Orbigny, Alcide Charles Victor Dessalines D’

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(b. Couëron, Loire-Atlantique, France, 6 September 1802; d. Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, near Saint-Denis, France, 30 June 1857)


D’Orbigny’s father, Charles-Marie Dessalines d’Orbigny, came from Santo Domingo. After serving as a naval doctor, he practiced medicine in Couëron and finally in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. He was an enthusiastic scientist and often took his sons Alcide and Charles collecting with him on excursions along the coast near their house. As a result of this experience, Alcide decided on a career in science. In 1819 he began systematic zoological research, studying in Paris under Cordier. In June 1826 he left for South America on a commission for the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle and did not return until March 1834. During these eight years he traveled through the entire continent, making extensive scientific studies under difficult and often dangerous conditions. At the time, much of the continent had been explored only slightly or not at all.

Following his return d’Orbigny spent the rest of his life in Paris, except for brief periods of travel. He was but little concerned about his career. Because of his novel, unorthodox ideas and hypotheses, he had many opponents among his French colleagues. The zoologists dismissed his taxonomic and systematic works and his views concerning the geographic distribution of animals. Many geologists opposed his stratigraphic conceptions. His division of the history of the earth into stages evoked repeated criticism. Lastly, zoologists and geologists were united against him; they thought that paleontology was not an independent science, but that it was only the zoology and botany of fossil organisms.

Consequently, d’Orbigny’s initial attempt to obtain a professorship in Paris was unsuccessful. In 1853 a government decree finally created—especially for him—a chair of paleontology at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle; the position still exists. Although with his appointment to this chair he had attained his life’s goal, he had become embittered by the years of hostility and criticism from his colleagues. He thought that he could forget this adversity by working harder, but the increased activity helped undermine his health and he died of a heart ailment, which had caused him much pain during the last year of his life. D’Orbigny was survived by a wife and children. He was a member of many scientific societies and academies in France and abroad, and on two occasions he won the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London.

D’Orbigny’s first scientific publications were brief studies of recent and Jurassic gastropods and of the masticatory apparatus of the nautiluses. From 1819 much of his early research was devoted to recent and fossil Foraminifera. After seven years of work in this field, he published Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes (1826). In Lamarck’s classification the protozoans were still grouped under the cephalopods. D’Orbigny accepted this view, but he separated—under the name Foraminifera—the microscopic forms from the other cephalopods. His classification encompassed five classes, fifty-three genera, and 600 species. He based his classification on the number and arrangement of the chambers of the shell. Among the forms that he described were living taxa from South America, the Canary Islands, Cuba, and the Antilles. He also described Cretaceous fossils from the Paris Basin and Tertiary fossils from the Vienna Basin. Although d’Orbigny knew the entire group of Foraminifera better than anyone else at the time, he did not grasp their true systematic position. This was first perceived in 1835 by Dujardin, who discovered their protozoan nature and grouped them with the infusorians.

Between 1834 and 1847 d’Orbigny published in ten volumes the results of his eight-year expedition to South America. The material—which extended to zoology, geography, geology, paleontology, ethnography, and anthropology—constituted the most detailed description of a continent ever made. While supervising this publication, d’Orbigny was occupied with many other projects. With Férussac he published Histoire naturelle des Céphalopodes vivants et fossiles (1839-1848). He wrote the sections on mollusks, echin-oderms, sponges, and Foraminifera for Webb and Berthelot’s Histoire naturelle des îles Canaries (1839-1840) and the sections on ornithology, Foraminifera, and mollusks for Ramon de la Sagra’s Histoire naturelle de Cuba et des Antilles (1839-1843). His Histoire naturelle des Crinoides appeared in 1840 and his Galérie ornithologique des Oiseaux d’Europe in 1836-1838 in fifty-two installments. He was the author of a series of paleontological monographs, including one on the Foraminifera of the Upper Cretaceous of the Paris Basin (1840) and one on the Mesozoic and Tertiary fossils of European Russia and of the Ural Mountains (in the great work by Murchison, P. E. de Verneuil, and Keyserling [1845]). Finally, he published a series of brief studies on Cretaceous and Jurassic ammonites, belemnites, and gastropods, on Cretaceous Rudista, and on Tertiary Sepioideans.

