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Charcot, Jean-Baptiste

Charcot, Jean-Baptiste

(b. Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 15 July 1867; d. at sea, 16 September 1936),

medicine, navigation, geography, oceanography, exploration.

The son of the renowned doctor and professor at the Faculté de Médecine, J.-M. Charcot, he chose a medical career. A brilliant student at the Faculté de Médecine, he was an interne at the Hôpitaux de Paris, received the M.D. degree at the Faculté de Médecine in 1895, was chief of its neurological clinic, and was associated with the Institut pasteur.

Between 1887 and 1901 Charcot published works devoted to neurology, on such topics as various forms of epilepsy, tuberculosis of the paracentral region, motor agraphia, and Benedikt’s syndrome. In the textbook Manuel de Médecine he wrote articles on aphasia and lead poisoning.

Yet Charcot abandoned his medical career to devote himself to the sea. He admitted that his medical knowledge was subsequently very useful to him and that he was able to pursue his maritime explorations and researches “… thanks to the education and the training in the scientific method that I had the good fortune to undergo at the harsh and unyielding school of my father, Professor Charcot, and at the Institut Pasteur, from my teachers and masters, Dr. Roux and Professor metchnikoff” (Notice sur les titres [1921], p. 3).

Accustomed to handling a boat since his childhood, Charcot trained himself in preparation for the explorations that he undertook beginning in 1903. He had already sailed on a small schooner in the latitudes of the Faeroe Islands in 1901; and on a sailing ship, he set out in 1902 for the Faeroes and went as far as the polar island of Jan mayen. He brought back valuable information on the whale fisheries, on the hydrography of the region, and on the physical conditions of the water in the vicinity of the ice floes.

Voyages of exploration and scientific expeditions followed these preparatory missions, and Charcot proved his ability as an organizer and leader. He had constructed, according to his directions and plans, the Français and the Pourquoi Pas? the first polar vessels to be built in France. The Pourquoi Pas? was both the model for ships built for scientific polar exploration and a research ship for all latitudes. From 1911 the Pourquoi Pas?, with Charcot as its director, was considered the floating marine research laboratory of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études and was often used by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The Pourquoi Pas? was also used as a school for candidates for the certificate of competence as captain of a merchant vessel.

The cruises, always under Charcot’s command included physicists, oceanographers, biologists, and geologists, both French and foreign. Among them were the first French Antarctic expedition, aboard the Français (1903–1905); the second French Antarctic expedition, aboard the Pourquoi Pas? (1908–1910); and missions in the Atlantic, the Arctic polar regions and the Gulf of Gascony (1912, 1913, 1914, 1920); the North Atlantic (1921, 1922); the western Mediterranean and the Gulf of Gabès (1923); the English Channel, the Irish Sea, and the western British archipelago (1924); the waters around Jan Mayen Island and Jameson Land in Greenland, the Scoresby Sound (1925, 1926); the North Sea and the Baltic (1927, 1930); and the waters around Greenland (1928, 1929, 1932). In 1933 he explored the coast of Blosseville Kyst, and in 1934 he led back to Angmassalik the Victor mission (which had to winter in Greenland). In 1936 he returned to Greenland to find the Victor mission again to bring it back to France. It was his last voyage. On the morning of 16 September 1936, the Pourquoi Past?, buffeted for twelve hours by a storm, foundered on the Borgarfjord reefs oll’ Iceland. The sole survivor, the master helmsman, wrote an account of the shipwreck which appeared in several newspapers (Le Temps, 18 Sept. 1936; Paris Midi, 17 Sept. 1936; Le Petit Parisien, 18 Sept. 1936).

Funeral services were held for the twenty-two scientists and sailors lost at sea at St. Malo on 11 October 1936 and at Paris on the following day. Homage was paid to Charcot and his companions at the great amphitheater of the Sorbonne on 25 November 1936.

During the expeditions work was done in hydrography, meteorlogy, atmospheric electricity, gravitation and terrestrial magnetism, actinometry, the chemistry of the atmosphere, the tides, zoology, botany, geology and mineralogy, glaciology and bacteriology. New lands were discovered; the problem of the South American Antarctic was resolved; and the collections and documents brought back were both numerous and original. Two new sciences were created: submarine geology, with the establishment of marine geological maps, and geological oceanography. Charcot’s organization of systematic and practical oceanogrphic studies, a new field for France, had been inspired by the work of Albert I of Monaco.

After World War, I, Charcot was greatly concerned with the application of oceanography to commercial fishing. He contributed to the creation and development of the Office Scientifique et Technique des Peches, and in 1923 he published the first French fishing map of the North Sea.

In 1932 Charcot led a “Polar Year” expedition to Greenland that remained there for a year, the first French polar expedition to use winter quarters. Charcot was also instrumental in French Participation in the exploration of Antarctica.

All those who sailed on the Pourquoi Pas? were impressed with Charcot’s energy, courage, refined and profound sensibility, total unselfishness, great kindness, youthful spirit, and simplicity. He was a member of the Académie des Sciences (1926), the Académie de Médecine, and the Académie de Marine. He was a grand officer of the Legion of Honor and an officer of several foreign orders. In additions, he received the gold medals given by the geographical societies of Paris, London, New York, Brussels, Antwerp, and St. Petersburg. The Académie des Sciences awarded him the first biennial prize of the Prince of Monaco.


