Georges Cuvier Biography
CUVIER, Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert, Baron de (1769–1832). A French naturalist, founder of the science of comparative anatomy, born at Montbéliard, then in the Duchy of Württemberg, to which place his father, formerly an officer in a Swiss mercenary regiment, had retired on a pension. He was educated at home in the strictest tenets of the French Protestant or Calvinistic faith, and at the age of 14 entered the Academy at Stuttgart, where he remained four years. His father intended him for the ministry, but he showed such a love for natural history that he was allowed to spend his time in pursuing such studies in that branch of science as the academy afforded, and supplemented them with reading almost every scientific book in the library. In 1788 he became tutor in the family of the Comte d'Héricy, a Protestant nobleman living near Caen, on the coast of Normandy. Here, during the stormy years of the Reign of Terror, he remained, quietly utilizing the rather unusual facilities the neighborhood offered for the study of marine animal life and fossil remains, thus laying the foundations of his future eminence. A chance acquaintance with the Abbé Tessier, a writer on agricultural subjects, who was struck with young Cuvier's remarkable knowledge of zoölogy, secured for him an introduction to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who at once recognized in Cuvier a man of genius and urged him to move to Paris. Here, in 1795, he became, through the influence of Lacé-pède, Lamarck, and others, assistant to Mertrud, the professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes. He immediately took a high position among the scientists in Paris and was chosen one of the original members of the Institute upon its organization in 1795. In 1796 he was chosen professor of natural history at the central school of the Panthéon, and in 1800 he succeeded Daubenton in a similar position at the Collège de France. In 1802 he succeeded Mertrud at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1798 appeared his first separate work, Tableau élémentaire de l'histoire naturelle des animaux, in which he introduced tentatively his classification of animals upon which so much of his fame rests. Between 1800 and 1805 were published the five volumes of his Leçons d'anatomie, which brought together the hitherto disconnected knowledge of comparative anatomy and gave him the right to be considered the founder of that branch of science. In 1800 he published his first work on paleontology, Mémoires sur les espèces d'éléphants vivants et fossiles. At the opening of the nineteenth century, therefore, Cuvier may be said to have already attracted the attention of the scientific world to the three branches with which his name will always be connected.
Cuvier began his career as an administrator in 1802, when he was appointed an inspector of education under the Consulate and helped establish lycées at Marseilles, Bordeaux, and Nice. From 1808 to 1813, as a member of the council of the Imperial University under Napoleon, he spent considerable time in Italy, Holland, and Germany, organizing the academies in the districts recently annexed to the Empire. In 1814 Napoleon made him a Councilor of State, a position which he continued to hold under Louis XVIII. In 1819 he became president of the Committee of the Interior, and chancellor of the University of Paris. He was made a member of the Academy in 1818 and a grand officer of the Legion of Honor in 1826. In 1822 he was appointed grand master of the faculties of Protestant theology, in which position he had supervision of all the civil, political, and religious affairs of Protestant institutions and organizations. In 1831 Louis Philippe made him a peer of France, and in 1832, shortly before his death, was considering him for the office of Minister of the Interior.
With all his administrative duties, Cuvier still found time and opportunity to pursue his scientific investigations. His life work falls naturally into three divisions—paleontology, systematic zoölogy, and comparative anatomy. In each of these departments he achieved remarkable success and left a lasting impression, in spite of mistakes due largely to personal peculiarities derived from his Calvinistic training, such as his refusal to accept the theory of descent. By means of his knowledge of comparative anatomy, and his theory of the correlation of growth, Cuvier "reconstructed" a large number of extinct animals, proving that every geological epoch is represented by distinct animal forms, having a similarity well defined to animals in preceding or succeeding epochs. Nevertheless, he held to the Linnæan doctrine of the constancy of species, and looked upon the similarity of animal forms in successive epochs as a recurrence of types rather than a steady development of the same type. In comparative anatomy his work in special fields was as remarkable as it was valuable. His investigations of the comparative anatomy of fishes and of the osteology of mammals may be mentioned as two of his most valuable contributions to zoölogy. In systematic zoölogy his work was of great originality and importance, for to him is due the reclassification of the animal kingdom on a natural basis, in place of the artificial and arbitrary classification of Linaeus. Cuvier's system was based on the constancy and morphological resemblance of types rather than on outward similarities of structure. It remained the standard arrangement of animals until set aside by modern investigators. Cuvier's great work, Le règne animal (1816), became at once the standard reference book in natural history.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 394-395.