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René Primevère Lesson

1794 – 1849

René Primevère Lesson (1794–1849), French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist, entered the Naval Medical School in Rochefort at the age of sixteen. He served in the French Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, rising to the post of second surgeon on the Regulus before embarking as pharmacist and botanist on Duperrey's round-the-world voyage of La Coquille between 1822 and1825. On the voyage he was responsible for collecting natural history specimens with his fellow surgeon Prosper Garnot and officer Dumont d'Urville. Lesson’s account of the voyage contains scientific details and also several vocabularies and grammatical analyses, particularly of the Maori language but also of languages of New South Wales. The illustrations include plates of views, Indigenous objects and tools, as well as coastal profiles and hand coloured plates of the kangaroo, kiwi, possum, platypus, wombat, and several birds of paradise (Lesson is said to have been the first naturalist to see live birds of paradise in the Moluccas and New Guinea). The Coquille visited Sydney in 1824, remaining there from 17th January to 20th March. Bungaree visited Duperrey; Lesson described their encounters in some detail. Lesson and Durville travelled over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, Lesson reporting that ‘we climbed a high eminence where the road formerly passed, for today it winds on the mountain side taking an easy grade. M. d'Urville and I climbed this old road with difficulty and we enjoyed the view of enormous precipices, deep chasms, in short the ruins of nature, which impressed us deeply. On this wind-beaten height stand rocks of various shapes. One of them bore the epitaph of a young man who died there in 1822, and whose still fresh grave will make me call this mount Mount Sepulchre.’ On returning to Paris, Lesson spent seven years preparing the vertebrate zoological section of the official account of the expedition, Voyage autour du monde sur La Coquille (1826–39). During this time he also produced Manuel d'Ornithologie (1828), Traité d'Ornithologie (1831), Centurie Zoologique (1830–32) and Illustrations de Zoologie (1832–35). He also compiled several monographs on hummingbirds and one book on birds of paradise as well as describing many new species of amphibians and reptiles. His experience as a ship's surgeon resulted in his two-volume Manuel d'Histoire Naturelle Médicale et de Pharmacologie (1833), intended as a handbook for all naval surgeons. In 1839 he became Chief Pharmacist for the Navy at Rochefort.

Updated 2018