Gaudry, Albert Jean

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Gaudry, Albert Jean

(b. St.-Germain-en-Laye, France, 15 September 1827; d. Paris, France, 27 November 1908),


Two events of Gaudry’s youth strongly influenced his work. First, his mother died when he was quite young and, at the age of seventy, he still cried over her death; this emotional shock, from which he never recovered, may account for the tenderness mixed with mysticism that characterized both the man and his work. Second, his father a renowned lawyer and historian, collected minerals and associated with geologists; one of these geologists; Alcide d’Orbigny. explorer of South America and founder of modern stratigraphic paleontology, married Gaudry’s sister around 1845 and guided Gaudry’s career.

Having completed his advanced studies, Gaudry entered the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle at Paris in 1851, in the laboratory of the mineralogist P. L. A. Cordier. There he prepared a doctoral dissertation on the, occurrence of flint in chalk strata, which he defended in 1852. He was then a timid young man, short and frail, with a shrill voice, a refined and gentle face, and blond hair. This fragile appearance concealed much courage, tenacity, and physical strength—qualities demonstrated in 1853, during a fatiguing but profitable geological mission in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus.

While Gaudry was on this mission, the government, convinced of the scientific importance of fossil study, created a chair of paleontology at the museum for Alcide d’Orbigny, despite the opposition of that institution’s professors, who believed that each of them should be entrusted with preserving the fossils relating to his own discipline: the professor of malacology, for example, would be curator of mollusks; the botany professor, of fossil plants; and so on. D’Orbigny made his young brother-in-law his assistant, and Gaudry henceforth devoted the major portion of his time to paleontology. In 1855 and 1860 he carried out two excavations in Attica, in the Tertiary mammal deposit at Pikermi. The fossil remains that he brought back enabled him to reconstruct several skeletons of new species. Some of them displayed characteristics intermediate to those of species already known; and in an article of February 1859 on the life and work of d’Orbigny, who had died in 1857, Gaudry explained that these intermediate species “restore the links which were missing in the great chain of beings.” He repeated here almost verbatim the expression used in 1833 by the founder of evolutionary paleontology, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, regarding the fossil remains of Auvergne.

Published nine months before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Gaudry’s article drew no inspiration whatever from the ideas of the English naturalist, as Gaudry subsequently indicated. For him, biological evolution resulted from a continuous creation by God. He did not destroy His previous creations (as d’Orbigny believed); rather, He maintained the species through time, perfecting and transforming them until the sublime masterpiece-man-was finally attained. Each transformation reflected the infinite beauty of God, as Gaudry wrote (1862) in his great monograph on Attica, in which he established, following extensive research, remarkable genealogical trees of five large groups of mammals. Several years later he proposed dating stratigraphic terrains according to the degree of evolution of the fossils they contained, and he applied this new method successfully to the mammals of the Tertiary in Animaux fossiles du Mont-Léberon (1873).

From 1866 to 1892 Gaudry studied very small reptiles and batrachians, remarkable for their archaic anatomical type and great age, since they originated in the schists of Autun (Sâone-et-Loire), which date from the Lower Permian. He also had a marked predilection for the Quaternary. His thorough excavations at St.-Acheul, near Amiens, in September 1859 removed the last doubts concerning the contemporaneity of man and the large extinct mammals. In 1894 Gaudry confirmed that the archaic chipped flints of Abbeville (Somme) were associated with the teeth of the advanced Elephas meridionalis, a finding which placed the appearance of man very far back in time. But the majority of geologists, even his favorite student, Marcellin Boule, refused-wrongly-to believe him, despite his great reputation.

