Lesson, René-Primev

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Lesson, René-Primevère

(b. Cabane-Carée, Rochefort, France, 20 March 1794; d. Rochefort, 28 April 1849),

natural history, scientific exploration.

The son of a navy clerk of modest means, Lesson had had little formal education when in 1809, not yet sixteen years old, he entered the naval medical school of Rochefort. Lesson was largely self-taught in natural history, which became a lifelong passion. In 1811, he was conscripted into the navy as a third-class auxiliary surgeon, serving on several French ships and seeing action against the British. He qualified as officier de santé in 1816, competed successfully for third-class navy pharmacist that same year, and was promoted to second-class pharmacist in 1821. By this time, Lesson had also made a botanical survey of the Rochefort region, which was published much later (Flore Rochefortine, 1835). Lesson would probably have remained an obscure naturalist had he not embarked in 1822 on the corvette Coquille for a voyage of scientific exploration and discovery which dramatically altered his life and brought him into national prominence.

On 11 August 1822, the Coquillesailed from Toulon, commanded by Duperrey with J.-S.-C. Dumont d’Urville second in command and responsible for acquisitions in botany and entomology. The other two naturalists, Garnot and Lesson, also served as medical officers; Garnot’s fieldwork covered mammals and birds, while Lesson was assigned fish, mollusks, crustaceans, zoophytes, and geology. Among the places visited by the Coquille were Tenerife, Brazil, the Falkland Islands, Chile, Peru, Tahiti, New Ireland, the Moluccas, and Australia, where Garnot was forced by illness to leave the expedition in January 1824, and Lesson assumed his scientific and medical duties. The Coquille proceeded to New Zealand, the Caroline Islands, New Guinea, Java, Mauritius, Réunion, and St. Helena, finally landing at Marseilles on 24 March 1825.

On 18 July 1825, Cuvier and Latreille reported to the Academy of Sciences on the expedition’s zoological data and collections, which had been deposited at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Lesson and Garnot were praised for bringing back hitherto unknown species of birds, reptiles, fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Lesson was also cited for his remarkable colored illustrations of fish and mollusks and for his valuable aid to Dumont d’Urville for the insect collection. A later report on the voyage of the Coquille, made by Arago to the Academy on 22 August 1825, mentioned 330 geological specimens brought back by Lesson.

For Lesson, the four years of leave in Paris from 1825 to 1829 were his most productive scientifically. He wrote furiously, published the results of his voyage, studied, and made friends with outstanding naturalists and scientists of the capital. Upon his return to Rochefort he taught botany at the naval medical school and in 1831 was made professor of pharmacy. A succession of promotions culminated in 1835 with his appointment as the top-ranking navy pharmacist (premier Pharmacien en chef) for Rochefort. In 1833 he was elected a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences.

Lesson occupies a prominent place among French naturalist-voyagers of the period, namely F. Péron, Quoy, Gaimard, Garnot, Dumont d’Urville, and C. Gaudichaud-Beaupré. Lesson’s numerous publications encompassed virtually all aspects of natural history, and included some archaeology, ethnography, and folklore, but his most important contributions were to zoology. Particularly significant was his work in ornithology, especially his writings on hummingbirds and birds of paradise.


I. Original Works. Among Lesson’s more important publications are Manuel de mammalogie, ou histoire naturelle des mammifères... (Paris, 1827); Manuel d’ ornithologie, ou description des genres et des principales espéces d’oiseaux..., 2 vols. (Paris, 1828); Voyage médical autour du monde, exécuté sur la corvette du Roi la coquille... (Paris, 1829); Zoologie du voyage autour du monde... (Paris, 1829), written with P. Garnot, and with F.-E. Guérin-Méneville for the entomological part; Histoire naturelle des oiseaux-mouches... (Paris, 1829-1830); Histoire naturelle des colibris... (Paris, 1830-1831); Les trochilidées, ou colibris et les oiseaux-mouches... (Paris, 1830-1831); Manuel d’ histoire naturelle médicale et de pharmacographie... (Paris, 1833); Manuel d’ ornithologie domestique, ou guide de l’ amateur des oiseaux de volière... (Paris,1834); and Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis... et des épimaques (Paris, 1835).

For additionl listings of Lesson’s publications, see Catalogue général des livres imprimés de la Bibliothèque Nationale, XCVI (Paris, 1929), 409-415; and British Museum, General Catalogue of Printed Books, CXXXV (London, 1962), 834-835. A comprehensive bibliography of Lesson’s articles is given in Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863), III, 971-975.

II. Secondary Literature. A detailed account of Lesson’s life and work is given by Louis Rallet, “Un naturaliste saintongeais: René-Primevère Lesson (1794-1849),” in Annales de la Société des sciences naturelles de la Charente-Maritime, n.s. 3 (May, 1953), 77-131.

Other sources include John Dunmore, French Explorers of the Pacific, vol. II, The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1969), 109-155, and Passim; Nouvelle biographie générale, J. C. F. Hoefer, ed., XXIX, 972-974; and J. Léonard, Les officiers de santé de la marine française de 1814 à 1835 (Paris, 1967), 129-133, 236-237, and passim. Brief biographies can be found in Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne, L. G. Michaud and J. F. Michaud, eds., new ed., XXIV, 330-331; and La Grande encyclopédie, XXII, 103.

Alex Berman