Schmerling, Philippe-Charles

views updated


(b. Delft, Netherlands, 24 February 1791; d. Liège, Belgium, 6 November 1836)


Schmerling’s paternal ancestors came from Austria. After completing his secondary education in Delft, he studied medicine at Leiden for two years and then went to The Hague. Appointed a health officer in 1812 and a military physician the following year, he left the army in 1816 in order to establish a civilian practice. In 1821 he married Sara Henriette Caroline Douglas, a descendant of a noble Scots family, one branch of which had immigrated to the Netherlands. A few months later Schmerling and his wife moved to Liège, where he continued his medical studies and, after receiving the doctorate in 1825, began to practice.

Schmerling became a paleontologist by chance. In 1829 he went to Chokier, a small village near Liège, to treat a poor quarry worker. He was amazed to see the man’s children playing with very unusual bones that had been unearthed at a nearby quarry. Stimulated by this find, the first known excavation of fossil bones in Belgium, Schmerling traveled extensively in the region and within less than four years located more than forty similar sites. He collected the remains of some sixty animal species. Those that made him famous were human bones in an indisputably fossil state.

Following a carefully formulated plan, Schmerling studied first the caves, then the animal remains they contained, and finally the human bones. He observed that the stalagmitic floors covered deposits containing the remains of extinct species, such as the mammoth, and of apparently contemporaneous species still in existence, such as the wolf and the boar. He noted that the human remains were in the same state of preservation as the animal bones unearthed with them. They were of the same color, were dispersed in similar patterns, and sometimes were so abraded and scattered that the hypothesis of their deliberate burial in the caves had to be excluded. Therefore, Schmerling asserted, the human bones had undoubtedly been buried at the same time and by the same causes as the bones of the extinct species. He also discovered chipped stones and carved bones in the same conditions; their very presence, he asserted, demonstrated the existence of man during the “antediluvian period.”

The most famous of the caves that Schmerling explored was that of Engis, located on the left bank of the Meuse about fifteen kilometers upstream from Liège. There, in 1830, he exhumed two skulls at different levels. One, of a child (today called Engis I), was lying at the base of the deposits, next to a mammoth’s tooth; the other, of an adult (Engis II), was found at a somewhat higher level in a hole containing rhinoceros teeth and the bones of horses, reindeer, and several ruminants. (It was later shown that Engis I was of the Neanderthal type—the first such example ever found, whereas Engis II belonged to a variety of CroMagnon man.) Others before Schmerling (E. J. C. Esper in 1771 and Buckland in 1823) and at about the same time (P. Tournal) had discovered human bones associated with the remains of extinct animals, but Schmerling was the first to demonstrate the existence of fossil man by means of irrefutable stratigraphic arguments.

Schmerling’s medical training led to his interest in the pathological lesions on the Quaternary mammalian bones found in the Belgian caves, and his 1836 memoir on paleopathology was one of the first of its kind. His recognition of the importance of this discipline is a further indication of both the originality and the scope of his thought.

Although Schmerling’s five published works on paleontology (1832–1836) were characterized by exemplary scientific rigor, they generated little enthusiasm (except for the last one, on paleopathology, which stimulated much discussion in Germany). Indeed, his work fell into such neglect that many copies of his principal study (1833–1834) were destroyed after his death. Lyell visited Schmerling in 1834 and cited his discoveries in the third edition of Principles of Geology (1834, p. 161); but he did not grasp their importance until much later, as he himself admitted (1963). Schmerling’s contemporaries were not, however, completely unaware of his scientific ability. He was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Brussels (1834) and a corresponding member of the Royal Institute of the Low Countries (1836).


I. Orioginal Works. In addition to his doctoral dissertation (1825) and a note on dyeing with colchicum (1832). Schmerling published five works on paleontology. The two principal ones are Recherches sur les ossements fossiles découverts dans les cavernes de la province de Liège, 2 vols. and 2 vols. of plates (L’ge, 1833–1834), translated or analyzed in Italy. France, Germany, Russia, England, and the United States, and containing the description of the Engis men: and “Notice sur quelques os de pachydermes découverts dans le terrain meuble près du village de Chokier,” in Bulletin de l’Académie royale des science et belles-lettres de Bruxelles. Classe de sciences, 3 (1836), 82–87, his contribution to paleopathology.

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically; C. Morren, “Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Philippe Charles Schmerling,” in Annuaire de l’Académie royale des sciences et belles-lettres de Bruxelles, 4 (1838), 130–150; A. Le Roy, L’Université de Liège depuis sa fondation (Liège, 1869), 550; C. Lyell, The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man, 1st ed. (London, 1863), 70–71; R. L. Moodie, Paleopathology, An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Evidence of Disease (Urbana, III., 1923), 64–65; C. Fraipont, “Les hommes fossiles d”Engis,” Archives de l”Institut de paléontologie humaine, no. 16 (1936); and K. P. Oakley, “The Problem of Man’s Antiquity. An Historical Survey,” in Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). Geology, 9 , no. 5 (1964), 91–93.

G. Ubaghs