Alexandre Girault: A Man Against the World


Alexandre Girault at age 20, as he appeared in Gordh et al. (1979).


Having recently discussed the availability of privately published taxonomic works, it is appropriate that I recently received a copy of Gordh et al.'s (1979) reprinting of the privately published pamphlets of Alexandre Arsene Girault. A. A. Girault (1884-1941) is one of entomology's most controversial figures, an incredibly prolific worker possessed of a character that could charitably be described as difficult, uncharitably as barking mad. Girault named more than 3000 taxa over the course of his career (possibly more than any other taxonomist*), often under extremely difficult circumstances. As well as his monographic publications through more traditional venues, about 1000 of these taxa were published in privately produced pamphlets between 1917 and 1937.

*Update: Gunnar has reminded me in the comments of an even more prolific taxonomist, the crane-fly researcher Charles P. Alexander who published more than 11000 taxa. That represents a little less than one new species for every day of his working life.

Born and raised in Maryland in the United States, Girault worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture from 1904-1911 until a request from the Queensland government for a capable entomologist sent him to Australia with glowing recommendations. Girault worked on pests in sugar plantations until 1914 when he decided to return to the States and focus entirely on purely taxonomic entomology. However, he was frustrated in that design and returned to Australia in 1917. After his return, his employment was irregular, including extended periods of unemployment and periods when he held day jobs as shopkeeper or quarry worker. His behaviour on a personal level became increasingly difficult and he was eventually admitted to a mental asylum in 1939 suffering from paraphrenia two years before his death.

Girault was obsessed with the importance of pure research for its own sake without recourse to low economic considerations ("The fear was, these things would no longer be studied was it thought they helped man's agriculture no more than the sunshine does. But who can doubt its greater use when love is the inspiration; man's soul is helped so"1). In between the basic taxonomic descriptions, his privately published papers are littered with poetry and commentaries on this subject including numerous invections against those of his colleagues whom Girault felt had betrayed this ideal ("Are we coming to be a nation of lilliputs, the socalled entomologists reduced to farmer's clercks and others accordingly? Is there a scientist here who dares to speak out what he sees or ought or who can e'en think freely, without his thought be limited by mandate to some "problem"? Find him" 1). Some of these inserts can be a little jarring, to say the least; one list of synonymies reads, "Hemiptarsenoideus is Hemiptarsenus. Baocharis marlatti is Aphelinus subapterus. Liberty is Soul. Rhopalicus americanus is Spintherus pulchripennis"1. They are also often disproportionately vituperative; a particularly bitter paragraph, complaining of "An outrage, I should think, robbing the poet as Tarquineus raped Lucrece; worse insulting the heavens"2, was written in response to an editor publishing a paper of Girault's as "New chalcid parasites from Malaya" when Girault had intended it to be called "New chalcid-flies from Malaya".


Girault in 1924 with his wife Elizabeth and three of their children. Elizabeth Girault (whom Girault described as a "faithful friend and true-hearted wife"4) became seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1923 and remained so until her death in 1931. His wife's health and the strain of raising five children on his irregular income added to Girault's difficulties. Photo from here.


It was primarily Girault's insistence on including these discourses that required him to publish privately. His acerbic nature lead a number of editors to make blanket refusals to handle any of his manuscripts. However, it is also true that research without direct economic application was not viewed favourably in a country passing through the fiscally straitened aftermath of the Great War. While he was working for the Queensland Department of Agriculture in the early 1930s, successive directors attempted to curtail his taxonomic work, presumably because the time he was devoting to it was intefering with his work on economic entomology. Also, economic restrictions after 1915 meant that Girault was no longer able to publish extensive manuscripts in the Memoirs of the Queensland Museum as he had done previously.

