Heckel, Édouard-Marie

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(b. Toulon, France, 24 March 1843; d. Marseille, France, 20 January 1916),

economic botany, colonial sciences, materia medica.

Heckel excelled in the applied natural history of exotic floras. Partisan of the French colonial mission, his entrepreneurial and administrative skills found application in Marseille as the city embraced its colonial vocation. His career divides naturally into two periods; the first spent voyaging as a naval pharmacist; the second, dating from the 1870s, spent largely in Marseille.

Heckel’s father, Joseph Heckel, was a naval infantry captain. His mother, Elise Breillot Heckel, died shortly after his birth. Heckel, who was reared by a religious confraternity, entered Toulon’s naval medical school as a pharmacy student at age sixteen. Two years later, in 1861, he sailed to the Antilles. Heckel regarded this assignment, where he surveyed local flora for potential therapeutic agents, as formative to his scientific career. Promoted at age twenty-two to chief of naval pharmacy for New Caledonia, he found himself characterized by his superiors as an impoverished bachelor of considerable intelligence but his service was considered slow and delivered without enthusiasm. In contrast, Heckel was extremely diligent in preparing for examinations, gaining promotion to pharmacist of the first class with a thesis on the toxicology of mussels (1867) and winning a medical degree (1869) and doctorate in natural sciences (1875), all from Montpellier. A delegate to the Sydney Intercolonial Exposition of 1870, he botanized widely in Australia and undertook additional investigations in Java, Sumatra, Indochina, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and elsewhere.

Heckel’s scientific voyaging ended after service as a physician during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). Taking medical leave from the navy in 1871, he soon married Marie Rosalie Raboisson of Nantes. Their son, Francis, born 31 August 1872, later obtained a medical degree (1897) and collaborated with Émile Roux of the Institut Pasteur. Bouts of anemia, intermittent fevers, and chronic bronchitis, complaints common to naval physicians, wracked the senior Heckel. Also troubled by sciatica, he resigned in 1874.

After transitory posts at the science faculties of Montpellier and Grenoble, and possibly the pharmaceutical school at Nancy, Heckel assumed the chair of botany at the Marseille Faculty of Sciences on 3 November 1877, a post he held until 1913. Heckel, of Alsatian heritage, gained international renown and maintained ties with colleagues in Nancy and Strasbourg after France’s defeat in 1870–1871 gave Alsace to Germany. He coauthored more than fifty publications with Charles-Frédéric Schlagdenhauffen of Nancy’s École Supérieure de Pharmacie; the two investigated oleaginous plants, antimalarial and other botanical therapies, and soap manufacture. Heckel also translated into French Charles Darwin’s Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876; trans. 1877), The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877; trans. 1878), and The Power of Movement in Plants (1880; trans. 1882).

Heckel’s best-known research, on African kola plants, merited the Bussy prize from the Association Générale des Pharmaciens de France (1883) and a Barbier prize from the Académie des Sciences (1885). Schlagdenhauffen and Heckel focused on kola’s botanical, chemical, and therapeutic potential and identified a physiologically active substance, kola-red, as something additional to caffeine, tannin, and cacao’s chief alkaloid, theobromine. Heckel, in a series of ingenious studies linking laboratory and field, championed the efficacy and medicinal specificity of kola-red, later determined to be a kola-tannate of caffeine. Dr. Germain Sée challenged the field study methodology, and conclusions, of Heckel’s investigations before the Académie de Médecine. The patriotic Heckel promoted kola cakes to the army as a way to reduce the fatigues of march and campaign. Though the cakes received glowing attestations from horse owners, who administered them to their animals, as well as from members of bicycle clubs, mountain climbers, soldiers, and others who participated in field trials that compared the effects of caffeine with kola cakes, both the military and general public failed to adopt the product.

Heckel led several local scientific institutions. Serving for two years as director of Marseille’s museum of natural history, he resigned in 1879 upon being appointed as professor of materia medica at the municipal medical school. Vitally committed to his adopted city, he was also a member of the Council of Hygiene and an administrator for the city’s hospices. In 1885 the city council named him director of the municipal botanical garden, where he conducted studies on the acclimatization of exotic plants. His long career also included service on the Marseille city council and on the departmental council for the department of Var.

