A Coleopterist Goes to War

In History, Science, Species Seekers on November 9, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Napolean’s first aide-de-camp, Col. Pierre Francois Marie Auguste Dejean, was also a coleopterist.  What was his specialty?

1.  He made precision rifle sights.

2.  He collected beetles.

3.  He was a battlefield engineer, adept at reading the land by studying the foliage.

4.  He designed a new form of artillery.

At the height of the Battle of Alcañiz on May 23 1809, as he was about to give the order for a desperate charge by French troops into the center of the Spanish line, Col. P.F.M.A. Dejean happened to glance down.  The air around him was thick with gunpowder and blood, but on a flower beside a stream, he saw something unusual.  A beetle.  Species unknown. He immediately dismounted, collected it, and pinned the specimen to the cork glued inside his helmet.

Dejean was a count and a battle-tested leader in the Napoleonic armies; he would later become Napoleon’s first aide-de-camp.  But he was also a coleopterist, a specialist in beetles.  His men knew it because many of them 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, sent him back 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 up the slope toward the Spanish artillery.  The gap between them slowly closed, everything tense and quiet.

Then, at the last moment, the cannons let loose a storm of grapeshot into the faces of the attacking line.  Hundreds of French soldiers died.  Dejean’s helmet was shattered by cannon fire.  But he and his specimen survived intact. Years later, he would give his prize from Alcañiz a scientific name, 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.


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