In the town of Montbeliard, France, then belonging to the Duke of
Wuertemberg, August 23, 1769, was born the founder of the Science of
Comparative Anatomy; the greatest naturalist of his time, Georges
Leopold Chretien Frederic Dagobert Cuvier. His father was a brave
officer in a Swiss regiment, who at fifty married a young lady of
unusual ability. Their first son died, and the second, Georges, was so
feeble in constitution that his life was saved only by the tenderest
care of his mother.
For this mother the boy cherished the most ardent affection. While she
lived, there was nothing left undone that a loving nature could do for
her. When she died, everything connected with her memory became sacred.
When Cuvier had become honored by kings and nobles, when the great from
all the world delighted to bring him offerings, nothing so touched his
heart as the gift of a bouquet of red stocks, her favorite flower.
Perchance the benignity that came into his face in later years was the
result of these sweet remembrances.
She taught him to read at four, and, though ignorant of Latin, she made
him repeat his lessons to her daily, so that he was the best prepared of
any boy in school. She read to him history and general literature. She
made him draw under her inspection. She talked with him about books till
a passion for reading became the chief characteristic of his nature. No
wonder that he loved such an inspiring woman. The history of most great
men emphasizes the fact that the mothers cannot be too highly educated.
At ten years of age he was placed in a high school, called a Gymnase,
where for four years he studied Latin, Greek, history, geography, and
mathematics, and was constantly at the head of his classes. Naturally
enthusiastic, he played as heartily as he studied.
As is often the case, a book turned the course of his life, and made him
famous. At the Gymnase he found a work of Gesner, the Swiss naturalist,
and this, with its colored plates, first turned his attention to natural
history. This liking was intensified by finding at the house of a
relative the complete works of Buffon, the noted naturalist, who wrote
thirty-six volumes in his own brilliant and poetic style, describing the
animal kingdom. The boy became intensely interested in the habits of
quadrupeds and birds; their form, their color, and their homes. He
copied the illustrations in the work, and colored them with paint or
pieces of silk. He always carried a volume of Buffon in his pocket to
read when he had a moment of leisure. At twelve, he was a well-read
In his last year in the Gymnase, when he was fourteen, he chose a
certain number of his school-fellows, and formed an Academy. Every
Thursday he gathered the lads into his room, and placing them around a
table, seated himself upon his bed, and after some book had been read on
natural history, philosophy, history, or travels, he asked their
opinions of it, and then, being president, summed up the argument in a
clear and concise manner. The mother's seed-sowing in the mind of her
ardent boy was bearing fruit.
As the family were poor, and had only a soldier's pension to support
them, it was decided that Georges should enter the free school at
Tuebingen, and prepare for the church. But the principal of the Gymnase,
who had never forgiven the boy for some playful trick, placed his
composition in the third rank. Georges knew that it deserved the first
rank, and that this low standard would affect his position in college.
He, therefore, resolved not to enter Tuebingen, and, though he was
thereby lost to the church, he was saved for great scientific work.
A fortunate thing now happened. A woman, a princess, who knew about the
bright boy, spoke of him to her brother, Duke Charles of Wuertemberg.
When the duke visited Montbeliard, he sent for the lad, questioned him
as to what he had learned, asked to see his drawings, and ended by
sending him free of expense to the University of Stuttgart, to enter his
own Academy, called the Academy Caroline. It seemed a little thing for a
lady to speak of a boy's studiousness and great love of books, but it
proved a great thing for Georges Cuvier and for the scientific world.
Thousands of women and men could do more of these little acts of
kindness, if they only thought of it. Well said Thomas Hood:--
"Evil is wrought by want of thought,
As well as want of heart."
The boy of fourteen said good-by to his devoted mother, and started for
Stuttgart, seated between the Chamberlain and the Secretary of the Grand
Duke. Both spoke German all the way, and the lonesome boy did not
understand a word. He entered the Academy May 4, 1784, and for four
years studied mathematics, law, philosophy, finance, and the like.
But he lost no opportunity to study natural history. A professor gave
him the works of Linnaeus, and he gained inspiration from the young man
who could travel four thousand miles through the marshes of Lapland,
nearly barefoot and half-starved, in his study of plants. Georges now
collected a herbarium. When he had leisure, he drew and colored insects,
birds, and flowers with great accuracy. He kept a number of living
insects in his room, constantly feeding them, and watching their habits.
He said years afterward, "If I had not studied insects from choice, when
I was at college, I should have done so later, from a conviction of its
necessity." He declared that the wonders he met with in the
organization of insects always elevated his thoughts.
