Etienne-Emile Desvaux, botanist, and one of the first members of the Societe Botanique de France, was born at Vendome (Loire-et-Cher) on February 8, 1830. His father was a distinguished landholder, an expert in agriculture and chemistry, and mayor of the town of Mondoubleau. He was his son’s first teacher and instructed him in Greek, Latin, History, and Geography, and encouraged him in the study of plants. At the age of ten, he was already an enthusiastic plant collector, and began to make botanical expeditions with his father and his brother. In 1847, he toured the Pyrenees, and became acquainted with the botanists, W. P. Schimper and Albert de Franqueville, a dedicated explorer of the mountains.
In 1843, Desvaux entered the college of Louis le Grand in Paris, where he proved to be an outstanding student, winner of numerous prizes in physics, geometry, algebra, and natural history. In 1846, he passed with distinction the examination for bachelor of letters and a year later, he received the bachelor of physical sciences degree. Further studies were in medicine and natural sciences; in 1850 he graduated with a licentiate in natural science and in 1854 passed his examination for the doctorate of medicine.
Botany was always Desvaux’s principal interest, and he continued to make expeditions devoted to research in the field and visits to famous herbariums. The most important of these was a trip he took, in 1851, with his brother and a close friend to Geneva, Munich, and Berlin. This was the result of his association with several botanists in Paris, men like Adrien de Jussieu and Michel Durieu de Maisonneuve, who had been very impressed with his academic achievements and zeal for botanical studies. On the recommendation of de Jussieu, the botanist Claude Gay asked Desvaux to assist him in the completion of his Flora of Chile, specifically the sections for the families Cyperaceae and Poaceae. Although there were extensive collections of Chilean flora in Paris, many of the specimens required for the study were in Geneva and Germany, and, in those locations Desvaux was able to examine and sketch the plants required to complete the work. His efforts were notable for their careful descriptions of plants and for the excellence of his drawings and sketches. His contemporaries in botany had nothing but praise for his part in the writing of the Flora Chilena, and believed that Desvaux was at the beginning of a brilliant career. However, his health, which had always been weak, failed him, and he died at about the same time that his work was being published. He was twenty-five years old, and his death was announced at the very first regular session of the Societe Botanique de France.
Ernest Cosson. “Sur Emile Desvaux, ses etudes et ses publications botaniques”, Bulletin de la Societe Botanique de France. vol. 6:542-547; 569-576. 1859.
Adrien Franchet. Flore Loir-et-Cher. xxiii-xxiv. Blois: 1885.
Robert F. Erickson