Gaimard, Joseph Paul

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Gaimard, Joseph Paul

(b. St. Zacherie, France, 31 January 1796; d. Paris [?], France, 10 December 1858)

natural history, scientific exploration, naval medicine.

Born and educated in the French Midi, Paul Gaimard became one of the most widely traveled naturalists in the history of scientific exploration. Since his father had died in 1799 during uprisings in the Midi, Gaimard’s early training was directed by relatives. He entered the naval medical school at Toulon in 1816 and, through success in academic competition, was named surgeon in the royal navy. His talents and background earned him a place as surgeon and naturalist aboard the Uranie, commanded by Louis Claude de Freycinet and charged with investigating the meteorology, oceanography, and natural history of vast areas of the South Pacific Ocean. Assisting him were Jean Rene Constant Quoy, surgeon and naturalist; Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupre, pharmacologist and botanist; and François Arago’s youngest brother, Jacques, draftsman.

All were subject to regular naval discipline, Freycinet hoping to avoid the customary willfulness of scientific explorers. Upon their return from the circumnavigation of the globe (1817–1820) Gaimard and Quoy prepared a detailed account of their zoological discoveries. Gaimard thus early made his mark in one of the great periods of French maritime activity and earnest overseas scientific exploration.

Early in 1826 he toured Europe to inspect natural history collections and to prepare for his departure as first surgeon to the famed expedition of J. S. C. Dumont d’Urville. As captain of the Astrolabe, Dumont d’Urville’s double task was to conduct a scientific survey of Oceania and to seek traces of the lost La Perouse expedition. Between 1826 and 1829 Gaimard was again in the South Pacific, and once again he and Quoy prepared an account of their zoological collections and discoveries. While this work was in press, an outbreak of Asiatic cholera was reported from western Russia. The indefatigable and audacious Gaimard immediately set out to assess the epidemic. He spent several months observing the disease in eastern Europe and encountered it again upon his return to Paris in 1832. His report on the cholera, an affliction all the more terrifying for its utter novelty in western Europe, remains a classic account of the disease.

Gaimard soon set off on further exploratory voyages. He led a large scientific team aboard the Recherche to Iceland and Greenland (1835–1836), and a few years later, serving as director of the Scientific Commission for the North, he conducted extensive explorations in Lapland and on Spitsbergen and the Faeroes. With the latter journey (1838–1840) Gaimard’s frenetic, albeit highly productive, wandering apparently came to an end. His later years remain a supreme mystery, but he evidently settled in Paris and was fully occupied with the preparation and publication of the official reports of the expeditions to Iceland and to northern Europe.

Of Gaimard’s personality little is known save for effusive but perhaps accurate references to his uncommon benevolence and a readiness to serve France whatever be the task imposed. Details of his personal life also remain quite unknown. Clearly, Gaimard was devoted as much to the sheer pleasure of travel as to the joy of scientific discovery. His talents as a naturalist were indeed great, and he was assiduous and successful in seeing to completion the official reports of every expedition in which he participated. Those reports, for all—or the little—that we know of him, constitute the man himself.


I. Original Works. Gaimard’s principal publications are Voyage autour du monde . . . exécuté sur les corvettes . . . Uranie et la Physicienne, pendant les années 1817, 1818, 1819, et 1820 . . . Zoologie par MM. Quoy et Gaimard, 1 vol. and atlas (Paris, 1824), an assessment of which is given by Cuvier (see below); Voyage de découvertes de l’Astrolabe . . . pendant les années 1826, 1827, 1828, 1829 . . . Zoologie par MM. Quoy et Gaimard, 4 vols., and atlas, 2 vols. (Paris, 1830–1832); Voyage en Islande et au Groënland exécuté pendant les années 1835 et 1836, 8 vols., and atlas, 3 vols. (Paris, 1838–1852), of which only vol. I, Historie du Voyage, was written by Gaimard himself, the other volumes being prepared under his editorship; Voyages de la commission scientifique du Nord . . . pendant les années 1838, 1839 et 1840, 17 vols., and atlas, 5 vols. (Paris, 1843–1855); and Du choléra morbus en Russie, en Prusse et en Autriche, pendant les années 1831 et 1832 (Paris, 1832), written with Auguste Gérardin.

During the 1820’s and 1830’s Gaimard and Quoy published numerous reports on the zoology and ethnography of the Pacific area; these are listed in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, II (London, 1868), 755–756. The Bibliothèque Centrale of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, possesses a number of MSS by Gaimard; these relate principally to the zoological collections made on the Astrolabe (information courtesy of Yves Laissus).

II. Secondary Literature. Apparently no account of the full career of Gaimard’s life exists. A sentimental and very brief report on his activities until about 1837 was published by the Société Montyon et Franklin: A. Jarry de Mancy, “Notice sur Paul Gaimard”, in Portraits et histoire des hommes utiles (Paris, 1837), 192–196.

Notices in biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias are uniformly obscure. An exception is “Gaimard, Paul”, in August Hirsch et al., eds., Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzte aller Zeiten und Völker, 2nd ed., II (Berlin-Vienna, 1930), 656. On the background and motives of the naval expeditions in which Gaimard participated, see the excellent review by John Dunmore, French Explorers of the Pacific, II, The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1969), 63–108, 178–227. See also a review of Gaimard’s work by Georges Cuvier, in Annales des sciences naturelles10 (1827), 239–243.

William Coleman