One of Napoleon’s Generals Was More Interested in Gathering Beetles Than Fighting at Waterloo

When he died in 1845, Count Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean owned the largest personal beetle collection in the world

A portrait of Count Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean. Photo: Lithographie par Jacques Llanta

Count Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean was a peculiar fellow. Born in 1780 just north of Paris, by the time the young Frenchman turned 13 he already displayed a conspicuous interest in insects. He started with butterflies and moths but soon matured into a love for all things beetle. At the age of 15, he decided to devote his life to collecting and studying these insects. But that plan was interrupted. Dejean enrolled in Napoleon’s army.

Dejean quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant General and aide-de-camp to Napoleon. Yet his love for beetles never waned. On the battlefield, Dejean took advantage of the opportunity to collect new and exciting specimens from all over Europe, including at the battlefield at Waterloo. His youngest daughter once described her father’s obsession: ”He recounted himself that during the battle he stopped his horse to attach a small insect to his helmet and then carried on forward to combat.”

In 1818, Dejean finally returned to Paris, made rich by his status as a general. He took advantage of that fortune by financing beetle-collecting expeditions. He also bought others’ collections to add to his own. All told, he amassed 24,643 species and more than 118,000 specimens. When he died in 1845, he owned the largest personal beetle collection in the world.

Now, two Canadian entomologists have decided to update Dejean’s famous catalogues. They republished two of Dejean’s catalogues from 1833 and 1836 and undertook a detailed review of his nomenclature and taxonomic recordings. The modern scientists’ task is to clear up any confusion regarding Dejean’s beetle names in the scientific literature by provided a detailed nomenclature summary of all the generic names since used for his species.

Dejean himself may have introduced some of this confusion intentionally. He once said: “I have made it a rule always to preserve the name most generally used , and not the oldest one, because it seems to me that general usage should always be followed and that it is harmful to change what has already been established.”

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