Liais, Emmanuel-Bernardin

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(b. Cherbourg, France, 15 February 1826; d. Cherbourg, 5 March 1900),

astronomy, meteorology, instrumentation, scientific institutions and expeditions.

Liais is known for his initiative in the creation and organization of scientific institutions such as Cherbourg’s National Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the French meteorological telegraphic network, and the National Observatory of Brazil. He also contributed to the improvement of scientific instruments such as the recording barometer, the electric clock, and the altazimuth. Finally, under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, he devoted himself to the exploration of Brazil’s nature and to the popularization of natural sciences in Europe.

Early Works . The only son of Anténor Liais and MathildeFrançoise Dorey, a bourgeois couple, Emmanuel-Bernardin Liais was born in Cherbourg, an important seaport situated in Normandy. In the local secondary school he received awards for his achievements in mathematics and natural sciences, but he had no formal scientific training. His scientific interests during those early years focused on a variety of subjects, particularly in the domains of instrumentation and meteorology. Many experiments and observations were described in papers sent to scientific societies. Among them, a series of regular meteorological observations made in his homeland attracted the attention of François Arago, the secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences and director of the Paris Observatory.

Liais entered the Paris Observatory in the beginning of 1854 on Arago’s recommendation, even though the observatory was already under the leadership of Arago’s successor Urbain Le Verrier. There is no empirical evidence that Liais entered the Paris Observatory before 1854, when Le Verrier was nominated its director, and it was under Le Verrier’s patronage that he achieved successive promotions and the Légion d’Honneur. Liais helped the latter implement a telegraphic meteorological network centered at the observatory and spread throughout France, adapting the meteorological instruments for the use of telegraph operators. During this short stay at the observatory Liais developed a recording barometer and an electric chronograph. Most significantly, under the influence of Adolphe Quetelet, he applied the concept of atmospheric waves in a famous study on the path of the Balaklava storm, presented at the Paris Academy of Sciences on 31 December 1855. Based on this work, Le Verrier justified the wide institutional reform then underway, demonstrating the feasibility of providing weather forecasts to French stations and seaports.

Voyages to Brazil . Liais left the Paris Observatory in the beginning of 1858, after a disagreement with Le Verrier. With the excuse of observing the total solar eclipse of 7 September 1858, he traveled to Brazil, initially at his own expense, and worked there for almost two decades. The eclipse observation gave birth to different scientific studies, including pioneer experimentation on the use of photography for determining longitudes during such events. In 1860 he became involved in another controversy with Le Verrier. Liais was one of the first scientists to deny the existence of a new planet, named “Vulcan,” mathematically predicted by Le Verrier and supposedly observed by Edmond Modeste Lescarbault.

Once in Brazil, Liais took the opportunity to explore its territory in expeditions, funded by the Brazilian government, toward the northeastern coast and the inland of Minas Gerais. In the town of Olinda, where a temporary observatory was erected, he discovered a new comet on 26 February 1860. During the exploration of the tropical forests around Rio de Janeiro, he identified and described a new botanical genus, which he named Pradosia, rendering homage to his closest Brazilian friend and collaborator, Camilo Maria Ferreira Armond, the viscount of Prados.

The Brazilian government sponsored the publication of three books based on the results of his expeditions. During short visits to France, Liais also published two books addressed to the general public: L’Espace Céleste et la Nature Tropicale, a voluminous text that was both a scientific treatise on physical astronomy and a picturesque narrative of his travels in Brazil, and Suprématie intel-lectuelle de la France, a pamphlet against the myth of German racial superiority, written under the impact of the French defeat to Prussia. On the basis of his previous works and especially the hydrographical and cartographical surveys accomplished in Minas Gerais, he meanwhile applied to the Paris Academy of Sciences in January 1866, without success.

The last years spent in Brazil were dedicated to the organization of the National Observatory, located in Rio de Janeiro. Under the patronage of the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II, Liais was director of this institution between 26 August 1870 and 1 May 1881. He improved its facilities, acquired new instruments, and succeeded in training a small number of employees, including the Belgian Louis Cruls, who would become his successor. These achievements were acknowledged on many occasions, such as the International Exhibition of Vienna in 1873, when an alt-azimuth designed by him was granted an award. However, international recognition did not prevent the eruption of bitter controversy with a group of Brazilian engineers, which finally led to his decision to leave Brazil.

Political Activities . Liais returned to France in 1881, but after preparing a new edition of L’Espace Céleste and securing the participation of the Brazilian Observatory in the International Transit of Venus Conference, he abandoned his scientific career. Back in Cherbourg he turned to politics. He was mayor between 1884 and 1886, when he resigned, and again between 1892 and 1900, having been reelected for the post in 1896.

