal de Tournon. Belon never acquired the doctorate, but in 1560, when Brigard was dean, he obtained the licentiate in medicine from the Paris Faculty of Medicine.

In his Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins (1551), Belon presented an orderly classification of fish that included the sturgeon, the tuna, the malarmat (peristedion), the dolphin, and the hippopotamus. The last, incidentally, was drawn from an Egyptian sculpture. Nevertheless, Belon can be considered the originator of comparative anatomy. By the same token, he depicted a porpoise embryo and set forth the first notions of embryology. Belon enriched the biological sciences by new observations and contributed greatly to the progress of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century. His learning was not derived solely from books. He was one of the first explorer - naturalists; and between 1546 and 1550 he undertook long voyages through Greece, Asia, Judaea, Egypt, Arabia, and other foreign countries. He passed through Constantinople, and in Rome he met the zoologists Rondelet and Salviani.

Belon discarded the bases of the comparative method and was not at all afraid of drawing parallels between human and bird skeletons. He was the first to bring order into the world of feathered animals, distinguishing between raptorial birds, diurnal birds of prey, web - footed birds, river birds, field birds, etc.

Belon was also a talented botanist and recorded the results of his observations in a beautiful work adorned with woodcuts showing, for the first time, several plants of the Near East, including Platanus orientalis, Umbilicus pendulinus, Acacia vera, and Caucalis orientalis. He was more interested in the practical uses of plants than in their scientific description. He also advocated the acclimatization of exotic plants in France.

Belon dwelt at great length on the applications of medicinal substances. He clarified the use of bitumen, which the ancient Egyptians had used for mummifying corpses. Its agglutinative and antiputrefactive properties had induced physicians to use it therapeutically.

Belon’s observations were generally correct. He looked at the world as an analyst devoted to detail. He succeeded in winning the confidence of the great and was famous during his lifetime. His works were translated by Charles de 1’Escluse and Ulisse Aldrovandi, both of whom recognized his authority. Charles IX installed him at the Château de Madrid and granted him a pension. Belon was murdered in the Bois de Boulogne under mysterious circumstances. He was only forty-seven.

Charles Plumier dedicated the species Bellonia (Rubiaceae) to Belon. Charles Alexandre Filleul, a sculptor from Le Mans, erected a statue to him in Le Mans in 1887. Pavlov called him the “prophet of comparative anatomy.”


1. Original Works. Belon’s writings are L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec la vraie peincture et description du daulphin, et de plusieurs autres de son espèce, observée par Pierre belon.. . (Paris, 1551); De admirabili operum antiquorum et rerum suspiciendarum praestantia liber primus. De medicato funere seu cadavere condito et lugubri defunctorum ejulatione liber secundus. De medicamentis non–nullis servandi cadaveris vim obtinentibus liber tertius (Paris, 1553); De aquatilibus libri duo... (Paris, 1553); De arboribus coniferis resiniferis, aliis quoque non- nullis sempiterna fronde virentibus.. . (Paris, 1553); Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses mémorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Égypte, Arabie et autres pays estranges, rédigées en Irois livres.. . (Paris, 1553); L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions et naïfs portraicts retirez du natural, escrite en sept livers.. . (Paris, 1555); La nature et diversité des poissons, avec leurs pourtraicts représentez au plus près du naturel, par Pierre Belon.. . (Paris, 1555); Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes d’Arabie et d’Ègypte, observez par P. Belon,... le tout enrichy de quatrains, pour plus facile cognoissance des oyseaux et autres portraits.. . (Paris, 1557); and Les remonstrances sur le défault du labour et culture des plantes et de la cognoissance d’icelles.. . (Paris, 1558).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Belon are “La cronique de Pierre Belon, du Mans, médecin”, Paris. Bibliothèque de 1’Arsenal, MS 4561, fols. 88-141: Paul Delaunay, Les voyages en Angleterre du médecin naturaliste Pierre Belon (Anvers, 1923): and L’aventureuse existence de Pierre Belon du Mans (Paris, 1926), with a bibliography: and R. J. Forbes, Pierre Belon and Petroleum (Brussels, 1958).

M. Wong