Joachim Barrande’s “Kingly Gift”


“MORE than a kingly gift, the most gallant homage to have been paid to the Czech nation!” That is how a journalist described the legacy that the Czech National Museum received from Joachim Barrande, the noted 19th-century paleontologist. Barrande’s “kingly gift” to the Czech people consisted of an important collection of more than 1,200 crates full of fossils, which he had spent decades collecting, studying, and classifying. While you might not be inclined to rhapsodize over a collection of old fossils, Barrande’s gift is far more valuable to paleontologists than a treasure trove!

A paleontologist is a scientist who uses fossil remains to study life in past geologic periods. Paleontology is a relatively new science. During the Middle Ages, fossils were dismissed as “jokes of nature” or were thought to be remains of dragons. By the 18th century, however, people in the upper classes were beginning to take an interest in collecting fossils. Scientists in many countries also began to take an interest in the study of fossils. Joachim Barrande was one of them. What do we know about Barrande, and what did he contribute to the field of paleontology? Since he was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, what were Barrande’s views on Darwin’s theory of evolution?

 Barrande Makes a Career Change

Joachim Barrande was born in 1799 in Saugues, a small town in southern France. He studied engineering in Paris, specializing in road and bridge construction. At the same time, he took courses in natural science. It soon became apparent that he was gifted in that field. After graduation Barrande began working as an engineer, but when he caught the eye of the French royal family, he was invited to tutor the grandson of King Charles X. The subject—natural science. In 1830, as a result of a revolution in France, the royal family was exiled and eventually went to Bohemia. Barrande joined them there. It was in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, that Barrande again took up engineering.

As an expert in road and bridge construction, Barrande was assigned to survey the countryside around Prague for a proposed horse-drawn railway. While he was going about his work, Barrande noticed that there was an abundance of fossils in the area. Taking a closer look, he was amazed to discover striking similarities between the strata of Bohemia and the strata of Britain. His passion for the natural sciences rekindled, Barrande ultimately quit engineering and, for the next 44 years, devoted his life to the study of paleontology and geology.

Barrande’s classroom was the fossil-rich countryside of central Bohemia. Each day brought new discoveries of exceptional beauty and variety. By 1846 he was ready to publish the initial results of his research. In this work he described and classified new trilobite species, which once inhabited the bottom of the sea.

Barrande continued collecting and studying fossils. Then, in 1852, he published the first volume of a monograph, or treatise, entitled The Silurian System of Central Bohemia. * Volume I discussed the trilobites. This was followed by volumes devoted to crustaceans, chondrichthyes, cephalopods, lamellibranchs, and other fossilized organisms. During his lifetime he published 22 volumes in which he described in detail more than 3,500 species. The work is one of the largest monographs in the field of paleontology.

Meticulous and Disciplined

Barrande’s methods set him apart from other researchers. To his work as a naturalist,  he brought the discipline of an engineer. As a designer, he would not tolerate inaccurate calculations or drawings. As a paleontologist, he strove to attain a very high degree of precision in his drawings, taking great pains to ensure that they were accurate down to the finest detail. He personally retouched many of the drawings that were included in his monograph, although the originals had been sketched by a professional artist.

Barrande’s meticulousness, however, was not confined to his drawings. After each volume of his monograph had been typeset, he personally checked the text. If he was not satisfied, he sent the offending parts back to be reset. Barrande’s goal was to ensure that every work he published was as accurate as possible. He succeeded admirably. Today, almost 150 years later, researchers still use the Silurian System as a reference work.

What About Evolution?

When Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species was published in 1859, many scientists jumped on the evolution bandwagon. Barrande, however, did not. From the beginning, he rejected the evolution theory because he saw nothing in the fossil record to convince him that the theory was true. Barrande said that the purpose of his work was to “find out reality and not to construct ephemeral theories.” (Italics ours.) Indeed, on the title page of each volume of the Silurian System, he inscribed the motto: “C’est ce que j’ai vu” (This is what I have seen).

Barrande did notice that the bodies of many animals were in different stages of development. However, he correctly concluded that they were of the same species but of different age. He saw no evidence that one kind of animal had evolved into another. Summing up Barrande’s philosophy, the book A Petrified World says: “Barrande’s whole work is . . . built on facts, and that is its most precious feature. At this stage of basic research, there is no room for speculation or guessing or for general theories either.”

A Humble Man Gives a “Kingly Gift”

Despite his great success, Barrande did not fall prey to the snare of pride or dishonesty. Although he was at ease with the intelligentsia of Europe and spoke several languages, he never lost the common touch. He learned Czech in order to be closer to the people. This helped him in his work, as it allowed him to communicate with the stone quarriers who helped him acquire new specimens for his collection.

Barrande was a religious man, and what he found in nature strengthened his faith in God. He called fossils “medallions of the first creations.” Moreover, in the introduction to his work, he referred to the emotions that moved him to keep studying: “It is a feeling of admiration, satisfaction, and recognition that pervades and charms the one who discovers or contemplates a part of the works of the Creator.”

Joachim Barrande died in 1883, leaving behind scientific material of uncommon value. His meticulous approach to his work is appreciated by scientists the world over. Because of the realistic, factual approach he took, Joachim Barrande’s carefully documented discoveries are still serving researchers today. From a scientific standpoint, it was not an exaggeration to describe Barrande’s legacy as “more than a kingly gift.”


^ par. 9 “Silurian” is the geologic designation of what is thought to be one of the oldest periods of our planet.

[Pictures on page 12, 13]

Barrande’s drawings of trilobites, 1852

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Sketches: S laskavým svolením Národní knihovny v Praze

[Picture Credit Line on page 12]

Portrait: Z knihy Vývoj české přírodovědy, 1931