Pierre André Latreille – The Father of modern Entomology

Discovering Necrobia ruficollis while in prison saved Latreille's life

Discovering Necrobia ruficollis while in prison saved Latreille’s life

On November 29, 1762, French zoologist Pierre André Latreille was born. Latreille was considered the foremost entomologist of his time, and was described by one of his pupils as “the prince of entomologists”. Latreille made the first detailed classification of crustaceans and insects using a “natural method” of classification combining the approaches of Linnaeus and Fabricius.

Pierre André Latreille was born on November 29, 1762 in the town of Brive, then in the province of Limousin. He was orphaned at an early age, but had influential protectors – first a physician, then a merchant from Brive, and later a baron and his family, who brought him to Paris in 1778. Latreille studied at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine to become a priest, initially in Brive, and later in Paris.

Already during his studies, Latreille had taken on an interest in natural history, visiting the Jardin du Roi planted by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and catching insects around Paris. He received lessons on botany from René Just Haüy, which allowed him to meet Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Unfortunately after the start of the French Revolution, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was declared in 1790, which required priests to swear an oath of allegiance to the state. Latreille failed to do so and was therefore imprisoned in November 1793 under threat of execution.

Fortunately however with the help of the prison’s doctor, Latreille among with a cellmate was released and started a life as a teacher. Also, he began to correspond with several enomologists including Johan Christian Fabricius. Back in prison, Latreille found a beetle on the dungeon floor. Latreille explained to the doctor that this was a rare insect and as he was so impressed, the physician sent the beetle to a naturalist who knew Latreille’s work and managed to have him released from prison. Fabricius decribed the beetle in 1775.

Fabricius became one of Latreille’s supporter and with his encouragement, the scientist was able to publish his Précis des caractères génériques des insectes. In 1798, Latreille was appointed to the museum, where he worked alongside Lamarck, curating the arthropod collections, and published a number of zoological works.

Latreille succeeded Guillaume-Antoine Olivier in 1814 as titular member of the Académie des sciences de l’Institut de France and in the following years, Latreille managed to produce several important papers for the Mémoires du Muséum, all of the volume on arthropods for George Cuvier’s Le Règne Animal, and hundreds of entries in the Nouveau Dictionnaire d’Histoire Naturelle on entomological subjects. He also took on an increasing proportion of Lamarck’s teaching as the latter’s health began to decline. Latreille was made a knight of the Légion d’honneur in 1821 and succeeded Lamarck as professor of entomology in the same decade.

Unfortunately, Latreille’s health also declined and he gave much of his responsibilities to his assistants. After the death of his wife, Latreille returned to Paris. He died of bladder disease in 1833. The Société entomologique erected a monument in Latreille’s honor over his grave.

References and Further Readings:

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