Nine months after his arrival in Germany, he won the prize at the
Academy for excellence in the German language, receiving the order of
Chevalerie, an honor given only to five or six out of four hundred
pupils. This entitled the recipients to dine at a separate table, and to
enjoy many advantages under the immediate patronage of the Grand Duke.
When the four years of college life were over, the father's pension
having ceased on account of the disturbed financial condition of France,
the youth of eighteen needed to find employment at once. Nothing seemed
open to him but the position of tutor in a private family, a thing much
deprecated by his school-fellows, who had already built many air-castles
for his future.
But young Cuvier had the courage and the wisdom to do what necessity
required, and to do it cheerfully. In July, 1788, he entered the family
of Count d'Hericy in Caen, Normandy, and for six years taught his only
son. He took with him, says a friend, "these admirable foundations for
glory: a love of labor, depth of reflection, perseverance, and
uprightness of character." While teaching here, he met the nobility of
the surrounding country, increasing thereby his polish of manner and
tact, for which he was celebrated all his life.
Living by the sea, he was led to study marine animals. The casual
dissection of a calamar, a species of cuttle-fish, influenced him to
study the anatomy of mollusca, which afterward led to his great
classification of the whole animal kingdom. In this obscure corner of
Normandy, the young teacher observed, and committed his observations to
paper. Some young men would not have found time for such work. Those
only succeed who have sufficient force of character to make time for
what they wish to do. To allow one's time to be wasted, is to allow
one's opportunities for eminence to go by forever.
Nearly every evening Cuvier attended a small society of which he was
secretary, which gathered chiefly to discuss agricultural and kindred
topics. M. Tessier, living there in exile under an assumed name, the
author of several valuable articles in the Encyclopedia, was often
present, and between him and the young secretary a warm friendship soon
existed. As the friendship of the Marquis Guidubaldo proved valuable to
Galileo, so that of M. Tessier proved of great benefit to Cuvier. He led
the young and comparatively unknown naturalist, though some of his
articles had been published in learned journals, to correspond with
Geoffroy St. Hilaire, De Lacepede, and others on scientific subjects.
Through their influence he was finally called to Paris, made a member of
the Commission of Arts, and professor at the Central School of the
He was only twenty-six, and this was but the beginning of honors. Here
he composed his "Elementary Treatise on the Natural History of
Animals." His great desire was to be attached to the Museum of Natural
History, where he could study the collections and enlarge them. Very
soon after his arrival in Paris, M. Mertrud was appointed to the newly
created chair of Comparative Anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes. He was
advanced in years. And now came the opportunity for friendship to do its
work. Geoffroy St. Hilaire and De Lacepede were his colleagues. They
urged that their friend Cuvier be appointed assistant, and Mertrud
gladly consented. This was indeed an honor, since Daubenton, Buffon,
Lamarck, and other European celebrities had filled this position.
Cuvier at once sent for his aged father, now nearly eighty years old,
and his only brother, Frederic, to make their home with him. The
precious mother had died two years previously. She did not live to see
the fame of her eldest son, but she must have been convinced of his
future greatness, and been comforted by the prospect.
From the moment of entering upon his new work, Cuvier began to develop
that wonderful collection in comparative anatomy which is now so
celebrated. Nothing ever turned him from his purpose of making this the
most extensive collection in the world; no sorrow, no legislative
duties, no absence. No one who has visited Paris will ever forget the
seventy-five acres in the Jardin des Plantes, with trees and flowers
from all the world; with thirteen rooms filled with skeletons and
anatomical preparations of all kinds; with eleven rooms in the gallery
of anthropology containing every variety of the human species, in casts,
mummies, and fossils; with the gallery of zooelogy containing over two
thousand mammalia, belonging to five hundred species, as many reptiles,
ten thousand birds, and over twenty-five hundred fishes; with immense
geological, mineralogical, and botanical collections; all a marvel of
industry and learning.
Cuvier now worked unceasingly. Sometimes his salary was in arrears, but
he bore it cheerfully, as he wrote a friend: "You are not to suppose
that Paris is so highly favored; for twelve months' pay are now due at
the Jardin des Plantes, and all the national establishments for public
instruction, in Paris as well as at Strasburg; and if we envy the
elephants, it is not because they are better paid than we are, but
because while living on credit, as we do, they are not aware of it, and
consequently are insensible to the pain it gives. You know the saying
about the French, that when they have no money they sing. We savants,
who are not musicians, work at our sciences instead of singing, which
comes to the same thing." He is a hero, indeed, who can breast poverty,
and work and sing in the midst of hardship. When he published his
"Annals of the Museum," he not only drew, but often engraved the plates
himself, when he was unable, for lack of means, to hire it done.
