Jean-Henri Fabre, an Aveyron scientist
Born in 1823 in Saint-Léons, Aveyron, of modest extract, Jean-Henri Fabre became one of the greatest naturalists of all time. As well he was a writer, a renown poet, a talented watercolourist and one of the last French encyclopaedists.
Jean Rostand—a famous French biologist and philosopher (1894-1977)—said of him: "Jean-Henri Fabre is a great scholar who thinks like a philosopher, lives like an artist, feels and expresses himself like a poet." As an example of his impact on Manhood, one has to know that at the dawn of the third millennium he is still taught to young Japanese children.
A Hectic Childhood
Jean-Henri Fabre was born on December 21, 1823 in the small village of Saint-Léons, Lévézou, the heart of Aveyron.
Curious from an early age, and quick-witted, Fabre became fascinated by nature and insects, thus never tired of admiring them. The village priest gave him his first zoology lessons.
In 1834, the Fabre family was under financial pressure and left Saint-Léons for work.
Antoine Fabre, Jean-Henri's father, decided to try his luck in the city, however he suffered failure after failure, in Rodez, Aurillac, Toulouse, Montpellier, eventually Avignon where he settled with his family.
Although Jean-Henri's childhood was hectic with fragmented studies, he did not care less than learning. During their stay in Montpellier, he had to leave home and school to help his family earn a living, selling lemons, or being a railway worker for some time. However, these small jobs helped him buying textbooks so he could further his education.
Aged 17 and still strongly willed, he was awarded—with top grades—a scholarship to go to Avignon to become a school teacher. Appointed teacher at the Collège de Carpentras—nearby Avignon—at 19, he was making a decent living then.
A Self-Made Scholar and a life-long learning individual
As we was still working teaching grades 1 to 5, he was studying on his own preparing himself for high school graduation. In 1846, he passed with two majors—mathematics and literature—then went on, earning a Bachelor of Mathematics in 1847, and a Bachelor of Physics in 1848.
Following these academic successes, he was appointed at Ajaccio—on the French island of Corsica—to teach only physics to young adults. He stayed there for four years. This is where he met the famous botanist, originally from Avignon, Esprit Requien from whom he perfected his botanical knowledge. As well he got acquainted with one of the greatest naturalist of the time, Moquin-Tandon. This encounter greatly influenced the rest of his career.
He then decided to devote himself to his true calling as a naturalist and the study of insects, for which he had a genuine passion. He soon recognized Esprit Requien as his mentor and coach, learning too how to speak Provençal, and becoming a real naturalist.
In 1852, he was appointed high school assistant teacher of physics at Avignon. He held on this position for the next eighteen years. However his true passion was still leading him towards the study of animals and plants. While his professorship he went on and decided to continue studying, earning another Bachelor after two years, this time around with a concentration in natural sciences. Then he earned a PhD in Zoology and Botany Sciences.
In 1852, he started publishing scientific studies and reports on insects.
As a high school teacher in Avignon, Fabre provided evening classes as well, wrote multiple textbooks for all grades and on a variety of topics like agricultural chemistry, geology, or pests.
At the age of 40, he got appointed curator of the Musée Réquien, in Avignon.
En Route to Fame
As he was certainly envied by his entourage, he had to give up his evening classes. Apparent reason seemed to be he talked about the fertilization of plants to young women! As he was evicted from his home too, he simply resigned from teaching and retired to Orange—close to Avignon—with his family.
Not holding a teaching position anymore gave him free time to resume his entomological and botanical observations. Fabre continued to write and regularly sent letters and manuscripts to Charles Delagrave who became his preferred publisher.
Through the production of school textbooks he reached a certain affluence, allowing him to buy a property called Harmas at Sérignan du Comtat, in the Vaucluse département.
There and for the next 35 years, Fabre dedicated himself to his true passion, observing nature and the study of insects. He recounted his experiences in the ten volumes of his entomological memories. The excellence of his work lead him to recognition and fame towards the end of his life.
He died at home peacefully, surrounded by his family, at the age of 92, on October 11, 1915.
An Extract of His Work:
"The Pine Processionary, The Laying, The Eclosion"
(...)"This caterpillar has already a story, written by Réaumur, however this story has inevitable gaps, for example the conditions in which this master worked. Materials were brought to him by horse coach from afar, from the moors of Bordeaux. The disoriented insect had to provide the scientist only truncated information, not a lot if any biological details, the essence of entomology by nature. The study of manners requires long observations on the exact spots, in the truthness and fullness of circumstances conducive to its instincts, one can see the subject and monitor its acts.
With caterpillars estranged to Paris's climate, coming from the other end of France, Réaumur exposed himself to ignoring facts, the most interesting ones. This is precisely what happened, similarly to later regarding another one the cicada. Nonetheless what he was able to retrieve from a few (cicada) nests he received from the Landes (region and département) is no less high value.
Better served than Réaumur by the circumstances, let me count the story of the Pine processionary. If the topic does not meet my expectations, it certainly will not be for lack of material. In my Harmas's laboratory, now populated by a few trees but moreover shrubs, a few vigorous pines are standing; the Aleppo pine and the Austrian pine, equivalent to that of Landes. Every year the caterpillar takes it over and weaves large purses. To protect the foliage, dramatically ravaged as if fire had been there, I inspect it every winter and eradicated the nests with a long forked piece of wood.
Ravenous beasts if I were to let you do, I would soon be deprived of the murmuring sound of the pines now bald. Today I want to be compensated for the trouble I am going through. Let's make a pact, you have a story to tell, tell it to me then, for a year or two or even more, until I am about to know almost everything, then I'll let you go, even though the pines should miserably suffer.
The pact signed, the caterpillars left in peace, soon I have enough to follow through my observations. Tolerance pays back as soon I do harvest thirty nests e few steps away from my door. If the collection is not enough, the nearby pines shall provide me what extra is needed. However I do prefer, by far, the enclosure population as it's easier to observe its nocturnal habits at the light of a lantern. With such a wealth showing before my eyes every day, whenever I want to and in its natural settings, then the story of the Pine processionary will fully unfold. Let's try.
First the egg Réaumur did not see. During the first half of August, let's inspect the lower branches of the pine trees, just at the level of the eye. With the slightest attention to details, one soon discover here and there some whitish cylinders on the foliage, spotting on the dark green. This is the laying of the Bombyx where each cylinder represent a group of eggs of one mother."(...)
Micropolis, The City of Insects
Micropolis, also known as the City of Insects, is unique in Europe. it is a recreation park located in Saint-Léons, near Millau. It is a fun but educational space for the whole family where one can discover insects and their natural habitat through fifteen interior and exterior spaces.