Desor, Pierre Jean Édouard

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Desor, Pierre Jean Édouard

(b. Friedrichsdorf, near Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 13 February 1811; d. Nice, France, 23 February 1882)

glacial geology, paleontology, stratigraphy.

Desor was of French origin and studied law at the universities of Giessen and Heidelberg. During a short stay in Paris, he was introduced to geology by Élie de Beaumont. His meeting in 1837 in Switzerland with Louis Agassiz marks the turning point of his career; for almost twenty years he was Agassiz’s close friend and chief collaborator. Desor’s two volumes on the glacial theory were published for the general public, and his reports of Agassiz’s expeditions on the Alpine glaciers led to the formation of numerous Alpine clubs.

Desor followed Agassiz to America in 1846, but—for reasons still not understood—their friendship ended suddenly. In the service of federal and state agencies, Desor studied the fauna of the Atlantic shelf aboard the Bibb; took part in the Lake Superior land district survey, directed first by C. T. Jackson and then by J. W. Foster and J. D. Whitney; and undertook a study of the coal basin of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, supervised by H. D. Rogers.

Returning to Neuchâtel in 1852 because of his brother’s poor health, Desor was appointed professor of geology at the Academy of Neuchâtel. His brother’ death in 1858 left him in a financially advantageous situation and enabled him to resign his professorship and return to the study of fossil echinoderms, the geology of the Jura Mountains, and the archaeology of the Bronze Age lake dwellers. From his home at Combe Varin in the Val des Ponts, well-known as a meeting place for natural philosophers, Desor continued his studies and collaborated for twenty years in the preparation of a geological map of Switzerland.

Desor was naturalized in 1859; his subsequent political career led him to the presidency of the Swiss Federal Assembly in 1874. Forced by gout to spend much of his last years on the French Riviera, he devoted his final works to a study of that region’s geology and archaeology.


I. Original Works. Desor’s writings include Monographies d’échinodermes vivants et fossiles (Neuchâtel,1838–1843), 5 pts. in one vol., written with L. Agassiz and G. Valentin; “Aperçu général de la structure géologique des Alpes,” in Bibliothèque universelle, XXXVIII (Geneva, 1842), 120–149, written with B. Studer; Excursions et séjours dans les glaciers et les hautes régions des Alpes, de M. Agassiz et de ses compagnons de voyage (Neuchâtel, 1844); Nouvelles excursions et séjours dans les glaciers et les hautes régions des Alpes, de M. Agassiz et de ses compagnons de voyage (Neuchâtel, 1845); “Catalogue raisonné des familles, des genres, et des espèces de la classe des Éechinodermes; précédé d’une introduction sur l’organisation, la classification, et le développement progressif des types dans la série des terrains,” in Annales des sciences naturelles (zoologie), 3rd ser., 6 (1846), 305–374; 7 (1847), 129–168; 8 (1847), 5–35,355–381, written with L. Agassiz; “On the Drift of Lake Superior,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser., 13 (1852), 93–109; Synopsis des échinides fossiles, 2 vols, and atlas (Paris, 1858); Études géologiques sur le Jura neuchâtelots (Neuchâtel, 1859), written with A. Gressly; Les palafittes ou constructions lacustres du Lac de Neuchâtel (Paris, 1865); Description des oursins fossiles de la Suisse. Échinides de la période jurassique, 16 secs. with atlas (Wiesbaden, 1868–1872), written with P. de Loriol; Le bel âge du bronzelacustre en Suisse (Paris, 1874), written with L. Favre; and Le paysage morainique, son origine glaciaire, et ses rapports avec les formations pliocènes d’Italie (Paris, 1875).

The Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers gives a complete list of Desor’s publications in II, 266–269; VII,525–526; and IX, 688–689.

II. Secondary Literature. Notices on Desor are L. Favre, “Notice nécrologique d’Édouard Desor (1811–1882),” in Bulletin de la Société des sciences naturelles (Neuchâtel), 12 (1882), 551–576; and J. P. Lesley, “Obituary Notice of Édouard Desor,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 20 (1882), 519–528.

Albert V. Carozzi