Renault, Bernard

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(b.Autun, France, 4 March 1836; d. Paris, France, 16 October 1904)


Renault came from a provincial middle-class family. His father, Lazare Renault, was a bailiff; his mother was Jeanne-Marie Goby. The family was of modest means and made considerable sacrifices to educate its gifted oldest son. He had to supplement the family income, and as early as 1855 he taught in a private school.

Renault’s earliest scientific interest was in physics; his first doctoral dissertation (1867) was in physical chemistry and he published a number of short papers in that field, one of which was translated into German. In 1867 he was appointed teacher of chemistry and physics at the lycée at Cluny.

Through naturalist friends Renault early became interested in Carboniferous and Permian fossil plants, which were abundant around Autun. Some of them were silicified, so that even the microscopic details could be studied. By a happy coincidence Adolphe Brongniart, the founder of scientific paleobotany, was chief inspector of mines and had the official duty to inspect the lycée at Cluny. He met Renault, recognized his capacity, and encouraged him. Renault worked enthusiastically in his spare time, collected many new fossils, invented new and improved old methods for preparing the very tough material, and eagerly reported new discoveries to Brongniart. His first paleobotanical paper was published in 1869. During the Franco-Prussian War, Renault was given a high administrative position on the Committee of National Defense. In 1872 Brongniart summoned him to Paris, first as preparator and from 1876 as assistant naturalist at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, a position he held until his death.

Renault obtained his second doctorate in 1879 with the dissertation “Structure comparée de quelques tiges de la flore carbonifère.” A large work on silicified seeds was started with Brongniart and published under his name in 1881, even though most of the work was done by Renault. His lectures in paleobotany resulted in the four-volume Cours de botanique fossile (1881–1885), which he printed at his own expense.

Renault published more than 200 scientific papers, most of them on Carboniferous and Permian plants. His main contribution in this field was that he amassed an enormous amount of exact information on the microscopic and macroscopic anatomy of the fossil plants. He worked on material that was hard to prepare but which in detail could be observed extraordinarily well. This technique enabled him to combine the separate parts (roots, leaves, stems, fructifications, and spores) into real plants more precisely than ever before. In this respect Renault was certainly a worthy successor to his teacher Brongniart. He did not quite make the great discovery that many of the fernlike plants of the carboniferous flora were really seed ferns, but the studies of that group are largely based on Renault’s keen observations. He also worked with fossil microorganisms and thereby made a great contribution to the understanding of the formation of coal.

Renault was not recognized by his French colleagues, and official and academic honors came late or not at all. He had to do most of the preparation of his difficult material by himself; and the enormous amount of material he prepared, drew, and described is a monument not only to his scientific capacity but also to his diligence and perseverance.


I. Original Works. Renault’s works include “Recherches sur les végétaux silicifiés d’Autun et de St. Étienne, Bulletin de la Société Eduense (1878); “Structure comparée de quelques tiges de la fore carbonifère,” in Nouvelles archives du Muséum d’histoire naturelle, 2nd ser., 2 (1879); Cours de botanique fossile, 4 vols. (Paris, 1881–1885); Les plantes fossiles (Paris, 1888); and “Sur quelques micro-organismes des combustibles fossiles,” Bulletin de la Société de l’industrie minérale de St-Étienne (1899). A complete list of Renault’s scientific papers is in Roche (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography of Renault is by his friend A. Roche, “Biographie de Bernard Renault,” in Bulletin de la Société d’histoire naturelle d’Autun, 18 (1905), 1–159; it includes a complete, annotated bibliography, and 10 plates of illustrations from Renault’s scientific work. D. H. Scott, “Life and Work of Bernard Renault,” in Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society (1906), 129–145, draws heavily on Roche but give a more balanced view of Renault’s scientific importance.

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