A. M. F. J. Palisot de Beauvois 1752-1820

 
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Ambroise Marie Francois Joseph Palisot,
Baron de Beauvois

  

Ambroise Marie Francois Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois made collections of insects… “within the realms of Oware, Benin, Saint Domingue, and the États Unis, during the years 1786 – 1797…” Although he was a botanist by training, Palisot published a major entomological work entitled, “Insectes Recueillis en Afrique et en Amerique.” Palisot’s work is significant because, while some workers had described American beetles before him, he was one of the first to both actively collect and describe American insects along with his contemporary, Fredrick Melsheimer (the elder). In addition to the hundreds of common insects that he described, the work is also notable for his proposed ordinal classification of Insects. A large number of Scarabaeidae are included in this work, many described and/or illustrated for the first time. The total includes 39 species in the genus Scarabaeus, 17 species of Copris, seven species of Trox, four Cetonia and four Trichius. Among these were the first descriptions of such familiar beetles as Canthon viridis (P.B.), Macrodactylus angustatus (P.B.) and Osmoderma scabra (P.B.). A problem, for reasons discussed below, is that many of the species that Palisot attributed to “Amérique” were actually collected in “Afrique,” and vice versa. Moreover, he included species, such as Dynastes hercules (L.), which do not occur within the U.S. or Santo Domingo, creating type localities for species that in some cases are outside of their natural range.

Details of Palisot’s travels are provided by Chase (1925) and Merrill (1937), among others, and can be briefly summarized here, by way of explaining why uncertainty exists as to the origin of his material. Born in France, Palisot was trained as a lawyer but pursued postgraduate studies in botany under Lestiboudois in Lille and Jussieu in Paris. He left France in the year 1786 with an expedition to found a colony at Oware (or Owerri) at the mouth of the Niger River in what is today Nigeria. Palisot assembled material from there with some collections from the neighboring country of present-day Benin. From time to time Palisot sent specimens back to France, but the bulk of his collections were destroyed when the British pillaged the colony and set fire to the trading post where his material was stored. An outbreak of yellow fever ravaged the colonists, and Palisot became so ill with the disease that in 1788 his friends placed him on a slave ship bound for Haiti where he had an uncle. The uncle’s house was in Cape Francais, and there Palisot recuperated and resumed his botanical and entomological collecting, on occasion sending specimens back to France. Yet again disaster struck when, in 1793, the slaves revolted and burned the town, including his uncle’s house where his collections were stored. Palisot was imprisoned, but through the intercession of a mulatto woman he was freed under order of deportation. Because of the French revolution and his former status in the nobility as the Baron de Beauvois, Palisot was unable to return to France without risking the guillotine. Instead he boarded a ship bound for the United States but, en route, was relieved of his remaining belongings by pirates and thus he arrived in Philadelphia penniless and bereft. He was able to make a living by joining a circus as a musician, but he eventually returned to work as a botanist, hired to curate the private collection of C.W. Peale.

In Philadelphia he became a member of the American Philosophical Society, published in its Transactions, and resumed his natural history collecting with the financial support of the French Attache, Paul Adet, a scientist in his own right. Palisot’s collecting forays in the United States ranged as far west as the Ohio River and as far south as Savannah, Georgia. When finally notified by colleagues in Paris that his citizenship had been restored, Palisot began making plans for his return to Europe, including arrangements for the shipment of his specimens. Unfortunately, these collections were lost when the ship carrying them sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1798. He left the United States that same year and returned to his native France.
Based on the material that had survived prior shipments, but mainly on his sketches, Palisot published works on plants and insects, the latter in a series of 15 booklets (livraisons) issued between 1805 and 1821, the last issued one year after his death. Griffin (1932, 1937) provides the dates of issue for each individual livraison. Each livraison included five to six plates, each with illustrations of six or nine of the insects described in the text, and it is on these sketches rather than actual specimens that Palisot’s species are often recognized.

Few of Palisot’s specimens are extant. His botanical collection was sent from Paris to the herbarium of the Jardin Botanique at Geneva, Switzerland (Merrill 1937). The herbarium at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences has sheets that are marked “Beauv.”, but these are plants native to India, a place never visited by Palisot. Hence, Palisot must have received specimens collected by others, and this could help explain the mysterious origin of some of his insect material. According to Horn & Kahle (1937) some of Palisot’s beetle specimens, specifically the Elateridsae, were sent by Dejean to Godman and Salvin at the British Museum of Natural History for inclusion in the Biologia Centrali-Americana. Other specimens were sent by Chevrolat to Neervoort Van de Poll of the Netherlands. Van de Poll’s collection was eventually bequeathed to the BMNH as well, but none of Palisot’s specimens have been found there. Logically, any remaining specimens should be housed at the Museu National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, but to my knowledge, no systematic search has been made for Palisot’s material (Dominique Pluot-Sigwalt, pers. comm.). Of course, in the event that any of Palisot’s specimens should be discovered, and if it should turn out that his species are different from the traditional interpretation, it is possible that his names could be synonyms or homonyms of known species.

Biographical sketch contributed by Don Thomas (USDA, Weslaco, Texas) with information from the references below.

References

Chase, A. 1925. Biographical Sketch. Contributions of the U.S. National Herbarium 24: 210-214.

Griffin, F.J. 1932. On the dates of publication of “Palisot de Beauvois, Insectes rec. Afr. Amer.” 1805-1821. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 10: 585-586.

Griffin, F.J. 1937. A further note on “Palisot de Beauvois, Insectes Rec. Afr. Amer.” 1805-1821. Journal of the Society of Bibliography of Natural History 1: 121-122.

Horn, W. & I. Kahle 1937. Uber entomologische Sammlungen, Entomologen & Entomo-Museologie. Entomologische Beihefte Berlin-Dahlem. 3 vols., 536 pp.

Merrill, E.D. (1937). Palisot de Beauvois as an overlooked American botanist. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 76: 899-920.

Palisot de Beauvois, A.M.F.J. (1805-1821). Insectes recueillis en Afrique et en Amérique dans les royaumes d’Oware et de Benin, á Saint-Domingue et dans les États Unis, pendant les années 1786-1797. Paris, 267 pp.


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