Adolphe Brongniart is considered to be the founder of French paleobotany (the study of fossil plants), but his influence and that of his family extends far beyond the borders of France. Born 1801 in Sèvres, France, where his father ran a porcelain factory, Adolphe came from a very well-known family. His grandfather, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, was a respected architect who designed the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange); his father, Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847), and Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) are considered the fathers of stratigraphic geology . They developed geologic mapping on a scale that could be both interpretive and predictive, and were pioneers in using fossils to determine the age of rocks.
Adolphe greatly benefited from his father's wide-ranging interests. Before he was twenty, they had traveled together to many areas of the continent, including western France, the Jura Mountains, Switzerland, and Italy. In 1824 and 1825 they visited Scandinavia and the British Isles. These trips focused on botany, geology, or both, so that Adolphe was exposed to fossil plants from a variety of places while still relatively young, giving him a more global view of fossil floras than many scientists of his day.
In 1822 Adolphe Brongniart published his initial classification of all fossil plants then known, a system that was also adopted for the living plants in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1828 he published the first of two volumes of a more complete description of the fossil plants of the world, Histoire des Végétaux Fossiles. At the age of twenty-five, he received a doctor of medicine degree with a thesis on the living plant family Rhamnaceae (the buckthorn family). He was already known for his research on fossil plants at this time. In 1831 he was appointed as a naturalist aide at the museum and two years later became a professor of botany there. More than any other interest, paleobotany occupied him until he died.
Although Brongniart published numerous works on compression fossils (thin, carbonaceous films on the rock surface), he is equally well known for his studies of internal anatomy in ancient plants. One of his first papers on this subject was on Carboniferous ferns and was published in 1837. Brongniart used comparative anatomy of fossil and living plants to better understand the classification of the fossils and was clearly a pioneer in the area of using thin sections to study the internal structure of fossil plants. His study of the structure of silicified Carboniferous seeds, Recherches sur les Graines silicifiées du Terrain houiller de St.-Etienne (1881), has been called a model of comparative anatomy of fossil plants. Unfinished at his death in 1876, the book was published posthumously.
Adolphe Brongniart was the first to publish a classification of all known fossil plants and pioneered the use of comparative anatomy in the study of plant fossils. Because of his broad knowledge of fossil plants from many regions, he was able to recognize a distinct succession of floras through time and regularly correlated fossils with particular rocks (biostratigraphy). Finally, Brongniart was probably the first to spend his life working in pale-obotany as a primary pursuit and not just as a sideline to medicine or business, making him the first professional paleobotanist in history.
Edith L. Taylor
Thomas N. Taylor
Andrews, H. N. The Fossil Hunters: In Search of Ancient Plants. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.