Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

Henri Milne-Edwards was born in Bruges (Belgium), which, at the time (23 October 1800) was part of the newly formed 1st French Republic. He was the twenty-seventh child (yes, 27th!) of an Englishman, William Edwards, who had arrived in Bruges from Jamaica where he had run a plantation and had been colonel in the militia. Having so many relatives, he decided at one point to add the surname Milne to his family one. He chose the married name of his godmother and half-sister, born from a previous marriage of his father. Milne Edwards was one of a large group of French (yes, he got his nationality in 1831) zoologists that made so many advances in marine biology from their chairs in the National History Museum of Paris: Lamarck, Cuvier, Audouin, Saint-Hilaire, de Quatrefages, Valenciennes, de Lacaze-Duthiers… He was the strongest defender of the need to study animals alive in their habitats, making the first attempts to open a marine station by the sea, instead of just studying organisms’ morphology and anatomy from their dead corpses in museums. He did this while Director of the National History Museum in “Jardin des Plantes” (botanical garden) in Paris. He was so determinant for advances in marine science at the time that he is mentioned five times as an example of a scientific authority in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”.

Portrait photo of Milne Edwards
Portrait of Henri Milne-Edwards (public domain)

Milne-Edwards was educated by his brother William Frédéric Edwards, a physiologist considered the father of ethnology in France. William was 23 years older than Henri and his role as tutor was a consequence of their father being imprisoned for having helped English prisoners to escape. When Napoleon had to abdicate and was forced into exile in 1814, his father was released, and the “whole” family moved and settled in Paris. With such a big family, one needs to find a job!

Following the advice of his brother, Milne-Edwards initiated medicine studies in Paris where George Cuvier would be one of his teachers, and he obtained his diploma in 1823. However, Cuvier was too much of an influence and his interests were focused on natural history and zoology! Milne-Edwards was mainly interested in the anatomy and comparative physiology of crustaceans. His other “love” was corals, although this did not stop him from studying annelids, molluscs or even mammals.

Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (Paris, France)
The bust of George Cuvier, who was so influential for Milne Edwards, and for biology in general, surrounded by the bones of marine mammals that he helped so much to understand in the Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy of “Jardin des Plantes”. Photograph by Ibon Cancio.

Anyway, in the museum where he worked, there were plenty of specimens collected by travelling naturalists, which he profusely studied to publish his “Histoire naturelle des Crustaces” in three volumes, the first one appearing in 1834. There he contributed with different, new concepts on the general arrangement of the Crustacea; he put forward, for the first time, the idea that their body is fundamentally composed of a series of segments, each endowed with a pair of appendages. In addition, he contributed information on their tegument and exoskeleton, the apparatus for nutrition, communication and reproduction. He included descriptions of around 1,400 species and 350 genera, with indication of size, colour and conditions of collection. Many new forms were established; for Brachyura alone, this meant a hundred species and 25 genera. In 1837, Milne Edwards also contributed a volume on crustaceans to the monumental edition of “The Animal Kingdom” by George Cuvier, in a special edition by his disciples, which included descriptions of genera and species with beautiful colour illustrations added in a second volume.

Image of book cover (Règne animal)
“Le Règne Animal” by George Cuvier in the edition by his disciples with two of the illustrations included in the crustaceans section contributed by Milne Edwards. Images from Wikicommons.

