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Pierre-Joseph van Beneden

Pierre-Joseph Van Beneden

Born at Mechlin, Belgium, 19 Dec., 1809; died at Louvain, 8 Jan., 1894. Educated for the medical profession, he was appointed curator of the natural history museum at the University of Louvain in 1831. Five years later he became professor of zoology and comparative anatomy in the Catholic University at Louvain. This chair he held until the time of his death. He was thus able to celebrate the jubilee of his appointment to his chair and the occasion was duly honoured both in his native and his university cities. Throughout his life he was a most diligent worker, and the list of his contributions to scientific periodicals amounts to over two hundred papers. In the earlier part of his career he directed his attention especially to invertebrates and particularly to marine invertebrates, which he studied during many vacations spent at Ostend. In 1843 he established at his own expense a marine laboratory and an aquarium for the further prosecution of these studies, and this institution is believed to have been one of the earliest if not actually the first example of a place of study of its kind in any part of the world. Associated with this part of his work were his classical studies in connection with parasitic worms, the development, transformation, and life-histories of which he very fully investigated; indeed, as early as 1858 a memoir of his on this subject was successful in gaining the "Grand prix des sciences physiques" of the Institute of France. It was issued in the "International Scientific Series" (1875), under the title "Les commensaux et les parasites dans le regne animal", and was translated into English and German.

The other direction in which van Beneden's activities found a vent was connected with the vertebrate division of the animal kingdom. During the excavations rendered necessary by the fortifying of Antwerp a number of bones of fossil whales were exposed to view. These attracted van Beneden's attention and led him to undertake a detailed study of the group, whose characteristics were at that time very imperfectly known. On the subject of the cetacea, living and extinct, he published a number of papers and several large works. The most important of these is his "Ostéographie des cétacés vivants et fossiles", which was written in collaboration with Paul Gervais and published between 1868 and 1880. His papers on the extinct species found near Antwerp were published in the "Annales du musée royal d'histoire naturelle de Brucelles", and with them was incorporated a description of the fossil seals which were discovered in the same neighbourhood. Van Beneden attended the celebration of the tercentenary of Edinburgh University, and was there made an honorary LL.D. He was a foreign member of the Royal Society and also of the Linnæan, Geological, and Zoological Societies of London. He was president of the Royal Belgian Academy in 1881, and was created Grand Officer of the order of Leopold on the occasion of his professorial jubilee. He was always a devout and convinced adherent of the Catholic Church, though, as the writer of his obituary for the Royal Society particularly states, always exhibiting "the widest toleration for the views of others".

Obituary Notice in Transactions of the Royal Society, LVII (1894-95), p. Xx; KEMNA, P.J. van Beneden, La vie et l'oeuvre d'un zoologiste (Antwerp, 1897).


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