Adolphe-Theodore Brongniart, Father of Paleobotany

In 1822 a 21-year-old French botanist published a paper on the distribution and classification of fossil plants. This established the career path the young man would follow and that culminated with his most important work. This began with Prodrome d'une Histoire des Vegetaux Fossiles (Introduction to a history of fossil plants), published in 1828, followed by the two-volume Histoire des Vegetaux Fossiles published in 1828 and 1837. The author was Adolphe-Theodore Brongniart (1801–76), and it was this work that gave him the reputation of being the father of paleobotany.

Brongniart's father, Alexandre Brongniart (1770–1847), was a chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist who taught at the Ecole des Mines (mining school) in Paris. For several years, Brongniart senior collaborated with the zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) in a study of the geology of the Paris basin, a region of sedimentary rocks deposited 65.5 to 5.3 million years ago during the Tertiary sub-era. Cuvier, one of the most eminent French scientists of his day, did much to establish the discipline of comparative anatomy, comparing living animals with those known only from fossils. His comparison of living elephants with mastodons and mammoths, found as fossils in Siberia and North America, showed that the fossil animals lived in a temperate or cold environment. This contradicted other scientists who interpreted the fossils to mean that the climates of Siberia and North America had once been warm enough to support close relatives of elephants. It did nothing, however, to undermine the theory that fossils provided clues to past climates. Alexandre Brongniart found fossil evidence in the Paris basin that indicated the climate in the early part of the Tertiary had been warmer than that of the 19th century.

Adolphe Brongniart continued this aspect of his father's work. He studied the coal beds of France. These were formed during the Carboniferous period, 359.2 to 299 million years ago, from plant material that had fallen into shallow, muddy water and subsequently been compressed. Coal contains many plant fossils, and Brongniart concluded from his study of them that coal formed under tropical conditions. This implied that wherever coal beds occurred, even in northern Europe, the climate at the time had been tropical. No one then imagined that continents could move across the Earth's surface, and Brongniart took his discovery to mean that the world's climates had been much warmer during the Carboniferous and that they had been cooling since that time. He described his findings and explained his interpretation in his Histoire des Vegetaux Fossiles as part of a wider account of the history of plant life in which he related extinct plants to the living ones they most closely resembled. This gave a coherent and largely accurate structure to the study of plant fossils, providing a sound base on which later paleobotanists could build. In addition to his paleobotanical work, Brongniart studied the structure of the sexual apparatus of plants, fertilization, and plant cells.

Brongniart was born in Paris on January 14, 1801. He studied medicine and qualified as a physician, and, although he never practiced, from 1828 to 1830 he taught medicine at the University of Paris. He became a member of the Academie des Sciences in 1834. In 1824 he helped found Annales des Sciences Naturelles (Annals of the natural sciences), a scientific journal, and in 1854 he founded the Societe Botanique de France (French botanical society) and was its first president. He was professor of botany at the Museum d'histoire naturelle (Natural history museum) in Paris from 1833 until his death there on February 18, 1876.