A scientist educator
Of the many subjects studied by Jean-Henri Fabre, some led to exciting discoveries.
A rigorous entomologist, J.-H. Fabre explained insect behaviour in terms of instinct, i.e. an insect's unlearned reaction to a stimulus. Henri Bergson used the entomologist's research as a basis for his own work on the subject. Also considered to be a pioneer of ethology, J.-H. Fabre was the first to discover the production of pheromones in the female giant peacock moth, though he couldn't quite explain it. It wouldn’t be until 1959, a half-century later, that pheromones were precisely defined as molecules released into the air by females. A major discovery, like many others. In the course of working in the paradise for hymenopterans (ants, bees and wasps) that he had created, J.-H. Fabre realised that this group of insects preyed on other species, thus laying the foundations for organic farming, which uses one species to regulate others.
Thinking he might profit from his knowledge of chemistry, J.-H. Fabre carried out research into garancin, a madder root pigment used to dye fabrics red, supplying the famous red trousers of the French infantry. Between 1859 and 1860, he registered three patents aimed at perfecting the extraction of dyestuffs using a surprisingly simple method. But in 1868, the discovery of synthetic alizarin by two German chemists signalled the end of the madder dye industry and the agricultural resources it represented in the Vaucluse region, and soon the naturalist's patents were obsolete.
A teacher, entomologist, naturalist, writer, chemist, watercolourist, poet, musician and father, J.-H. Fabre led many lives. Through each, he found the means to tell the story of nature and share his passion and knowledge. His collaboration with the publisher Charles Delagrave led to the publication of around a hundred textbooks and works of popular science. The subject matter? As diverse as the life sciences, physics, agricultural chemistry, algebra, astronomy, geology, mechanics and even home economics, the subject of a textbook aimed at girls. He published his first textbook in 1862 (Leçons élémentaires de chimie agricole), followed by several books for young people: La Terre (1865), Le Ciel (1866) and Histoire de la bûche (1867). Between 1861 and 1870, he published no fewer than 18 school books, some of which were reprinted up to 4 times! His young children were his first audience, and they were the best people to help him experiment and put his ideas into practice. But it was above all through his entomological memoirs, Souvenirs Entomologiques, published in ten volumes between 1879 and 1907, that he made the general public more aware of the world and life of insects, and that he still sparks the curiosity of schoolchildren today.
The herbarium available online
Jean-Henri Fabre's herbarium is a precious testimony to the history of regional flora. This herbarium was restored by the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, with more than 12,000 plates restored, computerised and accessible on the Muséum's database.