Setting aside their eccentric presentation, the descriptions of new taxa themselves vary in their usefulness. Some are dreadful, others were (at least by the standards of their time) very good. Often more problematic for succeeding researchers has been the exceedingly poor condition of many of Girault's type specimens. With no access to supplies other than what he could beg from more fortunate associates, Girault resorted to measures such as mounting multiple specimens under fragments of coverslip on a single slide. He also often mounted body parts such as heads on a separate slide from the remainder of the specimen. Girault also expressed disdain for such niceties as labelling ("We do not desire specimens any more per se. It is the label we want now"1), orthography ("A crooked line, a blot causes no worry; they are bodies, not souls"1) and detailed descriptions ("Longer descriptions are not needed, are even confusing"4).

The legitimacy of Girault's private publications for nomenclatural purposes was long disputed but over time a consensus has developed that they are acceptable (even if only because the usage of names from those publications by later authors has made it potentially more problematic to dismiss them than accept them). If there is one object lesson to be derived from Girault's failings, it is the value of type specimens. While there is no denying that the sheer volume of Girault's publications has represented a significant hurdle for later researchers, the continued availability of Girault's types (mostly in the Queensland Museum) has allowed progress where it would have otherwise been impossible. For instance, of the hundreds of Giraultian taxa referred to by Bouček (1988), only one was regarded as completely unidentifiable. For many others, the currently available information is inadequate but may be enough that further investigation has a reasonable chance of resolving matters.

1Descriptiones hymenopterorum chalcidoidicarum variorum cum observationibus. V. 1917.
2New animals of Australia and old men of the earth. 1921.
3Some gem-like or marvellous inhabitants of the woodlands heretofore unknown and by most never seen nor dreamt of. 1925.
4New pests from Australia, VIII. 1930.

REFERENCES (Girault's publications in the footnotes above)

Bouček, Z. 1988. Australasian Chalcidoidea (Hymenoptera): A biosystematic revision of genera of fourteen families, with a reclassification of species. CAB International: Wallingford (UK).

Gordh, G., A. S. Menke, E. C. Dahms & J. C. Hall. 1979. The privately printed papers of A. A. Girault. Memoirs of the American Entomological Institute 28: 1-400 (including biography of Girault by E. C. Dahms).

8 comments:

  1. "The fear was, these things would no longer be studied was it thought they helped man's agriculture no more than the sunshine does. But who can doubt its greater use when love is the inspiration; man's soul is helped so"

    Am I misreading him or is he saying that sunshine doesn't help agriculture? WTF?

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  2. Seems like a fascinating character, this one. He is far from the most productive taxonomist of all times, though - the dipterist Charles P. Alexander authored 11 755 taxa (mostly in the Tipuloidea). See Oosterbroek (2009) or Byers (1982) for details.

    Byers, G.W. 1982. In Memoriam Charles P. Alexander 1889-1981. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 55 (3): 409-417
    Oosterbroek, P. 2009. On the 11 755 insect taxa named by Charles P. Alexander. Zoosymposia 3: 9-15

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  3. @Andreas - I think he means that sunshine is acknowledged as part of agriculture and thus ignored subsequently. He does not want his work as a taxonomist to be compared to that of an inanimate object in service solely to the farmer, but recognized for its contribution to knowledge of the world, for he has thrown himself into this work.

    Thank you Chris for this wonderful portrait, whatever history judges of his work. Do you think he sprinkled his comments to see if anyone were reading? You have to admit this is often tempting!!

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  4. I don't think his comments were by way of 'teasers', if only because in some of his papers the commentary occupies a greater space than the actual taxonomic work (for instance, in Microscopitis, womanitis and new Hexapoda the commentary section was twice the length of the descriptive section).

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  5. Where can one find some of these papers? They sound entertaining...

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  6. They're all in the Gordh et al. (1979) reprinting. In bulk, though, they're more disheartening than entertaining.

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  7. Charles Alexander may have been more prolific, but unfortunately not always the most descriptive in his descriptions.

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  8. Ah, I found a library copy of the Gordh et al. book and ... wow. Yeah, it's pretty strange.

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