Rostand, Jean Cyrus

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(b. Paris. France, 30 October 1894; d. Ville d’Avray, France, 4 September 1977)

biology, history of science.

A man of science and of letters alike, Jean Rostand left a legacy of work notable for both its diversity and its content. As a biologist, he concentrated on questions having to do with the great problems of life itself: reproduction (parthenogenesis, gynogenesis), the preserving effects of glycerine on sperm subjected to hypothermia, genetics, and teratogenesis. As a popularizer of science, he disseminated scientific information in clear language: he was a much sought-after speaker, and his writings were models of French style. As a historian of science, he sought to lay the groundwork for a history of biology. Finally, in his philosophical writings he expressed and upheld an ethical approach that, though not universally accepted, remains for many a model of humanity and truth.

Rostand’s father was the poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, a member of the Académie Française and the author of Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) and L’Aiglon (1900). His mother was the poet Rosemonde Gérard. His older brother, Maurice, was a poet and novelist. His paternal grandfather, Eugène Rostand, was an economist and a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.

In 1900 the Rostand family moved to Cambo in southern France, near the Basque country. Nature was a pervasive presence in the young Jean Rostand’s world, and his early fascination with natural history endured throughout his life. The work of the entomologist and writer J. H. Fabre was a revelation to him. Rostand was educated at home by private tutors, and he taught himself the life sciences as a child, reading such authors as Claude Bernard and Charles Darwin. He took his secondary-school and university-qualifying degrees in 1909 and 1911, and his bachelor of natural sciences (at the Sorbonne) in 1914.

Rostand was brought up on the works of Emile Zola, Félix Le Dantec. Eugène Bataillon, Louis Pasteur, and Jean Jaurès. During World War I he served at Val de Grâce in Paris, in the laboratory directed by Father Jean Hyacin the Vincent, where the antityphus vaccine was developed. During the same period he did research in the laboratory of Maurice Caullery on the paedogenetic flies of the genus Miastor. At the end of the war, however, he abandoned his official career and conducted his research in a makeshift laboratory in his home. In 1919 he made his literary debut with the publication (under the pseudonym Jean Sokori) of Le retour ties pauvres. By the end of his life he had published some twenty works under his own name. Among his books were Pensées d’un biologiste (1939), Carnet d’un biologiste (1959), and Inquiétudes d’un biologiste (1967). His published speeches include “Morale et biologie” (1962), “D’un humanisme scientifique” (1956), and “Quelques discours, 1964-1968” (1970). We find in these works a “biologiste engagé” who condemns pseudoscience, protests against the military use of the atom, condemns racism, and fights for equal rights to life and free expression for all men and women.

Rostand considered biology to be the source of knowledge indispensable in the shaping of his ethics (biological morality). “Biology,” he wrote in 1963, “lies at the root of any serious contemplation of the human condition.” But Rostand was above all a seeker in the most noble sense of the term. “‘Seeker’ is such a lovely word,” he wrote in 1967, “far preferable to ‘scholar!’ It expresses the healthy attitude of the mind in the face of truth: absence more than acquisition, desire more than possession, appetite more than satiety.”

Rostand began his career as a researcher with a 1920 study of the biology of the fly, Sarcophaga filia, and between that year and 1927 he published about a dozen articles on problems of the general biology of insects (embryology, grafting, and so on). He produced several works on entomology, including two articles on Bombyx mori (1942) and books on dragonflies and silkworms: La vie des libellules (1935) and La vie des vers à soie (1944). These books contain many original descriptions and experimental reports.

But although he continued to be fascinated by insects, the biological problems Rostand wanted to study led him to seek a different subject: the amphibians, for amphibian eggs are particularly suitable for research on fertility and embryology. The egg of the sea urchin had served as the basis for experimental embryology since the 1880’s. It was therefore no accident that Rostand turned to this subject, especially since he had been influenced by Bataillon, one the masters of “the mechanics of development.” In 1910 Bataillon had achieved traumatic parthenogenesis with eggs of Rana temporaria. His experiments had led him to delimit two stages of fertilization: activation and regulation. Whereas Bataillon concentrated on the experimental study of the phenomenon of activation, Rostand’s research centered on the factors of regulation. In 1924, for instance, he showed that the “regulation factor” of frog sperm is particularly resistant to desiccation over a period of several months. Between 1924 and 1928 he did many experiments on this regulation factor in traumatic parthenogenesis.

