Necker, Louis-Albert,known as Necker De Saussure

views updated


Known as Necker De Saussure (b. Geneva, Switzerland, 10 April 1786; d. Portree, Skye, Scotland, 20 November 1861), geology, mineralogy, zoology.

The name Necker de Saussure represents the union of two illustrious Swiss families. Louis-Alber’s father, Jacques Necker, was professor of botany and a magistrate at Geneva, and the nephew of Louis XVI’s director general of finance (and thus first cousin of Mme de Stael). His mother, Albertine de Saussure, was the daughter of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, the eminent geologist and naturalist.

The eldest of four children, Necker studied at the Academy of Geneva, then went to Edinburgh in 1806 to pursue university studies. Already versed in mineralogy and geology, in Scotland he was exposed to both Huttonian and Wernerian geological doctrines and became personally acquainted with Playfair, Hall, and other Edinburgh intellectuals. After visiting many parts of Scotland, with special attention to geological features, Necker returned to Geneva, where he became a professor of mineralogy and geology at the Academy in 1810. He retained a chair there for over two decades. During these years he traveled widely, sometimes conducting excursions with his students, and undertook geological investigations, especially in the Alps, concentrating particularly on the eastern and western extremities of the Alpine ranges.

During the 1830’s Necker lived restlessly in Edinburgh, London, and Paris, as well as Geneva. He suffered increasingly from depressions that may have stemmed from declining health. Following his mother’s death in 1841, he settled at Portree, Skye. He passed most of his remaining years there as a recluse.

Necker’s scientific work was marked by a deep concern with the special methods and procedures that distinguished geology and mineralogy from other sciences. He emphasized the dependence of mineralogists and geologists upon real characteristics of actual objects, as opposed to abstractions. In mineralogical classification, one of his most serious concerns, he opposed the use of chemical composition as a major taxonomic criterion, viewing chemical entities as fundamentally abstract. A suitable organizational scheme for minerals, he believed, ought to depend on the characteristics that the observer perceives directly in mineral objects. The integrant molecule, in his opinion an abstract conception without real existence, could not define the “individual” that gives meaning to mineral species, whereas the crystal could. Together with zoology and botany, the other branches of natural history, mineralogy was “positive and descriptive,” not speculative. As a member of the tradition of the natural method of classification, Necker claimed inspiration from Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle and Cuvier.

A strong advocate of field observation in geology, Necker presented the first geological map of the whole of Scotland to the Geological Society of London in 1808. Although he resisted committing himself completely to the theoretical schemes of either the Huttonians or the Wernerians, in Scotland Necker did become convinced of the igneous origin of granite. His fieldwork included studies of the volcanoes of Italy; the geological features of parts of Savoy, Carniola, Carinthia, Istria, and Illyria; and the Arran dike swarms. He also investigated the origins of mineral deposits and concluded that metalliferous veins are formed by sublimation from igneous intrusions. In 1832 he gave the Royal Society of Edinburgh an improved “clinometrical compass” of his own design for rapid determination of the positions of strata. As his geological outlook matured, he showed an increasing tendency to favor a uniformitarian approach.

Necker disdained artificial boundaries of scientific specialization. Notable among his publications are studies of birds and of meteorological optical phenomena, including the aurora borealis and parhelia. He was inclined to see links between phenomena conventionally regarded as unrelated, as in his endeavor to establish relationships among temperature, stratigraphic configuration, and magnetic intensity in various geographic locations.


I. Original Works. Necker’s major works include Voyage en Écosse et aux Îles Hébrides, 3 vols. (Geneva, 1821), an appreciative account of Scotland and the character and accomplishments of its inhabitants, with some geological observations; Le règne minèral ramenè aux mèthodes de l’hisloire naturelle, 2 vols. (Paris-Strasbourg, 1835), an expansion of the ideas found in “On Mineralogy Considered as a Branch of Natural History, and Outlines of an Arrangement of Minerals Founded on the Principles of the Natural Method of Classification,” in Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 12 (1832), 209–265; and Etudes geologiques dans les Alpes (Paris-Strasbourg, 1841), dealing with the geology of the environs of Geneva. Later volumes, intended to present results of Necker’s investigations in the eastern Alps and along the southern flank of the Alps, were never published. Much of his research, in fact, was never published, and what did appear in print was sometimes delayed. Partial listings of Necker’s works are given in the Candolle obituary notice, Mèmoires, pp. 455–456, or Verhandhmgen, pp. 276–278; by Eyles, pp. 125–126; and in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV (1870), 581–582, and X (1894), 904.

II. Secondary Literature. A useful recent account is V. A. Eyles, “Louis Albert Necker, of Geneva, and His Geological Map of Scotland,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society,14 (1952), 93–127. Among contemporary biographical sketches the fullest is James David Forbes, “Biographical Account of Professor Louis Albert Necker,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,5 (1862–1866), 53–76. Others include Henri de Saussure, “Nécrologie de M. Louis Necker,” in Revue et magasin de zoologie…, 2nd ser., 13 (1861), 553–555; and an obituary notice by Alphonse de Candolle, in Mémoires de la Société de physique et dViistoire naturelle de Genève,16 (1862), 452–456, also in Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen naturforschenden Gesellschaft, 46 (1862), 272–278. Forbes’s account served as the basis for a “notice biographique” in a republication of Necker’s Mémoire sur les oiseaux des environs de Genève (Geneva-Paris, 1864), pp. 5–45.

Kenneth L. Taylor