Jean Henri Fabre

Jean Henri Fabre
Bas relief of Jean Henri Fabre

Fabre, Jean Henri [fȧ′br’] (1823-1915), Famed French entomologist, born at Saint-Léons (Aveyron) France on December 21, 1823 of a humble peasant family. He became famous for his largely self-taught, study of insects and their life, histories, habits and instincts. His primary focus tended to be with bees, ants, beetles, grasshoppers and spiders. He was educated at normal schools in Rodez and Vaucluse, and later at the École Normale of Vauclause. At the age of 20 he commenced teaching at the school in Carpentras (1842). Later he taught physics and chemistry at the College of Ajaccio in Corsica (1843-1851), and at the Avignon Lycée (1853).

The teaching profession had paid poorly and having discovered a process for the production of madder-dye, hoped to achieve financial security by manufacturing the dye; but the simultaneous discovery of aniline dyes doomed his venture to fail.
In 1879 he retired to Sérignac, in Provence, where he at first earned his living by writing textbooks which were used in French schools and did well popularizing science. Fabre's real interest however, had always been natural history. He became interested in the habits and instincts of insects while he was studying for his doctorate. After his retirement from teaching in 1871, he lived in seclusion at Serignan, and devoted himself exclusively to the study of entomology, collecting and observing insects.

Fabre did important research on the orders Hymenoptera (wasps), Coleoptera (beetles), and Orthoptera (grasshoppers).

Fabre did not accept the conclusions of previous studies in this field and based all his research on direct observation of insects in their natural environments. In his study of the Hymenoptera, he found that wasps frequently sting their prey in the region of nerve centers, thus rendering them immobile. In this condition they may be stored for eating at a future time. Fabre believed that this specialized behavior demonstrated reasoning power, and he gradually came to the conclusion that habits are not fixed in insects, and that the theory of evolution is invalid.

Based on his observations of wasps paralysing their prey in specialized neuro-sensitive areas, he described the importance of inherited instinct as a behavior pattern in insects. In 1866, he isolated from the madder plant a coloring substance, which was identified as alizarin that later became useful in biological stain.

Along with his work on the relationship between the human and insect mind, Fabre also did research on the relationship of insects to agriculture. This latter work was stressed in his book Souvenirs Entomologiques (10 volumes, 1879-1907), parts of which have been translated to English and are among the most important works in the field of entomology. He became a corresponding member of the Institute of France, and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He also wrote La Science Élémentaire (1862), De Sciences Naturelles (1875) and La Vie des Insects (1910), The Life and Love of the Insect (1911), Social Life in the Insect World (1912), The Life of the Fly (1913), Bumble Bees (1915) and others. He was unsympathetic to the theory of evolution and opposed Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, considering the purposeful acts characteristic in insect behaviors, emphasizing those differences in contrast to the intelligent behavior of man, to give support of his anti-evolution beliefs. However, Charles Darwin admired his work and termed him the "incomparable observer." Fabre died at Sérignac on October 11, 1915.

Jean Henri Fabre
"Jean Henri Fabre"

Long before he was old enough to go to school Jean Henri Fabre was interested in insects. He thought them more fun than other animals. In his old age he would sit still for hours watching an ant nest or a hive of bees working. His neighbors thought he was odd, but his patience paid off. By observing insects, he became famous later in life as an acclaimed scientist.
Fabre was born in the French village of St. Leons. His family had very little money, but when he was old enough he sold lemons to earn money to go to school. He was such an extraordinary student that he was given a scholarship so that he could go to college. He finished college and began teaching science when he was only 19 years old. After nearly 30 years he gave up teaching so that he would have more time to study insects. He wrote many books about them, such as Our Humble Helpers and The Life of the Fly.
No one gave Fabre's work much attention until he was nearly 80 years old. Then he was given great honor. A few years before he died the French government gave him a pension as a reward for what he had done to aid science.


  • Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, ©1950
  • The New World Family Encyclopedia, ©1955
  • Collier's Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • Golden Book Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • Encyclopedia International, ©1966 (Grolier Inc.)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia, ©1984
  • Jean-Henri Fabre, 1823-1915
  • Life of Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre


    Seeking Clarification

    Jean Henri Fabre vs. Charles Darwin

    Source: Encyclopedia International, ©1966 (Grolier Inc.)

    Jean Henri Fabre vs. Charles Darwin

    Source: Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, ©1950

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