During the 1920’s Rostand forged the ideas that he was to develop throughout his life, ideas that formed a unity in his style of work and life alike. He was known first of all as a philosopher, then as a biologist whose studies of hybrids of various species and genera of amphibians led to his research on genetics and on anomalies in toads and frogs.

On 10 April 1920, Rostand married his first cousin, Andrée Mante. They had one son, François, born in 1921, who became a mathematician.

Also in the 1920’s Rostand published his first work in popular science, Les chromosomes, artisans de l’hérédité et du sexe (1928). In his book he supported T. H. Morgan’s genetics, though at the time most official “scholars” in France rejected the chromosome theory of genetics and refused to teach it in universities. In the foreword to the book Rostand wrote: “Whereas abroad, particularly in England and the United States, there is already a growing literature on the question of chromosomes, in France the general public is wholly ignorant of the matter, and even among the scientific public, only a single book (admirable though it is) is known: Professor Guyénot’s l’Hérérédité.”

Rostand was financially independent, and in 1922 he was able to move into a house in the Paris suburb of Ville D’Avray, turning a portion of the house into a laboratory. He thus enjoyed complete independence in his work. Free of institutional constraints, he undertook whatever research he desired and was able to say whatever he liked. This situation was well suited to his character, and was a necessary and sufficient condition for his pursuit of his varied intellectual activities.

In the 1930’s Rostand began crossbreeding various species of amphibians, discovering the beneficial effects of refrigeration on the development of these “hybrid” eggs. On the basis of these observations, he began investigating the technique of gynogenesis (1934-1947); the diploidizing effect of cold was the most remarkable result.

Having learned the use of refrigeration in experimental biology, Rostand turned to the problem of the preservation of sperm and semen. Taking inspiration from the work of B. Luyet and E. L. Hodapp (1938), he tried saline and sugar solutions as possible protectors of frozen sperm. But unlike Luyet and Hodapp, he obtained negative results. He then thought of using glycerine, which proved to be a particularly effective protective agent (1946). This effect was Independently discovered in 1949 by C. Polge. A. V. Smith, and A. S. Parkes, who were unaware of Rostand’s work. But it was with the rediscovery of the “Rostand effect” that a method of preservation of sperm was established, paving the way for the practice of artificial insemination. In 1955 Rostand demonstrated the protective properties of ethyl alcohol, and in the year 1960-1961 he achieved the in vitro preservation of frog testicles. This technique permitted spermatozoa to survive beyond forty days; the testicles retained their fertility potential for about twenty days when immersed in paraffin oil.

Another question that interested Rostand was the determination of sex in toads, a problem he approached through the technique of gynogenesis. His results suggested female homozygosity (XX): all the gynogenetic toads were female. Rather surprisingly, these results contradicted those obtained in 1927 by K. Ponse, who, using a different experimental technique (fertilization of Bidder’s organ [ova]), proposed male homozygosity (YY).

For these experiments the Academy of Sciences awarded Rostand the Henry de Parville Prize for 1934 and the Binoux Prize for 1941.

Continuing his research by means of the technique of gynogenesis, Rostand observed digital anomalies (ectrodactylism and polydactylism) in gynogenetic toads (1947). His attention was riveted by this discovery, and from then on, Rostand concentrated on research on amphibian genetics, demonstrating that gynogenesis was a particularly suitable method of detecting recessive mutations.

Rostand studied cases of natural polydactylism among the common toad (Bufo bufo), and in 1949 was the first to demonstrate genetic polydactylism in this amphibian. In 1949, during his study of polydactylous mutant frogs, Rostand discovered instances of pronounced polydactylism in the green frog (Rana esculenta): from six to nine toes instead of the normal five among 15 percent of the population of a pond. But this polydactylism proved not to be genetically transmissible.

Though momentarily disappointed that polydactylism in the green frog could not be incorporated into amphibian genetics, Rostand understood that “the existence of a massive, endemic somatic anomaly provoked by the action of a natural milieu was a phenomenon of great interest whose study promises to open a new chapter in teratogenesis” (1971). In 1952 he discovered unprecedented monster tadpoles. Some abnormal subjects had as many as seventeen toes on a single foot, and in most serious cases, bony outgrowths sometimes resembling tumors were observed on the limbs. Rostand even reported several cases of polymelia (an anomaly lethal among tadpoles). It was always the posterior limbs that were affected, but when the severity of the anomaly was greatest, the anterior limbs became abnormal as well. Rostand then advanced the notion of a teratogenetic gradient. For him, these unsuspected monstrous forms were an instance of the extraordinary surprises that mark the life of a naturalist.

