Rondelet, Guillaume

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(b. Montpellier, France, 27 September 1507; d. Réalmont, Tarn, France, 30 July 1566)

ichthyology, medicine, anatomy.

Although he was active in several branches of biology, Rondelet’s reputation effectively depends on his massive compendium on aquatic life, which covered far more species than any earlier work in that field. Despite its theoretical limitation, it laid the foundations for later ichthyological research and was the standard reference work for over a century.

Rondelet was the son of a drug and spice merchant who died while Guillaume was a child, leaving him to be brought up by an elder brother. In 1525 Rondelet went to study humanities at Paris but in June 1529 transferred to the Medical Faculty at Montpellier, where he was procurator in 1530 and became friendly with Rabelais, whose character Rondibilis may be based on him. After gaining practical experience as physician and schoolteacher in Pertuis (Vaucluse), he returned to Paris in the mid-1530’s to study anatomy under Johannes Guinter. Rondelet then practiced for a time at Maringues, Puy de Döme, after which he returned to Montpellier, where he graduated M.D. in 1537 and married Jeanne Sandre in 1538. He was effectively supported by his wife’s elder sister until June 1545, when he was appointed regius professor of medicine at Montpellier.

In addition to this post, during the 1540’s Rondelet was personal physician to François Cardinal Tournon, whom he accompanied on visits to Antwerp and to Bordeaux, Bayonne, and other towns on the south-west coast of France, where he learned something of the local whaling industry. In 1549 he went by sea to Rome with the cardinal, for the election of Pope Julius III. On the way home he visited Venice and the university towns of northern Italy. In 1551 Rondelet left the cardinal’s service and returned to Montpellier, where he was elected chancellor of the university in 1556. It was probably at his initiative that the university set up its first anatomy theater in the same year.

In 1554–1555 Rondelet published Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt; the second part is entitled Universae aquatilium historiae pars altera. A French translation, L’histoire entire des poissons, possibly by his pupil Laurent Joubert, appeared in 1558. In his own day Rondelet was almost as well known as an anatomist as a zoologist. A popular lecturer, Rondelet attracted scholars from all over Europe: Coiter and Bauhin; L’Écluse; L’Obel, who inherited his botanical manuscripts; and Daleschamps. Gesner and Aldrovandi also studied briefly under him.

The main title of Rondelet’s great work is a misnomer, and that of the second part should be applied to the whole; in fact the book covers the whole of freshwater as well as marine zoology, and it is not restricted to fish. All aquatic animals are included: marine mammals, arthropods and mollusks, riverine amphibians, and even beavers. The first four books are devoted to general considerations: how fish can be distinguished by their ways of life, parts, actions, “manners and complections”; they constitute, in effect, a treatise on comparative anatomy and physiology. No definite system of classification is adopted, however. Rondelet begins with what he calls “instrumental parts”: the head, then such internal organs as the gills, heart, liver, and kidneys, organs of locomotion and reproduction, and processes such as Garbels. Next he deals with “mixture of elements,” as revealed by taste, smell, color, and “idiosyncrasies,” such as that of the torpedo’s power of stunning all it touches. In book IV Rondelet’s observations on differing systems of digestion, reproduction, and respiration are related to differences in physiological “activities.” He expresses a vague concept of homology: “all parts correspond in proportion to those which have the same use, the same situation, notwithstanding they may be diverse in substance and form.” Aristotelian ideas on the correlation of parts are exploited, as well as teleological attitudes that led him to try to relate form to function and environment. Thus, he notes that scaly fish, without lungs, have only three chambers in their hearts, in contrast with marine mammals, which have four, and tries to explain the association. But Rondelet goes beyond Aristotle—for instance, when he argues that fish need air for their “animal spirits,” taking in water and air (dissolved in water) and expelling the water through their gills—and points to experimental evidence: if fish are kept in a vessel full of water whose lid is closed, they will suffocate. If a small amount of air remains between surface and lid, they appear to struggle to get close to the surface. He attacks those who will not accept the superior authority of experience and tries to base himself on anatomical investigations. He is at his best describing unusual structures or reporting examinations of stomach contents—for instance of a large starfish found on the beach at Maguelonne.

The rest of the work is an encyclopedia of over 300 aquatic animals, almost all of which are illustrated. Each section opens with the subject’s names in several languages, including local variants, and then outlines its way of life, feeding habits, and characteristic anatomical features, both external and internal (gastronomic notes are sometimes added). For those fish he could inspect on the coast of Languedoc, Rondelet is thorough and usually accurate; the work long remained the basic guide to the region. For the rest, not surprisingly, it is less valuable. Although the concept of correlation enabled him to dispose of a “marine lion,” Rondelet is often credulous about sea monsters. Marine mammals are quite well treated; he had dissected the respiratory organs of some smaller Cetacea and gives apparently the first zoological accounts of the sperm whale and the manatee.

After his first wife died in 1560, Rondelet married Tryphène de La Croix. In later years he seems to have been attracted by ideas of religious reform, and by 1563 he was reckoned a member of the Protestant community. A detailed account of Rondelet’s terminal illness in the summer of 1566 reports not only on his symptoms but also on the company and the prayers offered, which have a Huguenot tinge to them.

But Rondelet’s character, as portrayed by Joubert, was hardly Calvinistic: he sounds more Rabelaisian—a great lover of good food, especially sweets and cakes, grapes, and cherries. A keen musician, he constructed a fiddle for himself while a student. When he grew too stout for dancing, lie loved to watch dances and to give balls. Like so many of his day, he had an enthusiastic interest in agriculture and building, and spent much on alteration of his houses. Above all, he was generous and fond of good company, “very merry and a lover of jokes and fun.”


I. Original Works. Rondelet’s major work is Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt: Universae aquatilium historiae pars altera (Lyons, 1554–1555). A minor medical work, De ponderibus, was published during his lifetime (Lyons, 1560), as were a few short treatises in medical compendiums. The principal ed. of his medical writings is that by L. Joubert, Methodus curandorum omnium morborum corporis humani … (Paris, 1573).

II. Secondary Literature. The fundamental source is L. Joubert, “Vita Gulielmi Rondeletii,” written in 1568 and published in his Opera latina, II (Lyon, 1582), 186–93. See also P. Delaunay, La zoologie au seiziéme siécle (Paris, 1962); and J. M. Oppenheimer, “Guillaume Rondelet,” in Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, 4 (1936), 817–834; and C. Dulieu, “Guillaume Rondelet,” in Clio medica, 1 (1965), 89–111. Monspeliensis Hippocrates, 12 (summer 1961), has a portrait (probably not from life) on the cover, with a brief curriculum vitae and genealogical table, and two articles: H. Harant and D. Jarry, “Oeuvre zoologique de Guillaume Rondelet,” pp. 5–10; and A. Pagés, “L’observation clinique d’un médecin malade: Guillaume Rondelet,” pp. 13–19.

A. G. Keller