The 19th century Jacques Cousteau? Or the French Darwin?

A book published in 1886 on underwater exploration by Edmond Perrier has been transferred to the Cambridge University Library from the Balfour Library:

Les Explorations sous-marines / par Edmond Perrier (8001.c.515)

The description of Perrier on the title page of the book states that he was Professeur au Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris, membre de la Commission scientifique d’exploration des grands fonds de la Méditerranée et de l’Atlantique. Based on the title and description of the author, it sounded as though Perrier was the 19th century version of Jacques Cousteau. The book describes the author’s participation in a variety of expeditions, including on the Lightning, the Porcupine, the Travailleur and the Talisman.

A variety of images of underwater life
Les Explorations sous-marines (8001.c.515)

Not only is the book full of illustrations of underwater life found during the expeditions, but it also has sections describing the methods of exploration– the technology and equipment used. There are also significant sections on societies and cultures encountered during these explorations:

As well as being an explorer, he was an important natural historian and anatomist (in 1879 he became chairman of the Société zoologique de France). He had strong interests in the research of both Darwin and Lamarck. Why, I wondered, had I never heard of him? I have no special knowledge about zoology, but I do see lots of books (especially French ones), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen his name. Furthermore, in part because of Cambridge’s relationship with Darwin, the UL tries to collect widely on the subject of natural history.

Over a dozen books by Perrier are in Cambridge libraries (including the Balfour Library), but we have little or nothing about the man. This seems unlikely for somebody with such an important profile. However, looking on the BNF, there is a similar paucity of sources about his life. In a way, this is reassuring: Cambridge librarians haven’t been missing important works. But why aren’t there any? A mystery.

Filhol’s book includes brightly coloured illustrations

We have other books by French marine biologists of the same period: Henri Filhol, for instance, was also on the expeditions of the Talisman and the Travailleur. Filhol wrote about these expeditions in the exotically titled La vie au fond des mers : les explorations sous-marines et les voyages du Travailleur et du Talisman (MA.15.85). Again, we have no books about Filhol, although again he sounds very important.


Josh Hutchinson

2 thoughts on “The 19th century Jacques Cousteau? Or the French Darwin?

    • Thanks, Pat!

      I agree, those colour illustrations are fantastic! Really vibrant.

      Interestingly, these two books shared some illustrations (I can’t remember who, but I think Perrier had been engaged as an illustrator on board the expeditions, and so all the published reports used some of his engravings… or something like that).


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