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LacÉPÉde, Bernard-Germain-Étienne De La Ville-Sur-Illon, Comte De

(b. Agen, France, 26 December 1756; d. Épinay-sur-Seine, France, 6 October 1825)


Lacépède was the only son of Jean-Joseph-Médard, comte de La ville, lieutenant general fo the seneschal sy, and the former Marie de Lafond. Teh name Lacépède was take from a maternal granduncle who made Lacépède his heir on condition that he take the name. He ws educated by his father, soon a widower, with the help of the Abbé Carrié and M. de Chabannes, bishop of Agen. At an early age Lacépède acquired a predilection for both science and music. He undertook a series of electrical experiments, began to compose an opera, and was soon corresponding with Buffon and Gluck. In 1777 he left Agen for Paris, where he was commissioned colonel of a German regiment (which he never saw), and appointment befitting his social position.

After an attempt at becoming a professional operacomposer, Lacépède turned fully to science, attempting in his works to imitate the style of his master and model, Buffon. He published the Essai sur l’èlectrictè naturelle et artificelle in 1781 and began a great treatise, Physique gènèrale et particulière, of which only two volumes appeared (1782, 1784). According to Cuvier and Valenciennes, these works were rejected by the academicians for being too hypothetical. Buffon, however, was impressed with Lacépède and invited him to work on the continuation of Buffon’s famous Historie naturelle. Buffon had planned to write the natural history of all the vertebrates but at the time had completed only the viviparous quadrupeds and the birds. Reserving for himself the cetaceans, Buffon asked Lacépède to write the natural history of the reptiles and of the fishes. In order to faciliate this work, Buffon obtained for Lacépède the post of keeper and subdemonstrator at the Cabinet du Roi associated with the Jardin des Plantes. Lacépède’s first volume, Historie naturelle des quadrupèldes ovipares, appeared in 1788 and his second volume, Historie naturelle des serpents, in 1789, after Buffon’s death. Lacépède then completed Buffon’s plan by publishing the Historie naturelle des possions in five volumes from 1798 to 1803 and the Historie naturelle des cètacès in 1804.

During the Revolution, Lacépède occupied several political positions, becoming a deputy to both the consituent Assemby and the Legislative Assembly. He helped formulate plans to reconstitute the Jardin des Plantes into the Musèum d’Historie Naturelle but was forced to resign his position (March 1793) and leave Paris before the law instituting the Musèum was passed in June 1793. Under the constitution of hte Musèum, Geoffroy Saint-Hilarie, who took Lacépède’s place, became professor of vertebrate zoology in the newly established institution. Lacépède remained in exile at Leuville during the Terror, working on the Histoire naturelle des poissons. While at Leuville he married Anne Caroline Gauthier, the widow of a close friend, and adopted her son. When Lacépéde returned to Paris after 9 Thermidor (1794), his former colleagues, who had been working all along to bring him back to the Musèum, induced the government to create a chair for him, a chair of zoology specializing in reptiles and fish. It was in this period that Lacépède attained a reputation among auditors of his lectures as “the successor of Buffon.” When the Institut de France was established in 1795, Lacépède was chosen by the Directory as an original member of the section of anatomy and zoology.

After 1803 Lacépède no longer gave his course at the Musèum, allowing his aide, Constant Dumèril, to perform most of the functions associated with his chair. With the completion in 1804 of Buffon’s Historie naturelle, Lacépède truned to public affairs and to moral and historical writings. Under Napoleon, whom he admired and fully supported, Lacépède took an active role in affairs of state, becoming a senator in 1799 and grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor in 1803. When Napoleon fell, Lacépède retired to Èpinay; and although he served as a peer of France under the Restoration, he devoted most of the remaining years of his life to writing. During this period he published two novels, a natural history of man, and historical works on the development of civilization.

Buffon always remained Lacépède chief mentor; but as his works in natural history progressed, Lacépède came to depend more and more on his close friend Daubenton, who after Buffon’s death became the leading figure in French natural history. Under Daubenton’s influence Lacépède paid increasing attention to exact anatomical description, mainly of external characters, and to the problems of taxonomy. In his history of reptiles Lacépède adopted the Linnaean binomial nomenclature and thereafter prefixed each of his works on natural history with a systematic table of orders, genera, and species and their characters. Lacépède believed that classification, although important, was nonetheless artificial; and he never claimed to be seeking a “natural system.” Rather, he developed on artificial system based on convenient external characters and—merely for the sake of symmetry—often invented taxa for which no species actually existed. In all of his work on natural history Lacépède was able greatly to increase the number of known species by utilizing the resources of the Cabinet du Roi and information sent to the Musèum by voyagers.

However professional Lacépède became, he retained his desire to write in an elegant and elevated style in the manner of Buffon and to relate his knowledge of natural history to the development of man’s material circumstances and moral nature. His broad views on natural history can be found in the discourses contained in each of his contributions to the Histoire naturelle, in the opening and closing lectures of his courses at the Muséum, and in his later historical works.

All of Lacépède’s biographers have noted his reputation for good breeding, generosity, and fairness. Always generous in his judgement of others, he was popular among his colleagues.


I. Original Works. Apart from the scientific works mentioned in the text, Lacépède’s Discoours d’ouverture et de clōture de cours d’histoire naturelle (1798–1801) and his Histoire naturelle de l’homme (1827) ought to be noted. There are several nineteenth-century eds. of his major writings. The material has been somewhat rearranged, however, and important discourses have been left out of later eds. of the Historire naturelle des posissons, notably “Troisiéme vue de la nature” and “Discours sur la durée des espèces.” One should therefore consult the original eds. if possible. A fairly complete list of books published by Lacépède can be found in Biographie universelle, new ed., XXII, 345–346. This should be supplemented by the listings in the Catalogue général de la Bibliothéque nationale, LXXXXIV, 1030–1043, esp. for later des. and for Lacépède’s political writings. A list of Lacépède’s chief memoris can be found in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III, 789–790.

II. Secondary Literature. There is a full-length biography of Lacépède written by a later occupant of his chair at the museum: Louis Roule, Lacépède et la sociologie human itaire selon la nature (Paris, 1932), vol. VI in Roule’s L’histoire de la nature vivante d’aprés l’oeuvre des grands naturalistes francais. An earlier version can be found under the title “La vie etl’ oeuvru de Lacépède,” in Mémoires de la Société zoologique de France, 27 (1917), 139–237. EArlier biographical sketches include Georges Cuvier’s often in accurate “Eloge historique de M.le Comte de Lacépède lule 5 juin 1826, “in Méde l’Académie des sciences de l’Institut de France, 8 (1829), ccxii-ccxlviii; Achille valenciennes, “Lacépède,” in Biographie universelle, new ed., XXII, 336–346; and G.-T. Villenave, Éloge historique de M. le Comte de Lacépède (Paris, 1826), which is useful for exposing Lacépède’s personality.

Toby A. Appel