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He was born at Montbéliard (then Mömpelgard in Württemberg) under the name of Johann Leopold Nicolaus Friedrich Kuefer, and was the son of a retired officer on half-pay belonging to a Protestant family which had emigrated from the Jura mountains on the French-Swiss border as a consequence of religious persecution.
He early showed a bent towards the investigation of natural phenomena, and was noted for his studious habits and marvelous memory. After spending four years at the Academy of Stuttgart , he accepted the position of tutor in the family of the Comte d'Héricy , who was in the habit of spending the summer near Fécamp. It thus came about that he made the acquaintance of the agriculturist, AH Tessier , who was then living at Fécamp, and who wrote strongly in favour of his protégé to his friends in Paris -- with the result that Cuvier, after corresponding with the well-known naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was appointed in 1795 assistant to the professor of comparative anatomy at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.
The Institut de France was founded in the same year and he was elected a member. In 1796 he began to lecture at the École Centrale du Pantheon , and at the opening of the National Institute in April, he read his first palaeontological paper, which was subsequently published in 1800 under the title Mémoires sur les espèces d'éléphants vivants et fossiles. In 1798 was published his first separate work, the Tableau élémentaire de l'Histoire naturelle des animaux, which was an abridgment of his course of lectures at the École du Pantheon, and may be regarded as the foundation and first and general statement of his natural classification of the animal kingdom.
In 1799 he succeeded LJM Daubenton as professor of natural history in the College de France, and in the following year he published the Leçons d'anatomie comparée, a classical work, in the production of which he was assisted by André Marie Constant Duméril in the first two volumes, and by Georges Louis Duvernoy in three later ones. In 1802 Cuvier became titular professor at the Jardin des Plantes; and in the same year he was appointed commissary of the Institute to accompany the inspectors general of public instruction. In this latter capacity he visited the south of France; but he was in the early part of 1803 chosen perpetual secretary of the National Institute in the department of the physical and natural sciences, and he consequently abandoned the appointment just mentioned and returned to Paris.
He now devoted himself more especially to three lines of inquiry--one dealing with the structure and classification of the Mollusca, the second with the comparative anatomy and systematic arrangement of the fishes, and the third with fossil mammals and reptiles primarily, and secondarily with the osteology of living forms belonging to the same groups. His papers on the Mollusca began as early as 1792, but most of his memoirs on this branch were published in the Annales du museum between 1802 and 1815; they were subsequently collected as Mémoires pour l'ervir de l'histoire et a l'anatomie des mollusques, published in one volume at Paris in 1817.
In the department of fishes, Cuvier's researches, begun in 1801, finally culminated in the publication of the Histoire naturelle des poissons, which contained descriptions of 5000 species of fishes, and was the joint production of Cuvier and A Valenciennes, its publication (so far as the former was concerned) extending over the years 1828 - 1831. The department of palaeontology dealing with the Mammalia may be said to have been essentially created and established by Cuvier.
In this region of investigation he published a long list of memoirs, partly relating to the bones of extinct animals, and partly detailing the results of observations on the skeletons of living animals specially examined with a view of throwing light upon the structure and affinities of the fossil forms. In the second category must be placed a number of papers relating to the osteology of the Rhinoceros Indicus, the tapir, Hyrax Capensis, the hippopotamus, the sloths, the manatee, etc. In the former category must be classed an even greater number of memoirs, dealing with the extinct mammals of the Eocene beds of Montmartre, the fossil species of hippopotamus, the Didelphys gypsorum , the Megalonyx , the Megatherium, the cave-hyena, the pterodactyl, the extinct species of rhinoceros, the cave bear, the mastodont, the extinct species of elephant, fossil species of manatee and seals, fossil forms of crocodilians, chelonians , fishes, birds, etc.
The results of Cuvier's principal palaeontological and geological investigations were ultimately given to the world in the form of two separate works. One of these is the celebrated Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupedes, published in Paris in 1812, with subsequent editions in 1821 and 1825; and the other is his Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe, published in Paris in 1825.
But none of his works attained a higher reputation than his Regne animal distribué d'après son organisation, the first edition of which appeared in four octavo volumes in 1817, and the second in five volumes in 1829 - 1830. In this classical work Cuvier embodied the results of the whole of his previous researches on the structure of living and fossil animals. The whole of the work was his own, with the exception of the Insecta, in which he was assisted by his friend Pierre André Latreille.
In 1821, Cuvier made what has been called his "Rash Dictum": He remarked that it was unlikely for any large, unknown animal to be discovered. Many such discoveries have been made since Cuvier's statement.
Apart from his own original investigations in zoology and paleontology Cuvier carried out a vast amount of work as perpetual secretary of the National Institute, and as an official connected with public education generally; and much of this work appeared ultimately in a published form. Thus, in 1808 he was placed by Napoleon upon the council of the Imperial University, and in this capacity he presided (in the years 1809, 1811 and 1813) over commissions charged to examine the state of the higher educational establishments in the districts beyond the Alps and the Rhine which had been annexed to France, and to report upon the means by which these could be affiliated with the central university. Three separate reports on this subject were published by him.
In his capacity, again, of perpetual secretary of the Institute, he not only prepared a number of éloges historiques on deceased members of the Academy of Sciences, but he was the author of a number of reports on the history of the physical and natural sciences, the most important of these being the Rapport historique sur le progrès des sciences physiques depuis 1789, published in 1810.
Prior to the fall of Napoleon (1814) he had been admitted to the council of state, and his position remained unaffected by the restoration of the Bourbons. He was elected chancellor of the university, in which capacity he acted as interim president of the council of public instruction, whilst he also, as a Lutheran, superintended the faculty of Protestant theology. In 1819 he was appointed president of the committee of the interior, and retained the office until his death.
In 1826 he was made grand officer of the Legion of Honour; and in 1831 he was raised by Louis Philippe to the rank of peer of France, and was subsequently appointed president of the council of state. In the beginning of 1832 he was nominated to the ministry of the interior, but in May he died in Paris after a brief illness.
- Dorinda Outram , Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France (Palgrave Macmillan, 1984)
- PJM Flourens, Eloge historique de G. Cuvier, published as an introduction to the Eloges historiques of Cuvier
- Histoire des truvaux de Georges Cuvier (3rd ed., Paris, 1858)
- AP de Candolle, "Mort de G. Cuvier", Bibliothique universelle (1832, 59, p. 442);
- CL Laurillard , "Cuvier," Biographie universelle, supp. vol. 61 (1836)
- Sarah Lee , Memoirs of Cuvier, translated into French by T Lacordaire (1833)
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