Blainville, Henri Marie Ducrotay De

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Blainville, Henri Marie Ducrotay De

(b. Argues, France, 12 September 1777; d. Paris, France, 1 May 1850)

anatomy, zoology.

Son of Pierre Ducrotay and Marie Pauger de Blainville, Henri grew up among the lesser but intensely proud Norman nobility. His schooling, interrupted by the French Revolution, recommenced in Rouen and Paris, where he at first studied music, art, and literature. There followed a brief but spectacular dissipation of his patrimony. Reforming himself and pursuing his ferocious desire to learn, Blainville turned to medicine (M.D., Paris, 1808) and then to natural history. Working in Cuvier’s laboratory, he soon became an outstanding comparative anatomist and developed further as a remarkably independent thinker. In addition to anatomy, he lectured and published widely on descriptive and taxonomic invertebrate zoology (particularly malacology), comparative osteology, history of science, and the first principles of natural history. About 1810 he began formal instruction (as Cuvier’s deputy) in various Parisian institutions (Athénée, Collège de France, Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle). He was named a professor at the Muséum in 1830 and in 1832 was appointed to Cuvier’s vacant chair of comparative anatomy. In 1825 he was elected to the Académie des Sciences.

Blainvgille’s lifelong objective in natural history was order. Order in the chaos of existence necessarily could derive only from clearly defined principes. These would follow inevitably from what Blainville called la philosophie chrétienne. Natural order was simply the unfolding of the Creator’s design; that design in turn refocused our regard upon His wisdom and power. There were two roads to God, faith and knowledge, and for Blainville they merged into a single Christian philosophy. Blainville was a believing and, it appears, a practicing Roman Catholic. His religion, however, aimed less at spiritual experience than at an understanding of God’s plan of creation, and thus was largely an elaboration on earlier objectives and beliefs of the deists.

God’s plan for ordering animals and plants was the long-familiar scale of being, or série. Blainville vigorously defended the generalized série against Cuvier’s attacks. Apparent gaps in the arrangement of existing organisms were nicely filled by fossil forms; Blainville carried out valuable paleontological research to support this proposition. Together, extinct and extant organisms testified to the original fullness, and hence rightness, of God’s creation. Such change as occurred, possibly including that of species, was predicated by the divine plan.

Man stood both morally and physically at the summit of the Série, presenting the standard by which the rank of all other forms was to be decided. Blainville followed Bichat in defining life as a general responsiveness of the organism to, and its persistence amid, ever-varying ambient conditions. This characteristic, Sensibilité, was to biology what gravitation was to the Newtonian world machine; whether causal or not, it gave meaningful substance to the essential fact of relation. Organs of relation (principally the sensory and locomotory parts) thereupon assumed primacy and allowed Blainville to base his intricate and numerous classifications upon external features, those which mediated with the environment.

Blainville’s influence was exerted principally through his famous lectures; he was a somewhat unsystematic author and brought few works to true completion. His extreme personal and family pride led him to bitter relations with contemporaries and an unsympathetic view of bourgeois France. Blainville’s grand and enduring trinity was God, king, and France. His distaste for egalitarian society and contempt for Republican ideals led him to examine alternative social structures and to discuss favorably various utopian socialistic schemes. In 1813 he became a close acquaintance of Saint-Simon and, about 1824, the friend, disciple, and mentor of Comte, who carefully followed Blainville’s most notable lecture series, that on physiology. F. L. P. Gervais, F.A. Pouchet, and H. C. M. Nicard were among Blainville’s pupils.


I. Original Works. Blainville published over 150 articles and numerous monographs. A topical list of his writings is given in Flourens, pp. xliii-lx. His major publications are De I’organisation des animaux, ou Principes d’anatomie comparée (Paris, 1822); Manuel de malacologie et conchyiologie, 2 vols. (Paris-Strasbourg, 1825–1827); Cours de physiologie générale et comparée professé à la Faculté des Sciences de Paris en 1829–1833, Hollard, ed., 3 vols. (Paris, 1833); Manuel d’actnologie et de zoo-phytologie, 2 vols. (Paris, 1834); Ostéographie ou description iconographique comparée du squelette et du système dentaire des cinq classes d’animaux vertébrés récents et fossiles pour servir de base à la zoologie et à la géologie (Paris, 1839–1864)-24 fascicles were issued by Blainville between 1839 and 1850; the 25th was published, with a biographical notice of Blainville and indexes to all parts, by Nicard in 1864; Histoire des sciences de l’organisation et de leurs progrés, comme base de la philosophie, rédigées d’aprés ses notes et ses leçons faites à la Sorbonne de 1830 à 1841, avecles développements nécessaires et plusieurs additions, Maupied, ed., 3 vols. (Paris, 1845)—Maupied severely distorted Blainville’s intention and arguments, and made him appear a shrill Catholic apologist (see Nicard, p. 149); Sur les principes de la zooclassie ou de la classification des animaux (paris, 1847); and Cuvier et [E.] Geoffroy Sanit-Hilaire: Biographies scientifiques, H. C. M. Nicard, ed. (paris, 1890), an angry polemic against Cuvier.

Blainville’s papers passed to his student and biographer Nicard, and are today in the Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. These MSS include notes for lectures at the Muséum, drafts of published works, and occasional items of poetry and drama. (Information courtesy of Yves Laissus.) No collection of correspondence can be located.

II. Secondary Literature, There exists neither a satisfactory study of Blainville’s scientific work nor a detailed biography. The only comprehensive view of both is given in H. C. M. [Pol] Nicard, Étude sur la vie et les travaux de M. Ducrotay de Blainville (Paris, 1890). Nicard is at once hagiographer and confusing, quite unsystematic expositor. Nevertheless, he knew Blainville well and controlled his literary legacy; hence his volume is a major source and interpretation. In the preface, Nicard lists earlier bio-graphical notices. M. J. P. Flourens wrote the official éloge for the Académie des Sciences: “Éloge historique de Marie Henri [sic] Ducrotay de Blainville,’ in Mémoires de l’ Académie des Sciences, Paris, 27 (1860), i-lx, also in Flourens‘s Recueil des éloges historiques lus dans les séances publiques de l’Academie des Sciences (Paris, 1856), pp. 285–341. Blainville’s early physiological ideas are expounded in C. J. F. B. Dhéré, De la nutrition considérée anatomiquement et physiologiquement dans la série des animaux, d’après les idées de M. Ducrotay de Blainville (Paris, 1826). A brief but penetrating estimate of Blainville’s religiophilosophical viewpoint is given in H. Gouhier, “La philosophie ‘positiviste’ et ‘chrétienne” de H. de Blainville,” in Revue philosophie positive, III (Paris, 1838), leçon 40; P Ducassé, Méthode et intuition chez Auguste Comte (Paris, 1939); and E. Littré, Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1864), pp. 632–639, a discussion of Blaniville and Maupied.

William Coleman

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Blainville, Henri Marie Ducrotay De

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