Though remembered as the founder of Marseille’s Institut Colonial and Musée Colonial, both founded in 1893 and inaugurated in 1896, his colleague on the faculty of sciences, the professor of geology Gaston Vasseur, had proposed similar schemes to link science with colonial exploration, commerce, and governance. The Institut Colonial and Musée Colonial undertook scientific evaluation and promotion of products derived from colonial flora and fauna. Until its closure in 1962 the Musée Colonial displayed, interpreted, and promoted colonial products to the larger public, primary school students, and researchers. Heckel’s special genius was securing funds from the Chambre de Commerce and mobilizing support for scientific institutions. The Chambre de Commerce, which sponsored many scientific and technological initiatives in the city, funded six teaching chairs on colonial subjects including botany, history, geography, climatology, hygiene, and parasitology. In 1899 the city council allocated funds for an additional five courses on colonial subjects including exotic pathology and bacteriology, a clinical course for tropical diseases, and materia medica. The largess of the Chambre de Commerce and municipality, Heckel’s administrative acumen, and the addition in 1905 of the “Pharo,” the army’s new postgraduate school of colonial medicine, made Marseille the premier city in France for the study of colonial medical and scientific topics.

Heckel also labored for colonial causes as an organizer of the colonial section for the 1900 Universal Exposition at Paris and as one of two coorganizers for the lavish 1906 Marseille Colonial Exposition. Many honors flowed to Heckel, including election to corresponding membership in the rural economy section of the Académie des Sciences on 11 November 1907. Interested in plant geography as well as applied natural history, he served as president of the Société de Géographie de Marseille from 1909 to 1912.


A partial list of publications may be found in Royal Society of London, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, vol. 7, p. 932; vol. 10 ,p. 174; vol. 12, p. 320; vol. 15, pp. 711–713. Manuscript sources include L’Alcazar—Bibliothèque Municipale à Vocation Régionale, Marseilles (Archives of the Société de Géographie de Marseille); Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, 1 M 104 (Legion of Honor application of 1898); and “Edouard Marie Heckel,” Service historique de la défense (Marine), Vincennes, CC 7 Alpha 1160 (information on health, naval service, and marriage).


“Expériences comparés entre l’action du kola et le la caféine sur la fatigue et l’essoufflement provenant des grandes marches.” Marseille Médicale 27 (1890): 587–598, 649–665.

Les kolas africains, monographie botanique, chimique, thérapeutique& pharmacologique (Emploi stratégique et alimentaire: Commerce). Paris: Société d’Éditions Scientifiques, 1893.

With others. L’Institut et le Musée colonial de Marseille. Paris: Henri Roberge, 1900.

With Cyprien Mandine. L’enseignement colonial en France et à l’étranger. Marseille, France: Barlatier, 1907. Reviews pedagogy and courses on the colonial sciences.


Aillaud, Georges J. “Edouard Heckel, un savant organisateur: De la botanique appliquée à l’Exposition coloniale de 1906.” Provence historique 43, no. 172 (1993): 153–165.

———. “Le jardin d’essai colonial de Marseille.” In Le jardin entre science et représentation: [actes du 120e Congrès national des sociétés historiques et scientifiques, 23–29 octobre 1995, Aixen-Provence], edited by Jean-Louis Fischer, 79–90. Paris: Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques, 1999.

———. “Édouard Heckel et l’Institut colonial de Marseille.” In Désirs d’ailleurs: Les expositions colonials de Marseille 1906 et 1922, Archives municipals de Marseille, 45–53. Marseille, France: Éditions alors hors du temps, 2006.

Chevalier, Auguste. “L’oeuvre du Dr. Édouard Heckel.” Bulletin de la Société d’Acclimatation, no. 5 (1916): 145–151.

Labrude, Pierre. “Le professeur Heckel à Nancy (1873–1876), sa longue et fructueuse collaboration avec le professeur Schlagdenhauffen.” Bulletin de Liaison-Association des Amis du Musée de la Pharmacie (Montpellier) 22 (1997): 57–65.

Lacroix, Alfred. Notice historique sur quatre botanistes, membre ou correspondants de l’Académie des sciences, ayant travaillé pour la France d’outre-mer de la fin du siècle dernier à nos jours. Lecture faite en la séance annuelle du 19 décembre, 1938. Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1938. Contains biographical materials on Heckel and his protégé and successor, Henri Jumelle.

Michael A. Osborne