“M. Couplet will find one”

When the anatomists at the seventeenth-century Paris Academy of Sciences wished to dissect an animal – which was often – they called on Claude-Antoine Couplet (1642-1722). Couplet was an élève (literally, a student) of the Academy, although he was hardly an adolescent.  When the Paris Observatory opened in 1672, Couplet moved in as its concierge, caring for the building and its instruments, and he and his wife raised their five children there.  Couplet had been trained as a lawyer and defied his father to follow science.

A typical entry in the Academy’s minutes for June 1668 declared, “it was resolved at the next meeting to dissect a badger, and the order was given to Sieur Couplet to get one.”  A badger duly appeared on the dissecting table the following week, and the academicians noted that “its pineal gland was as small as a grain of wheat.”  Over the next few years Couplet delivered a weasel, a skunk, a stone marten, a hedgehog, and many other animals common to the countryside around Paris – not incidentally, revealing an interesting list of the native animals that resided within a day’s carriage ride of the city.  I think it is unlikely, with his other duties, that Couplet hunted these creatures himself.  Rather, he must have had a circle of contacts among hunters and other country dwellers upon whom he could call. When the Academy wished to look at the eyes of a bird to examine its optic nerves, it charged Couplet with finding a bird of prey, “that type of bird having very piercing vision.”  Couplet brought a live kite whose eyes were removed while it still lived.  Once the eyes were examined the academicians decided they might as well dissect the rest of the animal too and killed it.

Cassowary, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire naturelle des animaux, 1733
Cassowary, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire naturelle des animaux, 1733

Couplet also periodically took a carriage out to the royal chateaus at Versailles and Vincennes to bring animals that had died in their menageries back to the Academy for dissection.  These included all kinds of wild cats including lions and tigers as well as bears, and a number of exotic birds. When the Academy’s anatomist Duverney took his dissecting activities to the King’s Garden on the left bank, Couplet transferred animals from the Academy to the Garden; in 1681 one trip included a parrot named Arras, a stork, and a cassowary.  I wonder what he used to transport them. The elephant that I described in a previous post was too big to bring into Paris from Versailles, and Couplet instead went out the night before and built (or probably supervised the building of) the stage on which the animal was subsequently dissected.

            But Couplet did not deal exclusively with the dead.  He often visited the menagerie at Versailles and reported on the animals there, describing a camel in 1688 as  “very mangy” (fort galeux).  He continued to find animals for the Academy for over fifty years.