The National Institution was founded in 1796, and Cuvier was associated
with his friends De Lacepede and Daubenton, in the section of zooelogy,
holding the position of Secretary of Natural Sciences till his death.
Four years later, in 1800, the first two volumes of his "Lessons in
Comparative Anatomy" were published, and met with great success. The
last three volumes were issued five years later.
In this year, 1800, Cuvier received another honor, that of the
professorship of Natural Philosophy in the College de France. He was now
but thirty-one. The following year, Napoleon I., who was usually wise in
his selection of men, appointed him one of the six inspectors-general of
education, to establish public schools in thirty towns of France.
Every moment now seemed occupied, and yet while the brain was busy
perchance the heart was lonely. The father had died two years after the
mother. The wife of his brother Frederic had died, also, and the two
brothers were left alone. At thirty-four, Cuvier decided to take into
his heart and home the widow of M. Duvaucel, Fermier-General, who had
perished on the scaffold in 1794. The family had lost all their money in
the French Revolution, and Madame Duvaucel had four large children to be
supported; but Cuvier loved her for her rare mind and sweet disposition,
and she blessed the remaining years of his life. An educated man needs
companionship in mind; not simply a housekeeper.
Six years later one of her sons was assassinated in Portugal, during the
retreat of the French army. Another, while collecting for the Museum of
Paris, died in Madras, a young man of great talent and much beloved. A
daughter, Mlle. Duvaucel, lived to be the comfort of Cuvier's declining
Happy in his home and absorbed with his work, Cuvier went forward to new
labors and new honors. M. Mertrud had died, and, instead of being
assistant at the Jardin des Plantes, Cuvier was now professor. In 1808
Napoleon made him counsellor for life of the Imperial University. The
next year he organized new academies in the Italian States, which were
now annexed to France. In 1811 he was sent on a similar mission to
Holland and the Hanseatic towns, and was made a chevalier, which rank
was assured to his heirs. Though he disliked to be absent from his
family, he went where duty called him, and wrote back fond letters to
"MY TENDER FRIEND,--The weather, the road, the horses, and the
postilions have proved so excellent that we have reached Porte Sainte
Mayence before six o'clock; and I have bitterly regretted the two or
three good hours that I might still have passed with thee, without in
the least delaying my journey. At least believe that I have passed them
in my imagination, and that the remembrance of thy caresses and tender
friendship will form the happiness of my whole way." After some words to
the children, he added, "We are quite well, my good friend; we have
crossed an agreeable country; and we are in a tolerable inn. Our
carriage appears to be quite able to bear the journey; thus, up to this
moment, all goes well. Pray to God that this may last; thou art so good
that he cannot refuse thee. Adieu. A thousand tender kisses. G. C."
This year, 1811, appeared one of his most important works--that on
"Fossil Remains," which wrought a revolution in the study of geology. By
comparing living and fossil animals, Cuvier showed that huger creatures
had lived on the earth and become extinct before the creation of man. In
the first epoch he found great reptiles, like the Ichthyosaurus, thirty
feet long, and the Megalosaurus, seventy feet long. In the second epoch,
he found the Paleotherium; in the third, the Mammoth, Mastodon, and
gigantic sloth; and in the fourth epoch, man. So closely had he studied
the relations of the organs of animals, that he could reconstruct the
extinct fossil from a single bone. He had already prepared, at the
request of Napoleon, a brilliant "Report on the Progress of Natural
Sciences from the year 1789."
In 1813, though a Protestant, he was sent to Rome to organize a
university, and was made Master of Requests in the Council of State.
Napoleon also appointed him Commissaire Imperial Extraordinaire, and
sent him to endeavor to raise the people on the left bank of the Rhine
in favor of France, against the invading troops then marching upon
them. But Cuvier was stopped at Nancy by the entrance of the allied
armies, and obliged to return.
He was now famous, and his company and counsel were sought by the
learned and the great. And he was still a comparatively young man,
But life had great sorrows in the midst of this prosperity. His first
child, a son, had died a few weeks after his birth. His daughter Annie
had died in 1812, at the age of four, and now in 1813, while he was
absent in Rome, his only son, Georges, a boy of seven, had been taken
from him. The blow was a terrible one. For many years he never saw a boy
near that age, without being deeply affected. He would stop on the
streets to watch a group of boys playing, and then go on sadly, thinking
of the one he had buried.
In 1814, Cuvier was raised to the rank of Counsellor of State, and
Chancellor of the University. When Napoleon was asked why he had
appointed a savant to a political position, he replied, "that he may be
able to rest himself sometimes," knowing that to a man like Cuvier
change was the most helpful rest. When Napoleon abdicated his throne,
and Louis XVIII. came to power, Cuvier was retained in office, for his
rare administrative ability, and upright life.