In this late period of his life, he was nominated president of Cherbourg’s Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, a local scientific society that he cofounded in 1852 with Théodose du Moncel and Auguste Le Jolis. By that time he was already a member of many other scientific societies, such as the French Meteorological Society and the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute. More significantly, the patronage of Le Verrier in his youth and of Dom Pedro II during his stay in Brazil rendered him the nomination to the Légion d’honneur and to the Imperial Order of the Rose.

When Liais died in 1900, he was a widower. His wife Margaritha Trouwen had died in 1874 from a tropical fever, and they never had children. His properties in Cherbourg were donated to the city, under the condition of being used for the benefit of science. In fact, the Emmanuel Liais Park hosts the scientific society that Liais helped to create, and still has tropical greenhouses and an unfinished astronomical tower.


The Emmanuel Liais Archives are in the Cherbourg National Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Cherbourg, France. Official documents can be found in the archives of the observatories of Paris and Rio de Janeiro. There is also a voluminous correspondence between Liais and Dom Pedro II deposited in the Archives of the Imperial Museum of Brazil, Petrópolis, Brazil.


“Sur la tempête de la mer Noire, en novembre 1854.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 41 (1855): 1197–1204. “Relation des travaux exécutés par la Commission astronomique chargée par le Gouvernement brésilien d’observer dans la ville de Paranagua l’éclipse totale du soleil qui a eu lieu le 7 septembre 1858.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 47 (1858): 786–792.

Influence de la mer sur les climats; ou Résultats des observations météorologiques faites à Cherbourg en 1848, 1849, 1850, 1851. Paris: Mallet-Bachelier; Cherbourg: Bedelfontaine et Syffert, Imp., 1860.

“Observations astronomiques et physiques sur la comète découverte à Olinda le 26 février 1860, et éléments de la même comète.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 50 (1860): 1089–1093.

“Sur la nouvelle planète annoncée par M. Lescarbault.” Astronomische Nachrichten 52, no. 1248 (1860): 370–378.

“Détermination de la longitude de Paranagua au moyen d’épreuves photographiques de l’éclipse du 7 septembre 1858.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 53 (1861): 29–32.

L’Espace Céleste et la Nature Tropicale; ou Description Physique de l’Univers d’après des observations personnelles faites dans les deux hémisphères. Paris: Garnier Frères, [1865].

Hydrographie du Haut San-Francisco et du Rio das Velhas; ou Résultats au point de vue hydrographique d’un voyage effectué dans la province de Minas-Geraes. Paris: Garnier Frères; Rio de Janeiro: B.L. Garnier, 1865. A first report on the scientific expedition to Minas Gerais, containing an analysis of the navigability of the São Francisco and Das Velhas rivers and fully illustrated with maps.

Traité d’Astronomie appliquée à la Géographie et à la Navigation suivi de la Géodesie pratique. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1867. A handbook on astronomical instruments and the physical theories behind them, published at the Brazilian government’s expense.

Climats, Géologie, Faune et Géographie botanique du Brésil. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1872. In this book Liais plunged into the domain of nineteenth-century natural history, putting momentarily aside his alleged preference for astronomy.

Suprématie intellectuelle de la France: Réponse aux allégations germaniques. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1872.


Ancellin, Jacques. “Un homme de science du XIXème siècle: l’astronome Emmanuel Liais.” In Mémoires de la Société Nationale des Sciences Naturelles et Mathématiques de Cherbourg 57, edited by M. Maurice Durchon. Coutances, France: Imprimerie OCEP, 1975–1978. The most comprehensive available biography.

Barboza, Christina Helena. “Nice Weather, Meteors at the End of the Day.” In From Beaufort to Bjerknes and Beyond: Critical Perspectives on Observing, Analyzing, and Predicting Weather and Climate, edited by Stefan Emeis and Cornelia Lüdecke. Augsburg, Germany: Dr. Erwin Rauner Verlag, 2005. An account of Liais’s contribution to the creation of a telegraphic meteorological network in France.

Mourão, Ronaldo Rogério de Freitas. “Liais, Emmanuel.” In

Dicionário Enciclopédico de Astronomia e Astronáutica. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1995. A concise but very accurate biography of Liais.

Pyenson, Lewis. “Functionaries and Seekers in Latin America: Missionary Diffusion of the Exact Sciences, 1850–1930.” Quipu 2 (1985): 387–420. In one of the few available texts in English devoted to Liais’s scientific accomplishments, the author examines particularly his role in the establishment of a French tradition in the National Observatory of Brazil.

Christina Helena Barboza