Polydactylism in the green frog was a “teratological phenomenon” whose most serious forms among tadpoles “defied all description.” Rostand called it anomaly P, for polymorphism (1952). He believed that since anomaly P was not genetic, it must have been caused by the teratogenous effect of some substance. Accordingly, in 1950 he began studying the teratogenous effects of many substances on frog larvae. He thus pioneered the field of chemo-teratogenesis in amphibians, following the example of Paul Ancel, who had opened the field about a dozen years earlier, using chick embryos as experimental material. But despite his attempts to induce teratogenesis in frog larvae by chemical means, Rostand was unable to reproduce the morphological deviations observed in nature. He then advanced a new hypothesis to account for anomaly P: that it was the result of a virus in the embryo, manifested very early and only temporarily, since tadpoles affected by anomaly P regenerated normal limbs after amputation of the anomalous ones (1952). Moreover, the appearance of anomaly P in several ponds led Rostand to the “highly curious and genuinely new” notion of “monster ponds” (1971).

The ultimate cause of anomaly P remains unknown today (mid 1980’s). Some of the causes were elucidated in 1969. Between 1967 and 1969 Rostand and his collaborator, P. Darré, proved that the tadpoles of a monster pond become monstrous when they are fed the excrement of certain fish (tench, eels) that live in the pond. Where the teratogenous agent has a temporary effect on the larvae of the green frog, its presence in the fish that carry it is also temporary, for the anomaly disappears from these ponds within several years. This anomaly is of interest to embryologists, teratologists, virologists, and cancer specialists, and it was for this reason that Rostand was so fascinated by anomaly P for nearly twenty-seven years.

Rostand considered himself a “loner,” except on Sundays, when he was visited at home by many friends and acquaintances in quite diverse fields: painters, doctors, writers, naturalists, musicians, and the merely curious. Young and old, these visitors came to talk to a man who was known for leading discussions with passion and spirit.

Concurrently with his biological research and his popularization of the biological sciences (for which he received the Kalinga Prize for popularization of science in 1959), Rostand was interested in the history of science and published several original articles and works in this discipline, including his inaugural address to the XIIth International Congress on the History of Science, held at Paris in August 1968. Rostand considered the history of science a “slow and laborious embryogenesis of truth” and a “major chapter of thought and civilization.” In its aesthetic value and speculative scope, the history of science teaches us “a lesson of confidence and modesty”—confidence in the “powers of the intellect,” since the “embryogenesis of truth” is the product not of a single individual but of a collective, a fruit of the “labor of all” that does “honor to humankind.”

Quite apart from the lessons the history of science teaches us, Rostand emphasized its “educational and humanist sweep” and its “emotive force.” He considered the history of science to be a means of grounding his ethics in truth and a stimulant capable of arousing passion among the young. He had in mind those works that enliven and humanize science, that fill us with the “dynamism of truth discovered,” such as Claude Bernard’s introduction to the study of experimental medicine, Charles Nicolle’s biology of invention, and J. H. Fabre’s entomological memoirs—all of them writings that “awaken and provoke.”

The scope of Rostand’s work has not always been properly appreciated in scientific circles. Apart from the Parkes school’s rediscovery of the protective effect of glycerine on frozen cells (1949), Rostand was the first to suggest that experimental gynogenesis could permit the discovery of recessive mutations, thus allowing exploration of the hereditary patrimony of animals (1950), a suggestion that was made anew by T. M. Trottier and J. B. Armstrong (1976). In an attempt to assess the relative roles of the jelly of the egg and the peculiarities of the egg itself in barriers to cross-species fertilization in amphibians, he was the first to envelop ova of a given species in the jelly of another species before attempting hybridization (1933), a technique that was later reinvented by H. W. Aplington, Jr. (1957), and employed by various others, such as R. P. Elinson (1974-1975) and R. Brun and H. R. Kobel (1977). Rostand was never cited by any of these authors.

