Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of one of the real characters in French natural history, Jean-Baptiste Leblond, a physician, utopian politician, and the most restless of explorers.
Starting at the age of 19, in 1766, Leblond spent nearly 20 years walking the South American continent, from Grenada to Peru. On his return to France in 1785, he brought with him 250 pounds — pounds! — of platinum, along with a rich collection of natural history specimens.
No rest for the weary, though, and shortly thereafter he was ordered back to Cayenne, in search of new sources of quinine.
After all the effort, exhaustion, and suffering devoted to acquiring his collections, M. Leblond has made the exceedingly generous sacrifice of donating the specimens to the Paris Society of Natural History and certain of its members.
Among the donated objects were 111 South American birds, listed in the Actes of the Society for 1792. Most are identified with their Linnaean names and a citation to Buffon or Brisson, but not a few are brought down only to the genus level, with a brief description in hopes that someone someday might recognize them.
I don’t know where those specimens are now, or how many of them were eventually identified. It’s not easy, but if you want to try your hand at it, let us know how you do.