Fraipont, Julien

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Fraipont, Julien

(b. Liège, Belgium, 17 August 1857; d. Liége, 22 March 1910)

Zoology, paleontology, anthropology.

At the end of his intermediate studies, Fraipont entered the offices of the bank of which his father was director. However, attracted since childhood by the natural sciences, he attended at the same time the zoology courses given at the University of Liege by Edouard Van Beneden. He became one of Van Beneden’s favorite students, and then abandoned the career for which he had seemed destined in order to pursue his scientific vocation. He was soon named student assistant and then became Van Beneden’s préparateur (1878) and his assistant (1881). He was then hired to teach the following subjects at the University of Liège: animal paleontology (1884), animal geography (1885), and systematic zoology (1885). He was named professor in 1886 and, in 1909, a few months before his death, rector of the University of Liege. He was elected a foreign member of the Leopoldinisch- Karolinische Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher in 1890, replacing L.-G. De Koninck, and a foreign member of the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow in 1895. He became a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences de Belgique in 1895 and director of its science section in 1908.

Fraipont’s zoological works (fifteen publications appeared between 1877 and 1908) deal with systematics, but above all with the morphology of Protozoa (Acineta), Hydrozoa (Campanulariae), Trematoda, Cestoda, and Archiannedia. They also include a monograph (1907) on the genus Okapia in which the author endeavors to demonstrate that this mammal, discovered in 1900 in the Belgian Congo, represents a form perfectly intermediate between the Cenozoic Giraffidae and present-day giraffes.

Fraipont’s most important contribution to zoology probably consists of his studies on the Archiannelida (1884–1887), a group which had recently come to prominence through the investigations of B. Hatschek. Fraipont’s studies began with the cephalic nephridia (1884) and the central and peripheral nervous systems of certain of these organisms (1884) and were completed by a monograph on the genus Polygordius (1887). As in all his preceding works, Fraipont was inspired by the example and the teaching of his mentor Van Beneden. He gave a minute description of the anatomy, histology, development, habits, and habitat of the genus, as well as of its geographic distribution and position in the class of the Annelida. In his conclusions he agreed, although not without some reservations, with Hatschek’s opinion and accepted, like him, the group of the Archiannelida.

Fraipont was especially occupied with paleontological research during the period from 1883 to 1890. In particular he studied various fossils of the Upper Devonian and the Lower Carboniferous. In 1885 he published, in collaboration with De Koninck, the fifth part (devoted to the Lamellibranchia) of De Koninck’s monumental work on the fauna of the Lower Carboniferous in Belgium.

During this period Fraipont also began to take a lively interest in prehistory, continuing the work done before him in Belgium by P.-C. Schmerling and E.-F. several caves in the province of Liege, discovering numerous archaeological levels ranging from the Lower Mousterian to the Neolithic. He was also involved in study of the human fossils discovered at Spy, near Namur (Belgium), during the summer of 1886 by his friends the geologist Max Lohest and the prehistorian Marcel De Puydt.

This discovery played a considerable role in the history of human paleontology. The material found consisted of the remains of two human skeletons, associated with a great quantity of Quaternary mammalian bones and with lithic implements of the Mousterian type. This was the first discovery of relatively complete documents of Neanderthal man, exhumed in perfectly established stratigraphic conditions that fixed their age (known today to date from the Wurm I stage) and guaranteed their authenticity. The principal observations and measurements of the two skeletons were carried out by Fraipont. They are remarkable for their precision, especially since Fraipont was not a professional anatomist. The results of these investigations were the subject of a memoir published jointly by Fraipont and Lohest in 1887.

This memorable discovery at Spy permitted the interpretation of fragmentary pieces previously brought to light, such as the jaw found at La Naulette (Belgium) in 1865 by E.-F. Dupont, and it completed and confirmed the knowledge of a type of human fossil whose special characteristics some in this period were still trying to explain by the action of pathological factors. Fraipont devoted several other articles to the Spy fossils between 1888 and 1893. He also published an interesting study on the tibia (1888) in its relation to the erect posture of man and the Pongidae, and in 1900 he presented a thorough study of certain Neolithic skeletons found in various Belgian caves.

Highly esteemed by everyone, Fraipont was a modest man, extremely kind and courteous, devoted to his teaching duties and to his students. His complete moral integrity is reflected in his work. One may reproach that work for too great a diversity in subject matter and for certain factual or interpretive errors; yet it preserves a fundamental unity of method and of thought, that of a zoologist devoted to the facts as he perceived them, rather than to constructing brilliant but hazardous speculative systems.


I. Original Works. Fraipont published 46 works (15 in zoology, 11 in paleontology, and 20 in anthropology and prehistory) in addition to a great many reports and conference papers.

The principal works are “Faune du calcaire carbonifére. 5e partie, Lamellibranches,” in Annales du Musée royal d’histoire naturelle de Belgique, 11 (1885), 1–33, written with L.-G. De Koninck: “Monographie du genre Polygordius,” in Fauna und Flora des Golfes von Neapel, 14 (1887), 1–125; and “La race humaine de Neanderthal ou de Canstadt en Belgique. Recherches ethnographiques sur des ossements humains, découverts dans des dépôts quaternaires d’une grotte à Spy et determination de leur âge géologique,” in Archives de biologie, 7 (1887), 587–757, written with Max Lohest.

II. Secondary Literature. Of the obituaries published, the best, which includes a complete list of publications, is M. Lohest, C. Julin, and A. Rutot, “Notice sur Julien Fraipont,” in Annuaire de l’Academie royale de Belgique, 91 (1925), 131–197. On the discoveries at Spy, see the interesting critical chapter in Aleš Hrdlička, The Skeletal Remains of Early Man, Smithsonian misc. coll., 83 (Washington, D.C., 1930), 178–212.

G. Ubaghs