Scientist of the Day - René Primevére Lesson
René Lesson, a French naval officer, surgeon, and zoologist, died Apr. 28, 1849, at age 55. Lesson was the assistant surgeon on the voyage of La Coquille from 1822 to 1825, which meant, in the tradition of the French navy, that he was also the de facto on-board naturalist. The Coquille was being sent around the world, under the command of Louis Isidore Duperrey, with a mission to visit those places that had escaped the attention of the previous French circumnavigation, that of the Uranie (1817-20). The voyage of the Coquille lasted 3 years, 1822-25, and since the crew remained remarkably healthy for such a long cruise (no one died of scurvy, which was highly unusual—in fact, no one died of anything, which was truly remarkable), and so Lesson was able to wear his naturalist hat most of the time, which he did with great enthusiasm. He collected and drew hundreds of mammal, bird, fish, and invertebrate specimens from island groups scattered through Polynesia and Melanesia, as well as from New Guinea and Australia.
The official narrative of the expedition, Voyage autour du monde, was published by Duperrey with remarkable speed, the first volume emerging in 1825, the same year the Coquille returned, and the last in 1830. Lesson was responsible for the zoology volumes, and we have the complete set in the Library. In 1839, Lesson published his own two-volume book on the voyage, with an identical title: Voyage autour du monde, containing many of his drawings that were not included in the official narrative. Our images today are taken from this second publication of 1839, and include, in order: a wombat, a bird of paradise, a kiwi (with enlarged beak and foot), a view of Borabora, and a portrait of Lesson, which served as a frontispiece to volume 1.
We exhibited this book in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life, where you may see two additional engravings made from Lesson drawings, of a cuscus and a lyrebird.
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