Jean Léopold Frédéric Cuvier, known as Georges (1769-1832)

The inventor of Palaeontology

  • Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Cuvier was born in Montbéliard – which at the time belonged to the Duchy of Wurttemberg, but was of French culture and language – into a middle-class, Lutheran family. There were numerous pastors on his father’s as well as on his mother’s side. After completing secondary school education at the Montbéliard Gymnasium where he proved to be exceptionally gifted in all subjects, he opted for theological studies, but failed to obtain a scholarship for Tübingen University. In 1785, the Duke of Wurttemberg offered him a scholarship to attend the renowned Carolinian Academy in Stuttgart. In this modern college he was able to acquire a wide knowledge in economics, as well as in geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, and in languages, several of which he spoke fluently.

Returning home in Montbéliard, he was offered a tutoring position in Normandy where he was able to observe the marine fauna. He met the Abbé Teissier , an agronomist, member of the former Royal Academy of Science, and also Chief Medical Officer at the military hospital in Fécamp. Teissier shared with Cuvier his research on molluscs and, impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge, introduced him to his friends in Paris, where Cuvier settled in 1795 to embark on a brilliant career. At first he was appointed lecturer in Natural History at the Ecole Centrale du Panthéon, then, in 1799, to the chair of Natural History at the Collège de France, where he succeeded Daubenton. Etienne Geoffroy Saint -Hilaire, director of the Jardin des Plantes. The latter suggested his appointment as Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Museum of Natural History of which he was to become the director in 1808.

He was already well-known when, in 1812, he published his opus Recherches sur les Ossements Fossiles des Quadrupèdes (Researches on the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds). He advanced the law of subordination of organs (the organs of a living being affect each other and cooperate to bring about the same action through reciprocal reaction), and he established a new classification for vertebrates. The principle of the correlation of features (each part of an animal is determined by each other part and all by only one) enabled him to reconstruct complete skeletons from bones and fossils, thus proving the existence of fauna so far unknown. Cuvier is the inventor of Paleontology. He defended his theory of cataclycisme (catastrophist scenario) in his Discours sur la Révolution du Globe ( Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheaval on the Surface of the Earth) and opposed actualisme, a theory according to which the laws that determined past geological phenomena are identical to those that determine present phenomena ; conversely, according to Cuvier’s catastrophism, some events in the past can only be explained by specific and often violent phenomena. Favouring fixisme (immutability), he opposed his colleague Lamarck who was at the time perfecting the fundamental theory of the transformation of the species, thus introducing the theories of evolution. Did his Protestant origins influence his scientific commitment ? The combination of catastrophism and immutability may, in his mind, have been closer to biblical sources as an explanation of the disappearance of certain species than was the concept of evolution.

Along with his scientific activities, Cuvier played an important role in education and in the University reform begun by Napoleon. Appointed Inspector General for Public Education in 1802, then Councillor for the University, he organized the lycées of Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nice. In 1810, he re-organized the Academies of Northern Italy, then the grandes écoles (institutions of higher education) in the French départements of Lower Germany and the Netherlands. In 1813 he reorganized public education in the Papal States and in France he established cantonal committees for primary education.

A man of power

He accumulated a great number of responsibilities and many honours. Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Sciences, he was made Maître des Requêtes in 1813, then appointed State Councillor by Louis XVIII in 1814 ; in 1819 he was appointed president of the Interior committee of the State Council. Made Baron in 1818, he was elected to the Académie Française, ( to which he was to introduce Lamartine in 1830). In his capacity as a liberal he was appointed in 1820 Chancellor of the University, but he soon resigned from this charge. He was opposed to the admission of Jesuits to the University, and refused to censure the Press under Charles X who had made him Grand Officer of the Légion d’Honneur. He was raised to the peerage during the July Monarchy, and was president of the State Council while keeping his Professorship at the Collège de France. His brother Frédéric succeeds him at the State Council and the Direction of Religious Affairs.

Faithful to Lutheranism

  • Clémentine Cuvier © S.H.P.F.

After he approached Napoleon for the organisation of the Lutheran Church in Paris, the latter was established in 1806 at the Oratoire des Billettes. In 1824, he was placed in charge of the Faculty of Protestant Theology and in 1828 he was appointed director of non-Roman Catholic religions. He encouraged the creation of numerous pastoral positions, especially in the Pays de Montbéliard. His daughter Clémentine devoted much of her time to Protestant charities.

Balzac’s quotation about the man he considered equal to Napoleon is well-known « Cuvier is married to the globe ». Cuvier was ironical and authoritarian ; he was a man of considerable influence.


  • Sites
    • | Link
  • Books
    • CABANEL Patrick et ENCREVE André , Dictionnaire biographique des protestants français, de 1787 à nos jours, Editions de Paris - Max Chaleil, Paris, 2015, Tome 1 : A-C

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