As said, his other love was corals. In 1834, Milne-Edwards travelled to the coasts of Algeria, thanks to his father-in-law, Camille Alphonse Trézel, who then commanded the province of Oran, later becoming the Minister of War of the Republic. The exploration of the Algerian coasts was the origin of a long series of publications on corals, published from 1839 to 1852. He also published a monograph of British fossil corals (1850-1854), and “Histoire naturelle des Coralliaires” (1857-1860). In 1844, Milne-Edwards undertook a big coastline sampling tour with colleagues (de Quatrefages and Blanchard), which constituted a striking event in the annals of zoology. This sampling trip was initiated in the Bay of Biscay, in both the French and Spanish coastlines, before moving to southern Italy. In those times, for the observation of corals in their habitat, long tubes were used which had a glass lens on the side introduced in the sea. Otherwise, corals had to be collected for further analysis after dredging or hand gathering in cliff crevices at low tide. While in Sicily, Milne-Edwards tested a technological innovation in one of the earliest scuba diving attempts in history. He ordered the construction of a helmet similar to that used by the Paris Fire Brigade to access smoke-filled rooms, that was connected to the surface by a long flexible tube with a pump through which air was forced for respiration. He descended twenty-five feet into the Bay of Messina, near Milazzo, and de Quatrefages recorded that descent as an anecdote in one of his books, relating how Milne-Edwards came out with his bounty of shells. Anecdote or not, this marks the first submarine animal sampling ever (excluding free diving, traditional fisheries in different places of the world!).

Image of book cover
“Histoire naturelle des Coralliaires” (1857-1860). Photo taken from biodiversity library.

Milne-Edwards’ research achievements were obtained without leaving aside academic and administrative duties, which were both significant and assorted. In 1838, he succeeded Frederic Cuvier in his chair at the Natural History Museum of Paris to later replace Audouin in the chair of Crustacea, Arachnida, and Insecta in 1841. In 1843, he was appointed professor of entomology and comparative physiology of the faculty of sciences of Sorbonne University, where he became dean in 1849 until his death (this did not mean abandoning the museum). Later, in 1862, he became chair at the Museum of Mammals and Birds, and finally, in 1864 he was named Director of the entire Natural History Museum (he is said to have put his life at risk securing museum collections during the bombings of the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-1871). He was thus a leader of French biology.

National history museum in Paris

The National History Museum in “Jardin des Plantes” of Paris, with the Milne-Edwards esplanade in front of its main building. Photographs by Ibon Cancio.

He constantly tried to open a marine biological station by the coast, preferably in Brittany, to allow progress in marine biological research. He was about to succeed in a different placement by the Channel just before the Franco-Prussian war started. An imperial decree of July 1868 proclaimed that a number of geological and biological stations would be established on the French coast, in order to facilitate the study of marine fauna and flora in the coasts of France. The Minister of Public Instruction, Victor Duruy, appointed Milne-Edwards to assess the viability of a recently created aquarium for that purpose. During the 1868 International Maritime Exhibition of Le Havre, an aquarium had been established by the beach with 46 large containers, with transparent walls, containing more than 100 cubic meters of seawater which were renewed twice a day. Milne-Edwards was fascinated, and he eagerly presented his approval, but the impossibility to raise the necessary funds led to its demolition. Earlier, Victor Coste had been successful in opening a marine station in Concarneau (with an early connection to the Museum). It was 1859, and Coste was close to the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenia de Montijo, serving as their personal physician.

Horseshoe crabs
Milne Edwards father and son united by one species, the horseshoe crab Limulus polyphemus. Illustration of the anatomy and circulatory system of Limulus in “Le Règne Animal” (Henri Milne-Edwards, in 1837) and in “Recherches sur l’anatomie des Limules” (Alphonse Milne-Edwards, in 1873). Images obtained from Wikicommons.

Milne-Edwards, who died on 29 July 1885, did not reach the fecundity standards of his father. He only fathered 9 children, one of them the eminent biologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards, who would also become director of the Natural History Museum (he was the director when the Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy was built in 1898). Alphonse Milne-Edwards’ father did not succeed in opening a marine station but he inoculated the passion, as Cuvier had done with him, to his student de Lacaze Duthiers, who would succeed in opening the marine biological stations of Roscoff (1872) and Banyuls sur mer (1882).

Bust of Henri Milne-Edwards
A bust of Henri Milne-Edwards in one of the side exterior walls of the Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in “Jardin des Plantes”. Through the window some of the whale samples in exhibition can be seen. Photograph by Ibon Cancio.
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