Saporta, Louis Charles Joseph Gaston De

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(b. St. Zacharie, France, 28 July 1823: d. St. Zacharie, 26 January 1896)


Saporta’s ancestors came from Zaragoza, Sapin, and included physicians, botanists, and entomologists. He himself was at first more inclined toward literature, but following the death of his wife in 1850, when he was twenty-seven, he sought diversion in botany. His interest in paleobotany developed after he had by accident found some plant fossils from a nearby gypsum mine in an antique shop in Aix. He related this discovery to Adolphe brongniart, a friend of his grandfather’s, and Brongniart encouraged him to make a systematic study of the deposits around Aix.

Saporta devoted his initial research to the Tertiary flora of France, on which he published a number of monographs, illustrated with detailed drawings that he executed directly from nature. These included a study of a sequence of local floras separated by short intervals that he discovered in lacustrian formations from the Upper Eocene to the Lower Miocene. The remarkable state of preservation of the fossils that he studied allowed him to examine the outlines and rib networks of leaves and to make more exact determinations of species than are usually possible.

Saporta next turned his attention to the Mesozoic. Among his publications dealing with that period was an extensive examination of Jurassic flora that comprised four volumes each of text and illustrations. This work brought his services into demand, and he was invited to Belgium (to collaborate with A. F. Marion in a work on the Gelinden flora), to Portugal (to study Lower Cretaceous and Cretaceous floras), to Greece (to study the Miocene flora of Koumi), and to the United States (to assist Lesquereux in his work on the Cretaceous flora of the Dakotas). He published other major works, including Le monde des plantes avant l’apparition de l’homme (Paris, 1879), which represented revised versions of articles that Saporta had already brought out in nontechnical journals, L’évolution du règne végétal (Paris, 1881–1885), written with Marion, and Origine paléontologique des arbres cultivés ou utilisés par l’homme (Paris, 1888). The first of these gave a synoptic view of the stages through which vegetation on earth had passed, while the last two were more specialized treatments of the same subject.

In his work in general Saporta was a patient and meticulous researcher who attempted both to give a precise description of a species and to relate it to historical developments so as to clarify its origin. He was particularly concerned with elucidating the climatic conditions of an era and wrote a number of works on historic climate. He emphasized the difficulty of determining species, and advised caution; while he has been accused of erroneously increasing the number of species, such accusations are unjustified, and recent studies have frequently served to confirm his general views, although with some qualifications.

Saporta’s scientific reputation was widespread. He was elected to the Académie d’Aix in 1866, and served as its president on several occasions; from 1886 he was permanent secretary of its science section. In 1872 he was admitted to the Académie de Marseille, and in 1876 he became a corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences. He was also an associate foreign member of the Royal Academy of Belgium and of the Madrid Academy of Science. In addition to his paleontological research, Saporta was interested in history. He wrote La famille de Madame de Sévigné en Provence, of which the first chapter served as his last presidential address to the Académie d’Aix.


I. Original Works. In addition to the works cited, see Saporta’s own Notice sur les travaux scientifiques (Paris, 1875); Poggendorff lists a selection of his articles in periodicals, and R. Zeiller, cited below, gives a further bibliography. His book on the history of Provence is La famille de Madame de Sévignéen Provence (Paris, 1889).

II. Secondary Literature. On Saporta and his work. see J. A. Henriques, “Luiz Carlos JoséGaston, Marquez de Saporta,” in Boletim da Sociedade Broteriana, 13 (1896), 1–10: A. Pons, “Contribution palynologique à l’étude de la flore et de la végétation pliocènes de la région Rhodanienne,” in Annales des sciences naturelles, Botanique, 12th ser., 5 1964), 499–722; R. Zeiller, “Le marquis G. de Saporta. Sa vie et ses travaux,” Revue générale de botanique, 7 (1895), 353–388, with bibliography; and Y. Conry, Correspondance entre Charles Darwin et Gaston de Saporta (Paris, 1972).

F. Stockmans