Scientist of the Day - Bernard-Germain de La Cépède
Bernard-Germain-Etienne de La Ville sur Illon, comte de La Cépède, a French naturalist, died Oct. 6, 1825, at the age of 68. La Cépède was a much younger contemporary of another French count, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, who by 1780 was 2/3 the way through publishing his monumental Histoire naturelle. Buffon had started with quadrupeds (15 vols.) then moved on to birds and minerals, but he was starting to run out of steam and years before he got to the rest of animal kingdom. It was at this point that La Cépède stepped in, compiling the last 8 volumes of the Histoire naturelle: two on reptiles (1788-90), five on fish (1798-1803), and one on whales and porpoises (1804). The volumes were illustrated by the same artists used by Buffon, so the transition was seamless, and it is easy to be unaware that the Histoire naturelle was completed by La Cépède, although, if one notes that Buffon died in 1788, it should not be that hard to figure out that he must have had some posthumous help. By this time, La Cépède was professor of zoology (reptiles and fish) at the Museum of Natural History at Paris, and he would hold that post until his death.
We have an original edition of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle in the Library, which includes La Cépède’s final 8 volumes, and the first two images above show a chameleon and a geometric turtle from those volumes. We also have an 1856 edition of just the La Cépède volumes, with a brand new set of engravings, now hand-colored, and the third and fourth images above are from this later edition, depicting a viper, and a trio of fish on a beach. The last image is a portrait of La Cépède.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.