Edwards, William Fréd

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Edwards, William Frédéric

(b. Jamaica, West Indies, 6 April 1776; d. Versailles, France, 23 July 1842)

physiology, ecology, anthropology, ethnology, linguistics.

Son of a wealthy planter of English origin, Edwards, like his brother, Henri Milne-Edwards, grew up and was educated in Bruges, where his family had moved. He became keeper of the Bruges Public Library and, interested in natural sciences, began to study medicine. Since Flanders was then a part of France, the family acquired French citizenship. In 1808 Edwards went to Paris to complete his medical studies. He did not graduate until 1814, at the age of thirty-eight, with a dissertation on the inflammation of the iris and black cataract. He worked at that time with the physiologist Magendie, who in his two-volume Précis élémentaire de physiologie (1816–1817) acknowledged Edwards’ constant assistance in his experiments and in the preparation of the book.

After a short excursion into mineralogy, Edwards devoted much time to the study of the influence of environmental factors on the “animal economy.” His early results were honored by the Prix Montyon of the Académie des Sciences (1820), and in 1824 he published his findings in a book. His main idea was that vital processes depend on external physical and chemical forces but are not entirely controlled by them. Life is different from heat, light, or electricity, forces which, however, contribute to the production of vital phenomena. Edwards systematically examined all principal functions, mostly of vertebrate species; and by varying the external conditions, he determined the nature and degree of their modification. Among the phenomena studied were the minimum and maximum temperatures compatible with life; heat production in young and adult animals; resistance of young animals to cold and to lack of oxygen; the importance of humidity, pressure, and movement of air in the loss of heat by transpiration; the role of light in the development of batrachians; and expiration of carbon dioxide by animals deprived of oxygen. Important was his finding that some warm-blooded animals (carnivores, rodents, some birds) are born less developed and have a much smaller capacity for heat production than those not born helpless. The former need external heat and cannot live without it. Body temperature of newborn carnivores and rodents drops by 10–12°C. as soon as they move away from their mother, but in contact with her it differs by only 1–2°C. Similarly, eight-day-old birds (starlings) in the nest maintain a body temperature of 35–37°C., while outside the nest (at 17°) body temperature drops within one hour to 19°C. These findings proved important in the prevention of infant mortality. Adult animals are, according to the conditions of life of their species, adapted to certain external temperature and thus to certain geographical distribution. Edwards’ book is a classic pioneer work on animal ecology.

Soon afterward (ca, 1826) Edwards turned to some linguistic problems (etymology in Indo-Germanic languages, Celtic idioms) and was impressed during a journey to southern France and northern Italy by the problem of human types (races). In his opinion human races—in spite of their mixing—have fixed features and persist in their original type for centuries, so that descendants of all known great nations of antiquity could still be found among contemporary peoples (he gave several examples). His view, backed by J.-A. Colladon’s early mice hybridization experiments, agrees with the more recent views of geneticists.

In 1832 Edwards was elected to the Académie des Sciences. His last studies led him to found the Société Ethnologique de Paris in 1839 (followed soon in England and the United States). Publication of its Mémoires drew attention to a field hitherto rather neglected. The word “ethnologie,” introduced by Edwards, designates matters later included in the scope of anthropology.


I. Original Works. Edwards’ writings include Dissertation sur l’inflammation de l’iris et de la cataracte noire (Paris, 1814); De l’influence des agents physiques sur la vie (Paris, 1824), trans. by Hodgkin and Fisher as On the Influence of Physical Agents on Life (London, 1832; Philadelphia, 1838), with observations on electricity and notes to the work of Edwards by Hodgkin; Des caractères physiologiques des races humaines, considérés dans leurs rapports avec l’histoire (Paris, 1829); “Animal Heat,” in R. B. Todd, ed., Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology, II (London, 1836–1839), 648–684; Mémoires de la Société ethnologique de Paris, 1, 2 (1841–1842); and Recherches sur les langues celtiques, H. Milne-Edwards, ed. (Paris, 1844).

II. Secondary Literature. See Analyse succincte des principaux travaux de William Edwards, docteur en médecine (Paris, n.d.); Funérailles de William Edwards. Discours de Beriat-Saint-Prix (Paris, 1842); and A. Quatrefages, in Michaud, Biographie universelle, XII (Paris, 1855), 280–282.

Vladislav Kruta