Scientists-At-Arms: Naturalists in the Military

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Editor’s Note: This is a remarkable piece that originally appeared in Military History magazine and was reposted on historynet.com.  The article describes the spirit of scientific inquiry and international cooperation that marked the 18th and 19th centuries between amateur scientists. It also notes the importance accorded scientific information as a form of commercial and military intelligence–something that actually goes back much, much further to at least the time of Alexander the Great. -sg

By Richard Conniff

Colonel Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean, Coleopterist.

At the height of the Battle of Alcañiz, Spain, on May 23, 1809, as he was about to order a desperate charge by French troops into the center of the Spanish line, Colonel Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean happened to glance down. The air around him was thick with gunpowder and blood, but on a flower beside a stream he saw a beetle, species unknown. He immediately dismounted, collected it and pinned the specimen to a piece of cork affixed to the inside of his helmet.

Dejean was a count and a battle-tested leader in the Napoleonic Wars who would later serve as Napoléon Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp. But he was also a coleopterist—a specialist in beetles. Dejean’s men knew of his obsession. Many carried glass vials for him and had orders to collect anything on six legs that crawled or flew. His enemies knew it, too, and, out of respect for the cause of scientific discovery, returned to him vials taken from the dead on the field of battle.

Having collected this latest prize, Dejean swung back up into the saddle and ordered the attack. With bayonets fixed, the massed French forces advanced upslope toward the Spanish artillery. The gap between them closed. The scene grew tense and quiet. Then, at the last moment, the cannon loosed a storm of grapeshot into the attackers’ faces, killing hundreds of French soldiers. Shot shattered Dejean’s helmet, but he and his specimen survived intact. Years later he would name his specimen from Alcañiz, by genus and species, Cebrio ustulatus—only to find that someone else had already entered the species in the annals of science under a different name.

To modern readers Dejean’s reckless passion for beetles in the face of enemy fire may sound insane. But in the 18th and 19th centuries—when European nations launched the great age of biological discovery—soldiers and sailors often led the quest for new species. They were typically the first outsiders to visit remote regions, and their need to reconnoiter the terrain meant, among other things, getting to know the flora and fauna. Were jaguars or venomous snakes a threat? Were elk or bison abundant enough to supply food? Were plant or animal products suitable for commercial development?

Military men also shared in that era’s genuine excitement about natural history. Even the busiest and most powerful statesmen and soldiers commonly made time to collect a new species or to reach out to an enemy in joint pursuit of some precious fossil. The American Revolution was already underway in 1775, for instance, when Benjamin Franklin instructed American ships not to interfere with Captain James Cook as he returned on HMS Resolution from his second voyage of discovery. And the war had not quite ended when, in 1782, George Washington lent an enemy officer a dozen men with wagons and tools to help excavate a mastodon skeleton in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Discoveries about the natural world were regarded almost universally as “useful knowledge,” a phrase Benjamin Franklin helped turn into a watchword of the day. Decades earlier Franklin had helped found the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s leading scientific organization. Its purpose was to encourage all studies “that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter and multiply the Conveniencies [sic] or Pleasures of Life.” But it was, of course, much more than a matter of convenience. Deciphering the natural world mattered urgently at a time when mysterious epidemics still swept away whole armies almost overnight. Laying siege to Cartagena, Colombia, in 1741, for instance, the British lost three-fourths of their 12,000-man army to yellow fever. An 1802 epidemic of the same disease in Haiti decimated a French army there and caused Napoléon to question the value of his American holdings, setting the stage for the American purchase of Louisiana the following year.

Read the rest here.

 

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