From 1840 until his death, d’Orbigny was involved with the publication of his principal work, Paléontologie française. In this work he set forth the paleontology and the stratigraphic distribution of all the known forms of mollusks, echinoderms, brachiopods, and bryozoans found in the French Jurassic and Cretaceous deposits. For many years this critical catalog was of great assistance to French geologists and stratigraphers. A notable feature of the work was its treatment of the bryozoans. With the exception of isolated works by other authors, there had previously existed no comprehensive survey of the bryozoans. D’Orbigny provided a critical synthesis of all the living and fossil forms of this phylum, which embraced 1,929 species, of which 879 species came from the Cretaceous period alone. D’Orbigny did not complete Paléontologie française. After his death the work was continued, with the aid of the French Geological Society, by Cotteau, Deslongchamps, Piette, De Loriol, and Fromentel, but it was never finished.

D’Orbigny published a still more comprehensive paleontological work, Prodrome de paléontologie stratigraphique universelle (1850-1852). It consisted of critical lists of all the fossil mollusks and of other invertebrate groups, which were arranged according to their stratigraphic distribution. D’Orbigny made consistent use of this novel approach and divided the sediments and their fossil contents into twenty-seven stages (étages). The stages were named for localities or regions and all were spelled with the same -ian ending (-ien in French)—Silurian, Callovian, Aptian, Cenomanian, and so forth. Furthermore, the stages were designated by characteristic fossils, and the 18,000 species under consideration were divided into twenty-seven stages.

In this manner d’Orbigny obtained twenty-seven successive extinct faunas. He examined the faunas and ascertained that most species in any given stage no longer appeared in the next younger one; rather, they were replaced by new species. He therefore arrived at a conception of successive destructions and creations of animals in the course of the earth’s history. This conception corresponded to the views that Cuvier had set forth in his theory of catastrophism. The theory of evolution has put an end to all such ideas about new creations, including d’Orbigny’s. Nevertheless, the term and important elements of the concept of the stage are still valid, and many of the names that d’Orbigny created for the stages remain in use. D’Orbigny may thus be considered one of the founders of modern biostratigraphy. In Prodrome d’Orbigny presented a great number of new species, but did not illustrate them. Between 1906 and 1937 the Annales de paléontologie (volumes 1-26) published the expanded diagnoses and illustrations of a large portion of the types first described by d’Orbigny.

With the publication of Prodrome and of another basic work with similar aims, Cours élémentaire de paléontologie el de géologie stratigraphiques (1849-1852), d’Orbigny established the close and enduring connection between invertebrate paleontology and stratigraphic geology that has proved so fruitful for both disciplines.


I. Original Works. D’Orbigny’s works include Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes (Paris, 1826); Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale, 10 vols. (Paris, 1834-1847); Galérie ornithologique des Oiseaux d’Europe (Paris, 1836-1838); Histoire naturelle générale et particulière des Céphalopodes acétabuliféres vivants et fossils, (Paris, 1839-1848), with Férussac; Histoire naturelle générale et particulière des Crinoides vivants et fossiles, comprenant la description zoologique et géologique de ces animaux (Paris, 1840); paléontologie française. Description zoologique et géologique de lous tes animaux mollusques et rayonnės fossiles de France, 8 vols. (Paris, 1840-1856); Cours élémentaire de paléontologie et de géologie stratigraphiques, 3 vols. (Paris, 1849-1852); Prodrome de paléontologie stratigraphique universelle des animaux mollusques et rayonnés, 3 vols. (Paris, 1850-1852).

II.Secondary Literature. On d’Orbigny and his work, see Notice analytique sur les travaux de Gėologie, de paléontologie et de Zoologie de M. Alcide d’Orbigny, 1823-1856 (Paris, 1856); P. Fischer, “Notice sur la vie et sur les travaux d’Alcide d’Orbigny,” in Bulletin de la Société géologique de France, ser. 3, 6 (Paris, 1878), 434-453, which contains a bibliography; A. Gaudry, “Alcide d’Orbigny, ses voyages et ses travaux,” in Revue des Deux Mondes (Paris, 15 February 1859); C. L. V. Monty, “D’Orbigny’s Concepts of Stage and Zone,” in Journal of Paleontology, 42 , no. 3 (1968), 689-701; J. E. Portlock, “Obituary,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 14 (London, 1858), Ixxiii-Ixxix; and K. A. Zittel, Geschichte der Geologie und Paläontologie bis Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich-Leipzig, 1899), pp. 297, 441, 669-670, 692, 696, 705-706, 777, 796, 800, 811.

Heinz Tobien

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