Forgotten giant of the insect world

Richard Collins on a pioneering mind almost lost to history.

THERE is a glut of natural history centenaries at the moment. Last year saw the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carolus Linnaeus, the pioneer of plant and animal classification. The Swedes pulled out all the stops for their favourite scientific son, blowing his trumpet from every roof-top. For Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday on February 12 next year, the celebrations will be lavish. We can expect a deluge of books, articles and television documentaries.

The current year also has a great natural history luminary to celebrate; one of the pioneers of entomology died 200 years ago on March 3, 1808. Johann Christian Fabricius was Danish but, inexplicably, his countrymen have fallen down on the job of commemorating him. By comparison with Linnaeus and Darwin, poor old Fabricius seems all but forgotten.

To be a celebrity you need a distinctive name. Unfortunately, no less than three famous scientists, and a Roman general, bore the name Fabricius.

David Fabricius was a German astronomer and protestant minister, who discovered variable stars and was probably the first person to study the night sky through the newly invented telescope. Using a camera obscura [a dark box or room with a hole in one end] to project images of the sun onto a screen, he observed sunspots and showed that our local star rotates. But Fabricius blotted his copybook; he rejected Kepler’s notion of elliptical planetary orbits in favour of the conventional view of the time, which was that heavenly bodies moved in circles, because this was the perfect form. He also had the dubious distinction of being murdered by one of his parishioners. The year was 1617.

Hieronymus Fabricius, an Italian anatomist and surgeon, died two years later. He had been a pupil of Gabriel Fallopius, the great anatomist, after whom the tubes through which released eggs pass are called. Hieronymus discovered the valves which control blood flow in veins, providing his pupil, William Harvey, with clues as to how the blood circulates.

With such illustrious namesakes, perhaps it’s not so surprising that Johann Christian Fabricius’ anniversary should go unnoticed. He was born in 1745, the younger son of a physician. In 1762, he travelled to Uppsala to study with Linnaeus, for whom he had “... warm feelings of gratitude towards my great master”. Linnaeus’ classification system focused mainly on plants. Fabricius’ subject was insects. “The number of species… is almost infinite and, if they are not brought in order, entomology will always be in chaos,” he declared.

Fabricius travelled widely to meet fellow naturalists and study collections from Scotland to Italy to Russia.

In England, he helped Joseph Banks prepare to circumnavigate the world with Captain Cook. In 1790, Fabricius was in Paris, studying new insects discovered by French entomologists. There he befriended Jean Marie Roland, the leader of the Girondist faction in the French Revolution, and his highly influential wife Madame Roland.

These were revolutionary times, not just politically but also in science. Fabricius’ approach to entomology was remarkable for its time. Naturalists invariably focused on the structure and configuration of insects’ wings and attempted to classify them accordingly. Fabricius concentrated, instead, on the mouth parts. These, he argued, were more basic to the functioning of an insect than its wings. The notion that a creature’s lifestyle and environment influenced its shape and structure would prove to be of immense importance in biology. Using Linnaeus’ binomial system, Fabricius named almost 10,000 insect species, about 1% of those described today. In doing so, he laid the foundations of entomology.

This functional approach to classification let to speculations as to how species change. He thought that new types might arise through hybridisation but in this he was mistaken. However, the notion that species might alter in response to environmental pressures and his suggestion that sexual selection could play a role in their development, were prophetic. He was, in fact, close to formulating a theory akin to that which Darwin and Wallace would put forward half a century later. In 1804, he wrote that humans may have evolved from monkeys, an extraordinary idea for that time.

The wanderlust impeded Fabricius’ academic career but, eventually, he managed to obtain a post at the University of Kiel. He died there at the age of 63.

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