Monday, March 30, 2009

Father Pierre André Latreille

A priest - saved by a bug? Yes...

The department of Zoology which deals with insects counts among its pioneers a Catholic priest, Pierre André Latreille. In his childhood he was abandoned by his parents and thus left dependent on the charity of strangers; in 1786 he chose the Church as his calling with the intention of devoting all his leisure to science. The outbreak of the Revolution compelled him to fly from Paris, and take refuge in his native town of Brive. Here he was arrested and sentenced at Bordeaux to deportation. A rare insect (Necrobia ruficollis) which crawled out the planks of his cell saved him: the prison doctor brought this "find" under the notice of Bory de Saint-Vincent, the naturalist, and the latter secured the liberation of Latreille a few hours before the convict ship was due to sail.

In 1797 Latreille was again in the clutches of the law, but once again his friends managed to save him. He was appointed later to a post in the Paris Museum of Natural History where he had charge of the entomological collection, and occupied important teaching chairs. "They give me bread", he said, "because I have no longer any teeth." Latreille's work relates to reptiles, crustacea, and insects, more especially ants. He was the author of the sections on crustacea, spiders and insects, in Cuvier's great work on Zoology, and also of the description of the collection of crustacea brought by Von Humboldt and Bonpland from South America. Latreille stands among "the leaders of natural science, and holds the first place in Systematic Entomology".
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that "Left destitute by his parents in 1778, the boy found benefactors in Paris, and was adopted by the Abbé Haüy, the famous mineralogist." You may recall that we met Abbé Haüy last week!


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