Serres, Antoine Étienne Reynaud Augustin

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(b. Clairac, France, 12 September 1786; d. Paris, France, 22 January 1868)

comparative anatomy, embryology.

Serres was trained in Paris and received his medical degree in 1810.From 1802 to 1822 he worked at the Hôtel Dieu. In 1820 he was awarded the prize for physiological research by the Académie des Sciences and the following year gained a special prize for his two-volume work on the comparative anatomy of the brains of vertebrate animals. In 1822 Serres was appointed chief medical officer at the Hôpital de la Pitié. He was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1828. In 1839 he preceded Flourens as professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes and two years later became president of the Académie des Sciences. He was created an officer (1841) and a commander (1848) of the Légion d’Honneur.

Serres did research into the development of the bones and teeth in normal and abnormal fetuses and studied the comparative anatomy of a number of vertebrate organs. He noted that many organs start from a number of isolated centers, which eventually unite to form a single adult organ—an observation that he regarded as a complete confirmation of epigenesis. In his general approach to the nature of life and the harmony between the organs he was clearly influenced by Cuvier, who mentioned Serres’s work with admiration.

Serres’s theoretical position was more closely akin to that of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who regarded Serres as his collaborator. Serres believed that there was only one underlying animal type and that in the course of their development, the organs of the higher animals repeated the form of the equivalent organs in lower organisms. These ideas were not new; the nature philosophers in Germany had suggested similar ideas, and Meckel claimed that the higher animals pass through developmental stages analogous to the adult forms of lower animals. The distinction between a repetition of the organs of lower forms and the repetition of the actual organisms is often blurred; the latter view is sometimes called the serres-Meckel Law.

After 1828 belief in either version of the Serres-Meckel law was gradually abandoned as the result of Baer’s criticism, but throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s Serres continued to write papers in which he maintained his original views. These publications brought him into conflict with his younger colleagues and especially with Milne-Edwards; nevertheless, in 1859 Serres produced a final memoir in which he still maintained his original views.

A careful and precise observer of anatomical detail. Serre’s work was neglected by the next generation, who were converts to an evolutionary outlook and scorned Serres’s type of speculation. Haeckel’s biogenetic law (1866) — each animal in its development recapitulates its evolutionary history- has much in common with the Serres-Meckel law.

Historians tend to treat Serres as a mere disciple of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, which again is to do him less than justice.


I. Original Works. Serres’s chief writings are Anatomie comparée du cerveau dans les quatre classes des animaux vertébrés, 2 vols. plus atlas (Paris, 1824–1826): and Anatomie comparée, transcendante. Principes d’embryogénie de zoogénie et de teratogénie (Paris, 1859). His early works appeared in Annales des sciences naturelles11 , 12 (1827); 16 (1829); 21 (1830). Other publications are listed in Catalogue de la Bibliothèque Nationale.

II. Secondary Literature. On Serres and his work, see Ch. Coury, “L’identification de la fièvre ’entéro-mésentérique’ (ou typhoide) par Petit et Serres (1813),” in Semaine des hôpitaux de Paris. 40 (1964), 3056–3064: Ch. Coury and R. Rullière. “Deux grands inciateurs de la recherche clinique moderne – Petit et Serres – leur étude de la fièvre entéro-mésent´rique (1811–1813),” in Presse médicale, 72 (1964), 2487–2490, and in Aktuelle Problems aus der Geschichte der Medizin (Basel-New York, 1966), 596–603: P. Huard, “A propos du centenaire de la mort d’Étienne Serres (1786–1868),” in Pagine di storia delle medicina14 no. 5 (1970), 11–15; E.J. Russell, Form and Function (London, 1916); and an inaugural diss, by M. M. Kraegel von der Heyden. Étienne-Renaud-Augustin-serres (1787–1868) Entdecker des Abdominaltyphus (Zurich, 1972), which lists also most of the earlier literature.

Elizabeth B. Gasking