Forel, François Alphonse

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(b. Morgues, Switzerland. 2 February 1841; d. Merges, 8 August 1912),

limnology, earth sciences.

Forel was the eldest of three children born to François Marie Étienne Forel and Adélie Morin Forel, and their only child to reach adulthood. His father, a distinguished jurist and historian of Switzerland, encouraged his son’s scientific interests. Forel began his studies in Morges and continued them at the Académie de Genéve, from which he graduated in science. For two years he studied medicine at Montpellier and then completed his medical degree at the University of Würzburg. After teaching there briefly, in 1870 he joined the faculty of the Académie de Lausanne, where he taught general anatomy and physiology for twenty-five years. In 1872 he married Fanny Elizabeth Mathilde Monneron: they had three daughters and a son.1 Darwinism undermined Forel ’ Christian faith, but he viewed this as a private matter not to be imposed upon his devout family.

Forel was trained primarily in zoology, but his strong interest in Lake Geneva led him to broaden his research to include physical as well as biological problems. His physical research was facilitated by a close association with his teacher (and later colleague) Charles Dufour, whose own research was in physical geology and meteorology. The breadth of Ford’s investigations may have prevented him from making a major contribution in any one area, but it prepared him for making his unique contribution —the founding of limnology.

Forel’s earliest important research was on the profundal fauna of Lake Geneva, which he accidentally discovered while attempting to learn whether the lake bottom had ripple marks indicating bottom waves. Sars, Lindström. W. B. Carpenter, T. H. Huxley, and Portalès had already studied profundal faunas of the oceans; but Forel was the first to discover their existence in deep lakes. He studied the profundal species in Lake Geneva and then made comparative studies in lakes Constance, Neuch1âtel, and Zurich. He also investigated the light, currents, temperature, organic and inorganic matter in the profundal waters, and the soil characteristics of the bottoms. This series of studies culminated in La fine profonde des lacs suisses (1884).

Forel’s other zoological investigations included studies of both the zooplankton and the littoral faunas of Swiss lakes. He was particularly interested in the causes of the daily vertical migration of Crustacean. His hypothesis that they are controlled by currents turned out to be less significant than August Weismann’s that light is the major controlling factor. Forel was also interested in discovering the probable evolutionary history of the littoral. pelagic, and profundal faunas.

In 1869 Forel began studying the seiches of Lake Geneva. This type of wave had first been detected on Lake Constance in 1549 and had been studied at Lake Geneva by several investigators. Forel measured the magnitude and duration of seiches at various points on the lake and then compared his data with other data derived from experimental models. In 1828 J. R. Merian had developed the mathematics for describing waves in rectangular tanks, and Karl von der Mühl and Sir William Thomson helped Forel to apply Merian\s formula to lake seiches. Forel then turned to a study of causes and concluded in 1878 that the main ones are wind, rain, and variations in atmospheric pressure.

Forele’s other investigations in physical science usually had some connection with lake phenomena. His studies of earthquake measurement were related to seiche measurement, for earthquakes cause seiches. His studies in meteorology were connected with his interest in variations of the level of Lake Geneva, as was his interest in glaciology. With Dufour he investigated the relationships between glaciers and atmospheric moisture, those between glaciers and loss of water to the lake (1871).

After devoting most of his life to the study of Lake Geneva, Forel decided to write a detailed monograph of its characteristics; his three—volume Le Léman (1892 - 1894) is probably the most detailed study ever written about a single lake. He devoted the first two volumes to its physical features—geography, hydrography, geology, climate, hydrology, hydraulics, temperature, optics, acoustics, and chemistry. The third volume was concerned mainly with biology, although it also included history, navigation, and fishing. It is a model limnological reference work, but Forel realized it could not serve as an introductory text. He therefore wrote the first limnology text, Handbuch der Seenkunde: Attgemeine Limnologie (1901). In most respects it follows the organization of Le Léman but treats the subjects more briefly and more generally. Forel thus fulfilled the requirements that seem necessary for the founding of a new science: a reference monograph based upon a series of reliable studies and a text that served to introduce students to the problems of the science.


1. I am indebted to Forel’s grandson, the Reverend François Forel, for genealogical information.


I. Original Works. Forel compiled his own bibliography (288 titles), which was published with his obituary by Henri Blanc, “Le professeur Dr. François Alphonse Forel, 1841-1912” in Actes de la Société helvétique des sciences naturelles, 95 (1912), 110- 148.

II. Secondary Literature There are surveys of Forel’s work by Blanc (see above) and by Frank N.Egerton III, “The Scientific Contributions of François Alphonse Forel, the Founder of Limnology,” in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Hydrologie,24 (1962),181-199. Kaj Berg has discussed Forel’s concept of limnology and his influence in “The Content of Limnology Demons*rated by F.-A. Forel and August Thiene—mann on the Shore of Lake Geneva,” in Proceedings of the International Association of Theoretical and Applied Limnology.11 (1951), 41-57. There is a useful collection of commemorative articles on the various aspects of Forel’s work in Bulletin de la Société van—doise des sciences naturelles,49 (1914), 291 - 341. This society also published a memorial issue on the fiftieth anniversary of Forel’s death, with articles illustrating the continuing influence of his work on modern Swiss investigations in limnology and glaciology: ibid., 68 (1963). 189-229. B. H. Dussart has provided a comprehensive survey and bibliography of the limnology of large Swiss lakes in “Les grands lacs d’Europe occidentale,” in Année biologique, 4th ser., 2 (1963), 499-572.

C. H. Mortimer has reviewed the history of lake hydrodynamics from Forel’s time to the present in “Lake Hydrodynamics,” in International Association of Theoretical and Applied Limnology, Mitteilungen, 20 (1974). 124 - 197. For placing Forel’s geological work in context, there is a useful collection of brief articles edited by Johann—Christian Thams, The Development of Geodesy and Geophysics in Switzerland (Zurich. 1967).

Forel’s pleasant personality and his religious outlook have been described by his cousin. August Forel, in Out of My Life and Work, Bernard Miall, trans. (New York. 1937), 83.

Frank N. Egerton III