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Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Etienne

GEOFFROY SAINT-HILAIRE, ETIENNE (1772-1844), French naturalist, was the son of Jean Gèrard Geoffroy, procurator and magistrate of Etampes, Seine-et-Oise, where he was born on the 15th of April 1772. Destined for the church he entered the college of Navarre, in Paris, where he studied natural philosophy under M.J. Brisson; and in 1788 he obtained one of the canonicates of the chapter of Sainte Croix at Etampes, and also a benefice. Science, however, offered him a more congenial career, and he gained from his father permission to remain in Paris, and to attend the lectures at the Collège de France and the Jardin des Plantes, on the condition that he should also read law. He accordingly took up his residence at Cardinal Lemoine's college, and there became the pupil and soon the esteemed associate of Brisson's friend, the abbé Haüy, the mineralogist. Having, before the close of the year 1790, taken the degree of bachelor in law, he became a student of medicine, and attended the lectures of A.F. de Fourcroy at the Jardin des Plantes, and of L.J.M. Daubenton at the Collège de France. His studies at Paris were at length suddenly interrupted, for, in August 1792, Haüy and the other professors of Lemoine's college, as also those of the college of Navarre, were arrested by the revolutionists as priests, and confined in the prison of St Firmin. Through the influence of Daubenton and others Geoffroy on the 14th of August obtained an order for the release of Haüy in the name of the Academy; still the other professors of the two colleges, save C.F. Lhomond, who had been rescued by his pupil J.L. Tallien, remained in confinement. Geoffroy, foreseeing their certain destruction if they remained in the hands of the revolutionists, determined if possible to secure their liberty by stratagem. By bribing one of the officials at St Firmin, and disguising himself as a commissioner of prisons, he gained admission to his friends, and entreated them to effect their escape by following him. All, however, dreading lest their deliverance should render the doom of their fellow-captives the more certain, refused the offer, and one priest only, who was unknown to Geoffroy, left the prison. Already on the night of the 2nd of September the massacre of the proscribed had begun, when Geoffroy, yet intent on saving the life of his friends and teachers, repaired to St Firmin. At 4 o'clock on the morning of the 3rd of September, after eight hours' waiting, he by means of a ladder assisted the escape of twelve ecclesiastics, not of the number of his acquaintance, and then the approach of dawn and the discharge of a gun directed at him warned him, his chief purpose unaccomplished, to return to his lodgings. Leaving Paris he retired to Etampes, where, in consequence of the anxieties of which he had lately been the prey, and the horrors which he had witnessed, he was for some time seriously ill. At the beginning of the winter of 1792 he returned to his studies in Paris, and in March of the following year Daubenton, through the interest of Bernardin de Saint Pierre, procured him the office of sub-keeper and assistant demonstrator of the cabinet of natural history, vacant by the resignation of B.G.E. Lacépède. By a law passed in June 1793, Geoffroy was appointed one of the twelve professors of the newly constituted museum of natural history, being assigned the chair of zoology. In the same year he busied himself with the formation of a menagerie at that institution.

In 1794 through the introduction of A.H. Tessier he entered into correspondence with Georges Cuvier, to whom, after the perusal of some of his manuscripts, he wrote: "Venez jouer parmi nous le rôle de Linné, d'un autre législateur de l'histoire naturelle." Shortly after the appointment of Cuvier as assistant at the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, Geoffroy received him into his house. The two friends wrote together five memoirs on natural history, one of which, on the classification of mammals, puts forward the idea of the subordination of characters upon which Cuvier based his zoological system. It was in a paper entitled "Histoire des Makis, ou singes de Madagascar," written in 1795, that Geoffroy first gave expression to his views on "the unity of organic composition," the influence of which is perceptible in all his subsequent writings; nature, he observes, presents us with only one plan of construction, the same in principle, but varied in its accessory parts.

In 1798 Geoffroy was chosen a member of the great scientific expedition to Egypt, and on the capitulation of Alexandria in August 1801, he took part in resisting the claim made by the British general to the collections of the expedition, declaring that, were that demand persisted in, history would have to record that he also had burnt a library in Alexandria. Early in January 1802 Geoffroy returned to his accustomed labours in Paris. He was elected a member of the academy of sciences of that city in September 1807. In March of the following year the emperor, who had already recognized his national services by the award of the cross of the legion of honour, selected him to visit the museums of Portugal, for the purpose of procuring collections from them, and in the face of considerable opposition from the British he eventually was successful in retaining them as a permanent possession for his country. In 1809, the year after his return to France, he was made professor of zoology at the faculty of sciences at Paris, and from that period he devoted himself more exclusively than before to anatomical study. In 1818 he gave to the world the first part of his celebrated Philosophie anatomique, the second volume of which, published in 1822, and subsequent memoirs account for the formation of monstrosities on the principle of arrest of development, and of the attraction of similar parts. When, in 1830, Geoffroy proceeded to apply to the invertebrata his views as to the unity of animal composition, he found a vigorous opponent in Georges Cuvier, and the discussion between them, continued up to the time of the death of the latter, soon attracted the attention of the scientific throughout Europe. Geoffroy, a synthesist, contended, in accordance with his theory of unity of plan in organic composition, that all animals are formed of the same elements, in the same number, and with the same connexions: homologous parts, however they differ in form and size, must remain associated in the same invariable order. With Goethe he held that there is in nature a law of compensation or balancing of growth, so that if one organ take on an excess of development, it is at the expense of some other part; and he maintained that, since nature takes no sudden leaps, even organs which are superfluous in any given species, if they have played an important part in other species of the same family, are retained as rudiments, which testify to the permanence of the general plan of creation. It was his conviction that, owing to the conditions of life, the same forms had not been perpetuated since the origin of all things, although it was not his belief that existing species are becoming modified. Cuvier, who was an analytical observer of facts, admitted only the prevalence of "laws of co-existence" or "harmony" in animal organs, and maintained the absolute invariability of species, which he declared had been created with a regard to the circumstances in which they were placed, each organ contrived with a view to the function it had to fulfil, thus putting, in Geoffroy's considerations, the effect for the cause.

In July 1840 Geoffroy became blind, and some months later he had a paralytic attack. From that time his strength gradually failed him. He resigned his chair at the museum in 1841, and died at Paris on the 19th of June 1844.

Geoffroy wrote: Catalogue des mammifères du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (1813), not quite completed; Philosophie anatomique - t. i., Des organes respiratoires (1818), and t. ii., Des monstruosités humaines (1822); Système dentaire des mammifères et des oiseaux (1st pt., 1824); Sur le principe de l'unité de composition organique (1828); Cours de l'histoire naturelle des mammifères (1829); Principes de philosophie zoologique (1830); Etudes progressives d'un naturaliste (1835); Fragments biographiques (1832); Notions synthétiques, historiques et physiologiques de philosophie naturelle (1838), and other works; also part of the Description de l'Egypte par la commission des sciences (1821-1830); and, with Frédéric Cuvier (1773-1838), a younger brother of G. Cuvier, Histoire naturelle des mammifères (4 vols., 1820-1842); besides numerous papers on such subjects as the anatomy of marsupials, ruminants and electrical fishes, the vertebrate theory of the skull, the opercula of fishes, teratology, palaeontology and the influence of surrounding conditions in modifying animal forms.

See Vie, travaux, et doctrine scientifique d'Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, par son fils M. Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Paris and Strasburg, 1847), to which is appended a list of Geoffroy's works; and Joly, in Biog. universelle, t. xvi. (1856).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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