Gaudry’s friend and biographer, Gustave-Frédéric Dollfus, remarked: “There are some ideas so advanced that they triumph only after the disappearance of the generation which fought them; Gaudry lived long enough to witness the progressive spread of his doctrine.” Nevertheless, during the major portion of his scientific career Gaudry encountered the animosity of the older naturalists, who reproached him for wanting to make paleontology an independent science capable of providing support for the theory of evolution. Fortunately, Gaudry’s family and that of his wife were wealthy and had important connections. In 1868 Victor Duruy, the eminent minister of education under Napoleon III, placed Gaudry in charge of a course in paleontology at the Sorbonne and attended the inaugural lecture. In 1871, when Duruy was no longer minister, the course was canceled. In 1872 Gaudry was finally appointed professor of paleontology at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. His colleagues removed from his laboratory the bulk of the paleontology collections, even those that he himself had assembled, and gave them to the professor of comparative anatomy; they were not returned to Gaudry until 1878. In 1885 he began to carry out, in a wooden shed, the project he had conceived in 1859: a museum of evolution where the public would follow, from room to room, the perfecting of the species.

For Gaudry the theory of evolution bore a spiritual message: Living beings form one family, one great unity, which has become more perfect through time; intelligence, created last, has not completed its development; God is the sole fixed point of this universe where everything is changing; if life is an immense progression, then “he who says progression says union, [and] he who says union says love. The great law which rules life is a law of love .” Wishing to spread this message, so different from Darwin’s, Gaudry devoted time to writing works of high-level popularization. They were presented in a limpid style that revealed his artistic sensibility and were illustrated by beautiful wood engravings. His most important book, published in three volumes under the title Les enchaînements du monde animal (1878–1890), was concluded by Essai de paléontologie philosophique (1896).

In 1902 paleontologists throughout the world celebrated Gaudry’s jubilee. He was the first who ventured to reestablish the respectability of the evolutionary paleontology founded by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and only paleontology could prove that biological evolution was a tangible reality.


I. Original Works. A list of Gaudry’s scientific writings, in the notice by Thévenin (see below), consists of 191 titles. The Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers (II, 784–785; VII, 744–745; IX, 972–973; XV, 228–229) lists 135 titles published in periodicals (excluding nonscientific journals) to 1900. Gaudry also published two Notices sur les travaux scientifiques d’ A. Gaudr) y (Paris, 1878, 1881), in which he commented on his works.

His principal writings are “Alcide d’Orbigny, ses voyages, et ses travaux,” in Revue des deux mondes, 19 (1859), 816–847; “Contemporanéité de l’espèce humaine et des diverses espéces animales aujourd’hui éteintes,” read to the Academy of Sciences on 3 Oct. 1859, in L’Institut, sec. I, no. 1344 (5 Oct. 1859), pp. 317–318-despite its title this journal had no connection with the Académic des Sciences, which did not publish the note; Animaux fossiles et géologic de l’Attique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1862–1867); “La théorie de l’évolution et la détermination des terrains,” in Revue des cours scientifiques (18 Dec. 1869); Animaux fossiles du Mont-Léberon (Paris, 1873), written with P. Fisher and R. Tournoüer; “Les reptiles de l’époque permienne aux environs d’Autun,” in Bulletin de la Société géologique de France, 3rd ser ., 7 (1878), 62–77; Les enchaînements du monde animal dans les temps géologiques, 3 vols. (Paris, 1878–1890); Mammiféres tertiaires (1878): Fossiles prim aires (1883); Fossiles secondaires (1890)-the first vol. was translated into German as Die Vorfahren der Saugetiere in Europa (Leipzig, 1892); and Materiaux pour l’histoire des temps quaternaires, 4 fascs. (Paris, 1876–1892), the last fascicle in collaboration with Marcellin Boule.

II. Secondary Literature. Armand Thevenin, “Albert Gaudry, notice necrologique,” in Bulletin de la Societe geologique de France, 3rd ser ., 10 (1910), 35 1–374, includes a portrait, a bibliography of his works, and a list of fourteen biographical notices. A notice by P. Glangeaud appears in English in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1919, publication no. 1969, pp. 417–429. See also the biography by Gustave-Frederic Dollfus, Albert Gaudry 1827–1908 (Paris, 1909), repr. from Journal de conchyliologie, 57 (1909), 274–278.

Franck Bourdier