Three years later, the first edition of his "Animal Kingdom" appeared,
and is now to be seen in the British Museum, in seventeen volumes. This
work has served as the basis for subsequent zooelogical classification.
Cuvier studied minutely the interior structure of animals, and based his
classification on this, instead of exterior resemblance.
After this great work was published, Cuvier went with his family to
London, for a rest of six weeks. Here he received distinguished
attention from Sir William Herschel, and other learned men.
In 1819, he was appointed President of the Committee of the Interior,
and in this position, which he held for life, it is believed ten
thousand various matters passed through his hands each year, for his
examination and decision. He officiated at the crowning of Charles X.,
as one of the presidents of the Council of State, and received from that
monarch the decoration of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. His
former sovereign, the King of Wuertemberg, appointed him Commander of the
Order of the Crown.
All this time in which he was doing earnest and responsible work for his
country, he was writing and lecturing almost constantly. So careful was
he of his time, that he always read or wrote as he was riding in his
carriage through the streets of Paris. A lamp in the back of his
carriage he used at night, till he found that he was injuring his eyes.
Even while he was sitting for a portrait, to be used as a frontispiece
for his book, "Discourse on the Revolutions of the Globe," his wife's
daughter read to him the "Fortunes of Nigel." In the evenings, when he
was too tired for scientific research, his wife or daughter read to him
Every Saturday evening a reception was held at the home of Baron Cuvier,
and there one was sure to meet the most brilliant and learned from all
parts of Europe, whether rich or poor....
Cuvier delighted everybody by his courtesy and his cordiality. Another
person also was the life of these gatherings,--his beautiful daughter
Clementine, his only remaining child. Never strong in body, she had been
reared with the tenderest care. Devoted to all good work, reading to
aged women, visiting the poor, educated, and of extreme loveliness of
character, she was the idol of her family and of society. On the 25th of
August, 1828, she was to have been married, but, while in the midst of
the preparations, she fell ill of consumption, and died the following
month, September 28.
The effect on both parents was crushing. Cuvier's light hair grew white,
and lines gathered in his face. After two months he took his place again
at the head of the Committee of the Interior. He listened attentively to
all the discussions, but when it came his turn to speak, he burst into
tears, and covered his bowed face in his hands, and sobbed bitterly.
Finally he raised his head and said, "Pardon me, gentlemen, I was a
father, and I have lost all!" and then with a violent effort he resumed
the business of the day, with his usual calmness.
He devoted himself now more than ever to his books, as though he must
use every moment, or be prostrated with grief. This same year, 1828, the
first book in a series of twenty volumes, beautifully illustrated,
appeared, on the "Natural History of Fishes, containing more than five
thousand species of those animals, described after nature, and
distributed according to their affinities, with observations on their
anatomy, and critical researches on their nomenclature, ancient as well
In 1832, he was created a Peer of France, by Louis Philippe. Every honor
had come that could be asked or desired. His books were eagerly read;
crowds attended his lectures; he was loved, honored, and revered; but
death had robbed him of the sweetest things in life.
On Tuesday, May 8, 1832, he lectured as usual before the College de
France, on the "History and Progress of Science in all Ages." In the
evening he felt a numbness in his right arm. It was the beginning of the
end. Paralysis soon developed.
He said to M. Pasquier, President of the Chamber of Peers, "Behold a
very different person to the man of Tuesday--of Saturday. Nevertheless,
I had great things still to do. All was ready in my head; after thirty
years of labor and research, there remained but to write; and now the
hands fail, and carry with them the head."
M. Pasquier tenderly expressed the universal interest felt for M.
Cuvier. "I like to think so," said the dying man; "I have long labored
to render myself worthy of it." He is to be pitied, indeed, who does
not care whether the world loves him.
On May 13, the nomination of Cuvier to the presidency of the whole
Council of State was taken to the sovereign for his signature, but it
came too late. Cuvier died that day. Four hours before his death he had
asked to be taken into the room where he had met and talked with so many
of the renowned of earth, and where his Clementine had charmed them by
her presence. And there he died.
He was buried in Pere la Chaise, by his own request, under the tombstone
which covered Clementine, and whose death had virtually caused his own.
His coffin was borne by the pupils of the different colleges in which he
had taught, thousands following it to the cemetery. His library of
nineteen thousand volumes was purchased by the government for the Jardin
des Plantes. There was no child left to bear his titles.
Not only do the books of such a man live; his whole life, with its
untiring energy, its promptness, its order, its unfaltering purpose,
its high aims, as well as its tenderness and nobility of heart, is a