Naturalist explorers, the first ambassadors.

Naturalist explorer: a dream job. The name alone sparks intrigue!
At a time when most people were only familiar with local cows, meadows, woods and game, others were travelling to the ends of the earth to study biodiversity.

People have always been fascinated by the world around them. In all civilisations throughout history, the study of flora, which is easier to observe than fauna, has attracted enlightened botanists, who created gardens full of medicinal and aromatic plants and remarkable herbaria. But
it was the Enlightenment period that really brought natural sciences to the fore. Following Diderot and d’Alembert with their encyclopaedia of knowledge, Buffon, Jussieu, Réaumur, Linné, Lamarck and many others laid the foundations for collecting and classifying various species.

In 1793, the Jardin du Roi founded by Louis XIII officially became the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, France’s first natural history museum. Among other things, it used to organise lessons on how to collect, preserve and ship natural history objects. And the naturalist explorer was born. Throughout the nineteenth century, a new brand of adventurer set out on long scientific expeditions funded by the institution. Those who survived forged extraordinary paths for themselves.

Fanatura is fascinated with these first ambassadors of nature and celebrates their work and the stories of their travels. We’re going to use this blog to tell you more about them, kicking off with the most fascinating of all: Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny.


Alcide was 23 years old when on 31 July 1826, he climbed on board La Meuse, a vessel owned by the French navy, which would take him from Brest to Rio de Janeiro. He left his loved ones behind without knowing if he would ever see them again, but his thirst for knowledge and the responsibility of his mission spurred him on. The brilliant student received some wise advice from his renowned masters: Cuvier, Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, Blainville, and Humboldt.

After two months spent crossing the ocean, Alcide d’Orbigny finally moored on the coast of South America, which had recently been freed from the shackles of its Iberian colonists. Then began a fabulous journey lasting almost eight years, during which he crossed Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

He specialised in palaeontology and devoted his life to the subject. He came across plenty of fossils but had to keep his eyes open for all kinds of living things on behalf of the museum. As a botanist, zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist and anthropologist, he spent his days hunting, collecting, observing, describing, listing and drawing every species he discovered… an unstoppable force for nature! He developed a very strong interest in palm trees, and his contributions on the subject would be incredibly valuable.

3 palmiers d'Orbigny

During his life, Alcide d’Orbigny described more than 3,000 species, including 2,500 which had never been recorded before. His paleontological collection, which he submitted to the French national natural history museum, is estimated to contain a total of 100,000 specimens from 14,000 species*.

3 palmiers d'Orbigny

Life was rough for naturalist explorers. On inland expeditions, d’Orbigny would sometimes venture so far into the tropical jungle that fever threatened to take his life on more than one occasion. The political instability of the emerging countries also took him straight into ethnic guerrilla warfare. Ocean crossings were extremely dangerous, and ships not always in good condition. But Alcide was determined and seemed to have his very own guardian angel. He showed such devotion to his work that wherever he went, people were charmed by his charisma and kindness. Already a conscientious Latin scholar, he quickly mastered Spanish and Portuguese. He also learned Guarani from the Indian communities with whom he spent nearly a year. At the end of his trip, he could speak all the dialects of the tribes he encountered.

« El Naturalista », as he became known, made a fine reputation for himself.
He was welcomed with open arms wherever he went.

Alongside his official mission, he helped farmers diversify their production, reorganise their land, and preserve over-farmed species. He had long understood that varied and integrated agriculture had a brighter future than intensive single-crop farming. And that was back in 1830…

On his return to France after seven years and seven months, Alcide received a hero’s welcome from his relatives and colleagues. People couldn’t wait to hear his stories. His vast collections, precise notes, detailed drawings and high-quality sketches astonished the museum’s academics.
He received lavish praise, and the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre Royal de la Légion d’Honneur. And all at just 32 years old. He immediately began writing about his trip to America and his account took fourteen years to complete.

L’Homme américain (the American man) was published in 1839, to huge acclaim. The work is an ethnological, sociological, linguistic and statistical study on the various Indian peoples that the naturalist encountered. He introduces his work with the following sentence: “Nous commencerons
par déclarer que notre conviction intime est que, parmi les hommes, il n’y a qu’une seule et même espèce”, stating that his firm belief was that among men, there is just one species.

He then moved to Paris with his younger brother, Charles-Henry d’Orbigny, a brilliant doctor with a keen interest in geology, who spent his time studying natural sciences. They even lived in Place de la Contrescarpe, just a few steps from the museum. While Alcide continued studying palaeontology there using fossils that were arriving from all over Europe, his brother began penning his life’s work: le Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturel (the universal dictionary of natural history). It is one
of the most outstanding achievements of the time in terms of scientific synthesis, but also of popularisation. A first edition appeared in 1849: 13 volumes + 288 plates of unparalleled quality
thus far in the 19th century.

Photography was still experimental, and illustrators were popular. Drawings by Alcide and his colleagues appeared in that first edition by artists who have since been forgotten. Birds drawn by Edouard Traviès, batrachians depicted by Jean-Gabriel Prêtre, fish by Achille Valenciennes,
Charles Plumier and Jacques Christophe Werner… what a collection of talent!


3 planches naturalistes

At a time when the only living things people knew about were their local cows, meadows, woods and game, the d’Orbigny brothers were able to reveal its vast range of wonders with the entire world. Let’s show our gratitude and share their enthusiasm.

On Friday 22 May it’s World Biodiversity Day, so why not choose your favourite naturalist drawing and to share it with us in the comments below this article? It’s easy to find them online, but if you need a little inspiration, why not take a look at our Pinterest account? We keep it updated regularly.

Let’s keep on surprising ourselves!

* Wikipédia.

Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

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Further reading (bibliography)

Brygoo, Raoul. Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-1857). Paris : Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, 1995. Document non publié.

Fischer, Paul. « Notice sur la vie et les travaux d’Alcide d’Orbigny ». Bulletin de la Société géologique de France. 1878, vol. 6, pp. 434-453.

Gioda, Alain & Roux, Jean-Claude. « Alcide d’Orbigny, voyageur ». Pour la Science. 2002, n° 296, pp. 68-74.

Laurent, Goulven. « Orbigny, Alcide d’, 1802-1857 » in Tort, Patrick, dir. Dictionnaire du Darwinisme et de l’Évolution. Paris : PUF, 1996. Vol. 3.

Legré-Zaidline, Françoise. Voyage en Alcidie. Paris : Boubée, 1977.

Legré-Zaidline, Françoise. Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny (1802-1857). Paris : l’Harmattan, 2002.

Taquet, Philippe, dir. Alcide d’Orbigny. Paris : Muséum national d’histoire naturelle & Nathan, 2002.

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