I. Original Works. Charcot’s articles include “Tuberculose de la région paracentrale. Fréquence et raisons anatomiques de cette localisation,” in in Bulletin de la Société anatomique (8 May 1891), p. 274, “Coup de feu dans l’oreille. Paralysie faciale. Hémiplégie. Obstruction de la carotide interne,” ibid. (18 Dec. 1891), p. 679; “Sur un appareil destine a évoquer les images motrices graphiques chez les sujets atteints de cécité verble. Application à la démonstration d’un centre moteur graphique fonctionnellement distinct,” in Progrés médical, 1 (1892), 478; and Comptes rendus. Société bibliologique (11 June 1892), p. 235; “Sur un cas d’agraphie motrice. suivi d’autopsie,” in Comptes rendus. Société biobologique (1 July 1893), p. 129 “Trois cas d’arthropathie tabétique bilatérale et symétrique,” in Nouvelle inconographie de la Saplpêrière (1894), p. 221; “Contribution à l’étude de l’atrophie musculaire progressive (type Duchenne-Aran),” in Archives de médecine expérimentale et d’anatomie pathologique (1 July 1895), p. 441; “Ouelques observations du trouble de la marche. Dysbasies d’origine nerveuse,” in Archives de neurologie (Feb. 1895), p. 81; “De l’hémarthrose tabétique et de deux symptômes rares au tours du tabes dorsualis,” in Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière (1896), p. 265; “Une cause nouvelle d’intoxication saturnine,” in Comptes rendus Société biologique (20 June 1896), p. 639; “Rapport du Dr J.B. Charcot sur le voyage de Punta Arenas à l’île Déception,” in Géographie, 19 (1909), 279–281; “The Second French Antarctic Expedition,” in Geographical Journal (Mar. 1911); and Scottish Geographical Magazine, 27 (Mar. 1911); “Quelques considérations sur le 2ème expédition antarctique française,” in Revue scientifique (10 June 1911); “L’expédition antarctique françaies 1908–1910,” in Géographic, 23 (1911), 5–16; “Le laboratoire des recherches maritimes scientifique du Pourpuoi Pas?,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences (20 Nov. 1911); “Au sujet de l’île Jan-Mayen,” ibid. (14 Mar. 1921); “Les missions du Pourquoi Pas?,” in Bulletin de la Société d’océanographie de France, nos. 2, 3, ff. (1921); “Sur un appareil peu coûteux destiné à permettre aux pêcheurs de prendre la température de l’eau de merentre la surface et 100 mètres” in VI° Congrès national des pêches maritimes à Tunis, I (1921), 23; “L’îlot de Rockall,” in Nature (Paris), no. 2478 (1 Oct. 1921); “Sur l’étude géologique du fond de la Manche,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadires des séances de l’Académie des sciences(13 Nov. 1922); and “Rapport preliminaire sur la campagne du Pourquoi Pas? en 1922,” in Annales hydrographiques, on. 1880 (1922).

His books include Le “Francais” au Pôle Sud, 1903–1905 (Pairs, 1906); Pourquoi Taut-il aller dans l’Antarctique (Paris, 1907); Le “Pourquio Pas?” dans l’Antarctique, 1908–1910 (Paris, 1910); Antour du PÔle Sud, 2 vols. (Paris, 1912); Notice sur les titres et travaux scientifiques du Dr. J. B. Charcot (Paris 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929); Christophe Colomb uv marin (Paris, 1928); and La mer du Groendland (Paris, 1929).

Publications resulting from various cruises include Expédition antarctique françise 1903–1905. Sciences naturelles, documents scientifiques, 17 fasc. (Paris n., d,.); Expédition antarctifiques française 1903–1905. Hydrographie et physique du globe (Paris, n.d.); Rapports préliminaires sur les travaux exécutés dans l’Antarctique par la mission commandée par le Dr J. B. Carcot de 1908 à 1910 (Paris, 1910); and 2éme expédition antarctiques française 1908 1910. Sciences naturelles et sciences physiques. Documents scientifiques, 25 fasc. (Paris, n.d.) Many scientific notes appeared in specialized periodicals.

II. Secondary Literature. Among the many tributes to Charcot are “Hommages au Commandant Charcot et aux victimes du nafrage du Pourquoi Pas?, in La Géographie, 66 (Nov.1936), 201–226, with an account of the funeral service; “Hommage national à J. Charcot et à ses compagnons,” in Bulletin du Muséum d’ historie naturelle, 2nd ser., 8 (1936), 449–472; Cérémonie commemorative en hommage à J. B. Charcot à la Sorbonne le 2 oct 1937, Institut de France, L’Académie des sciences, fasc. 23 bis (Paris, 1937); L. Dangeard “Charcot et son oeuvre: Les croisières du Pourquio Pas?” in Geologie der Meere and Binnengwässer, I (1937), 361–373; “30ème anniversaire dela mort de Charcot” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences (21 Nov. 1966), p. 250; and “Le centénaire de la naissance du Commandant Charcot célébré à la Sorbonne le 22 novembre 1967,” in Annales de l’Université de Paris, 38 (1968), summary account on p. 250.

AndrÉe TÉtry

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