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Père David - Jean Pierre Armand David (1826 - 1900)

Père Armand David was a Vincentian priest who was to travel to China and convert the populace to Roman Catholicism, but soon found a greater calling in the nature of this vast country.

Born in Espelette near Bayonne in the French Pyrenees, Jean Pierre was one of three boys in a successful local family. His father Fructueux was a magistrate and doctor who had a strong love of nature and an inquisitive mind, traits that Jean Pierre inherited and embraced. Which was a good thing, since his older brother inherited everything else.

Younger sons of established families would often seek a career in the clergy, and this is where young David turned. In his day there would appear to be no conflict in a career in the church and pursuit of the natural sciences, so his great affinity for all living things was embraced by his new order, St. Vincent de Paul.

Corydalis flexuosa 'Père David'

While many of his brother missionaries were sent to locations as far afield as South America, Ethiopia, Africa, Persia and China, Père David was sent to teach at a school in Italy. He taught science at Savona College on the Italian Riviera for ten years, and during that time became one of the most popular teachers there. He made his classes interesting by actually involving his students, by imbuing them with his own enthusiasm and love of nature, and he was deeply missed when he was finally given the assignment he had wanted for so many years - China.

His popularity, and even fame, seems to have been far greater than he imagined. News of his departure reached the scientific community back home in France, and a number of eminent scientists requested that he be allowed to collect specimens for the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. So in 1862 Père David was sent to China with his amended orders.

David was truly a superb naturalist, with extensive knowledge in geology, mineralogy, ornithology, zoology, and botany. He also had in his character an innate respect for people and their culture, no matter how foreign they may have seemed to him. It was this, and his gentle manner that allowed him to travel to regions of China where strangers, let alone foreigners, were rarely made to feel welcome.

His early collections were so much more than expected - the quality and number of specimens was overwhelming, but it was the careful documentation that made his contributions to the Museum so valuable. Word came back from France that such a fine contributor should be freed from his teaching duties and allowed to pursue his collections full time.

His first expedition was into Mongolia. The following is an exerpt from his diary, dated March 13th 1866*

     'It will be cold for another two months in Mongolia, so heavy winter clothes are indispensable, as well as summer clothes for the warm season, which is very hot there. It is imperative, furthermore, to carry bedding . . . Add everything that is indispensable for hunting and securing objects of natural history, everything that is required for taxidermy and for herbarium specimens, boxes of all sizes, empty bottles, etc., etc.
It goes without saying I have not forgotten my ecclesiastical appurtenances.'

His travels in Mongolia produced few botanical specimens, but his later expeditions throughout China, including the north, central and western provinces, would yield collections of astounding size and scope.

His second collecting expedition was to Mupim on the Tibetan frontier where he found the flora to be so ricly varied that he decided to collect in a careful and methodical way, lest he miss some tiny treasure.

*As translated by Tyler Whittle in his book 'The Plant Hunters'.(Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia, 1970, reprinted 1997 The Lyons Press, New York, NY. ISBN 1-55821-592-1 )

The French Missionaries




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