Pierre André Latreille: The Entomologist Who Escaped Death Because of a Beetle

Sep 29, 2020 0 comments

Pierre André Latreille owed his life to a beetle. The French zoologist is often considered to be the father of modern entomology, having made considerable additions to our knowledge of that branch of natural science, especially in the field of crustaceans and insects. He named hundreds of taxa, as well as many species and countless genera. He was the first person who attempted a natural classification of the arthropods. The concept of the “type species”, where a species of a genus is regarded as the best example of the generic characters of the genus, was also his idea. But all these was to come later. At first, he needed to escape execution.

The obelisk and bust of Pierre-André Latreille over his grave

The obelisk and bust of Pierre-André Latreille over his grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons

Pierre André Latreille was born on 29 November 1762 in the town of Brive, then in the province of Limousin. He was the illegitimate child of Jean Joseph Sahuguet d'Amarzit, general baron d'Espagnac. His mother, whose identity was not known, abandoned him, and his father never recognized him, although he did provide financial support for Latreille's upbringing and education. Effectively orphaned, Latreille did however had influential protectors, who ensured that Latreille had a good education. He studied initially in Brive and in Paris at the Collège du Cardinal-Lemoine attached to the University of Paris to become a priest. He entered the Grand Séminaire of Limoges in 1780, and left as a deacon in 1786. Despite being qualified to preach, Latreille never carried out his functions as a minister. Instead, he found that he had a growing interest in entomology.

Even when he was studying to be a priest, Latreille often visited the botanical gardens of Jardin du Roi and caught insects in the neighborhood of Paris. One of his patrons, the famous mineralogist Abbe R. J. Hally also gave him lessons on botany, a fact which helped him to make the acquaintance of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Pierre-André Latreille

Pierre-André Latreille

Meanwhile, a major socio-political storm was brewing in France. People were fed up with the monarchy and the feudal system and rose in revolt. The Estates General took control of the Assembly and the peasants stormed Bastille, the symbol of Royal authority. Many aristocrats and members of the clergy were arrested, including King Louis XVI. A new law was passed that caused the immediate subordination of the Catholic Church to the French government. This law demanded that every priest take an oath of allegiance to the state.

Many Clergy refused to take the oath, because they couldn’t make themselves put their loyalty towards France before their loyalty towards God. Latreille was one of them, and consequently he was arrested and imprisoned. Soon, he would be exiled to a penal colony where death was certain.

While awaiting his sentence in the dungeons of Bordeaux, Latreille noticed a peculiar beetle scuttling around the floor of his dungeon cell. He was eagerly studying his invertebrate cellmate when the prison doctor came for a visit. The physician was startled to see a grown man on all fours scrutinizing what appeared to be the stone slabs of the dungeon floor, when Latreille carefully picked up the beetle (Necrobia ruficollis), turned to the prison doctor and exclaimed, “It’s a very rare beetle.” The doctor was duly impressed, and to check whether Latreille was right, sent the beetle to a very precocious 15-year-old naturalist Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent. As luck would have it, Bory de Saint-Vincent already knew Latreille from his previous publications. Horrified to learn that Latreille was imprisoned, the well-connected Bory de Saint-Vincent hurriedly arranged for Latreille’s release. Within a month, all the other condemned men were dead.

Necrobia ruficollis

Necrobia ruficollis. Photo: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock.com

After Latreille’s close brush with death, he decided to stay away from politics and devoted his remaining life to entomology. With the encouragement of Johan Christian Fabricius (who first classified Necrobia ruficollis), Latreille published his first work Précis des caractères génériques des insectes. In 1798, Latreille was appointed to the French Museum of Natural History, where he worked alongside Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, curating the arthropod collections, and published a number of zoological works. In 1814, Latreille became the titular member of the French Academy of Sciences. In the years that followed, Latreille published many important papers for the museum including all of the volume on arthropods for George Cuvier's Le Règne Animal and hundreds of entries on entomological subjects. In 1829 he succeeded Lamarck as professor of entomology.

When Latreille died in 1833, the French Entomological Society erected an obelisk over Latreille's grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery with an inscription that said, “Necrobia ruficollis, Latreille's saviour”.

The obelisk and bust of Pierre-André Latreille over his grave

The tombstone of Pierre-André Latreille. Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons

# Claude Dupuis, Pierre-André Latreille, the foremost entomologist of his time, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.en.19.010174.000245
# David M. Damkaer, The Copepodologist's Cabinet: A Biographical and Bibliographical History, Part 1
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_André_Latreille


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