Rostand’s scientific work was notable for the diversity of subjects he studied, some repeatedly and in depth, others only in passing. This was a reflection of the breadth of his scientific curiosity. His wide knowledge of fundamental biological problems and his farsighted, synthetic spirit enabled him to grasp the totality of consequences and implications of observations and discoveries that might initially seem of limited interest. In this he was the very opposite of the “specialist” often demanded by contemporary research.

Rostand’s enthusiasm for biological problems was infectious, and he preserved it to the end of his life, his words and writings inspiring many young naturalists. Nor did he lack a sense of humor, as evidenced in his “Pro Rana: Des grenouilles et des hommes,” a 1963 paper delivered on the occasion of his election as honorary president of the Société Zoologique de France. In this speech Rostand responded to the mockery to which “the frog man” had often been subjected, expounding the emotional and rational reasons for his preference for amphibians.

Elected to the Edouard Herriot chair of the Académie Franchise on 16 April 1959, Rostand had been awarded the 1952 Grand Prix Littéraire of the city of Paris for the body of his work. In 1955 he received the Grand Prix of the Singer-Polignac Foundation, and in 1976 the Prix de l’Education of the lnstitut de la Vie. He was vice president of the Comité National d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences and a member of the administrative council of the Centre International de Synthèse.

Rostand died at his home in Ville d’Avray after a long illness.


I. Original Works. Tétry (see below) gives a bibliography of 390 titles, including books and articles. Rostand’s principal books are Les chromosomes, artisans de l’hérédité et du sexe (Paris, 1928); De la mouche à l’homme (Paris, 1930); La formation de l’être: Histoire des idées sur la génération (Paris, 1930); L’état present du transformisme (Paris, 1931); L’évolution des espèces: Histoire des idées transformistes (Paris, 1932); L’aventure humaine, 3 vols. (Paris, 1933-1935); Les problèmes de l’hérédité et du sexe (Paris, 1933); La nouvelle biologie (Paris, 1937); Biologie et médecine (Paris, 1939); Hérédité et racisme (Paris, 1939); Science et génération (Paris, 1940); L’homme. Introduction à l’étude de la biologie humaine (Paris, 1941); Les idées nouvelles de la génétique (Paris, 1941); Hommes de vérité (Paris, 1942); La genèse de la vie (Paris, 1943); Esquisse d’une histoire de la biologie (Paris, 1945); L’avenir de la biologie (Paris, 1946); Charles Darwin (Paris, 1947); Hommes de vérité, 2nd ser. (Paris, 1948); La biologie et l’avenir humain (Paris, 1950); La parthénogénise animale (Paris, 1950); La génétique des batraciens (Paris, 1951); Les grands courants de la biologie (Paris, 1951): Les origines de la biologie expMmentale et l’abbe Spallanzani (Paris, 1951); L’hérédité humaine (Paris, 1952); Instruire sur l’homme (Nice, 1953); Les crapuuds, les grenouilles et quetques grands problèmes biologiques (Paris, 1955); L’atomisme en biologie (Paris, 1956); Peut-on modifier ;l’homme? (Paris, 1956); Anomalies des amphibiens anoures (Paris, 1958); Aux sources de la biologie (Paris, 1958); Bestiaire d’amour (Paris, 1958); Science fausse et fausses sciences (Paris, 1958); L’évolution (Paris, 1960); Aux frontières du surhumain (Paris, 1962); Le droit d’être naturaliste (Paris, 1963); Biologie et humamsme (Paris, 1964); Hommes d’autrefois et d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1966); Maternité et biologie (Paris, 1966); Le courrier d’un biologiste (Paris, 1970); and les étangs à monstres (Paris, 1971).

II. Secondary Literature. Albert Delaunay, Jean Rostand (Paris, 1956); A. Dubois, “L’oeuvre scientifique de Jean Rostand (1894-1977),” in Bulletin de la Société zoologique de France, 102 (1977), 231-242; Jean-Louis Fischer, “Jean Rostand (30 octobre 1894-4 septembre 1977),” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 31 (1978), 163-172, and “Jean Rostand, biologiste,” in Bulletin de la Société linnéenne de Lyon, 47 (1978), 61-66; Odette Lutgen, De père en fils (Paris, 1965); Marcel Migeo, Les Rostand (Paris, 1973); and Andrée Tétry. Jean Rostand, prophète clairvoyant et fraternel (Paris, 1983).

Jean-louis Fischer