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The Little Family of the Labo

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

The main building of the Paris Museum of Natural History lies along the western rim of the Jardin des Plantes, across the garden from the old Zoo. It looks rather like an animal itself, with its mitre-shaped dome, that always reminded me of a mammoth’s skull, hunched at one end of a long crouching body of masonry.

Well down on the right-hand side of the facade fronting the Seine, there is a window. On a line with it around the corner, another looks down on the garden. I thought of those two windows as I read the dispatch from Vichy: Marcellin Boule is dead.

I also thought of a door. To reach it, you mount the shallow waxed steps of the main staircase—whose rail of bronze chrysanthemums, life size, is a relic of the art nouveau enthusiasms of the late nineties—and cross the upper hall, past a gallery where the cast of a diplodocus stands among other skeleton beasts beneath a skylight. The door faces you then, with the words Laboratoire de Paleontologie in black letters on the ground glass.

One autumn afternoon in the twenties, two American women stood outside the door, carrying a heavy box of flint and bone specimens. We knew we were expected. A note from Professor Boule had come to us that morning, written in a microscopic hand we had had considerable trouble in deciphering. In spite of the note, we felt misgivings about our reception. We had heard many curious things about the truculent genius who presided over the laboratory. He was said to be none too gracious to foreigners. After some hestitation we rang the bell.

There was a shuffle of slippered feet and the door swung in a fraction, revealing an effaced little man in a blue work-apron who eyed us doubtfully through the gap. Behind him we saw bookshelves, and carpeted stairs leading up and down. Over it all lay a hush like the hush of the caves we had explored that summer. We gave our names in whispers and the elderly garcon shuffled up the stairs to an open doorway where he stood, apparently speechless, not advancing beyond the threshold. We set down our box and waited.

“Alors what is it?” An impatient voice cut the silence. “Can’t you see I . . . what! Why didn’t you say so?” Papers rustled, a book slapped shut, a chair grated—then a bulky figure pushed past the waiting garcon. “Mesdames, je m’excuse” said Monsieur Boule from the landing.

He looked rather like his name. A stumpy, round body, a great, round head, bright eyes under heavy brows in a round, bearded face. He waved us into his office.

“Sit down, sit down. Now let me see those bones—”

“Those bones” were the results of a summer’s digging in a cave of the French Pyrenees. We had had beginners’ luck: in a layer below the Neolithic or New Stone Age deposits and just above those of the Paleolithic, we had uncovered a human skeleton. This Man-of-Montardit was our introduction to M. Boule. There could not have been a better.

That afternoon it was decided. While Ruth Sawtell, the anthropologist of our digging expedition, took the skeleton to the anthropological section of the Museum and studied it there, I was to remain in M. Boule’s laboratory to identify and classify the animal bones we had unearthed. I was given a crisp white blouse and a desk in a corner room by a window looking out on the garden, and Auguste, the elderly garcon, piled tiers of empty drawers against the wall behind me, each chalked neatly with my name.

For days, M. Boule watched me work, coming down from time to time to stand at my elbow, pipe in his fist. One day he asked abruptly:

“Are you doing this as a dilettante?” He eyed me narrowly through his spectacles.

I know I flared up at the word. That seemed to please him.

“Then I shall have to take you in hand, Madame. You need method and direction. We can begin with your mammals and work down. Monsieur Vabbi—” he turned to a black cassocked figure bent over a table at the other window —”will help you brush up your geology. Between the two of us, we ought to make a prehistorian of you.” He chuckled again. “Monsieur Vabbi” was the Pere Teilhard de Chardin, at that time president of the Geological Society of France. He had just returned from his first expedition to the Gobi desert.

That day began for me five rich years in what we called the “little family of the Labo.” I often wondered at my luck. There was I, a newcomer to the field, with little to my credit except for that one summer’s digging, plus enthusiasm and the willingness to work. Work, M. Boule maintained, was what the Museum stood for: work, with no thought of reward beyond the completed task. The Museum gave no degrees, conferred few honors. It was there for the furtherance of science. But it was no place for dilettantes. He hated dilettantes.

Our laboratory family had one point in common with most French families: it was small. To the permanent staff belonged a meek, scholarly gentleman with a walrus mustache, technically known as M. Boule’s assistant. He also served as buffer, meekness being a virtue that the laboratory head held in negligible esteem. “He never talks back,” M. Boule said of him impatiently. There was the secretary and preparatrice, Mademoiselle Raymonde, a hard-worked and hard-working young woman whose skilled fingers repaired and pieced together specimens too delicate and precious to be entrusted to the basement workshop where casts were made and big specimens prepared and mounted. Auguste the garcon came last of all—a simple soul whose passion was the waxed floor which he kept slick and shining with repeated rubbings. His secret, he confided, was eighty strokes of the brush to each strip of flooring—not seventy-nine or eighty-one—eighty.

The “permanents” who were not staff members included two young scientists, each at work on a doctor’s thesis, and the Pere Teilhard with his fine-etched face, tall and stooped in his black soutane, the only one of us whom M. Boule treated as an equal. The Pere came originally from Au-vergne, as did M. Boule, who always maintained they represented the two outstanding types of Auvergnats: the lean and aristocratic and the fat, thickset, and popular. He liked to stress his own peasant origin.

The atmosphere of the Labo was democratically informal; as individuals we moved easily and freely—within the limits of a formal pattern, for this was France. We bore it lightly, but the pattern was there, in the laboratory as in French family life and society.

In the mornings, M. Boule never came to the Labo. He preferred to do his personal work at home, out of reach of a telephone. The laboratory was his office, a place to transact Museum business, oversee the work of his subordinates, and receive callers. During the morning hours, the hush of the Labo was deepest as everyone worked undisturbed in his corner. Promptly at half-past twelve, a key clicked in the door on the landing and a voice with a familiar peremptory ring called from the landing: “C—! Mile. Raymondo! Is Madame there? Monsieur l’abbe! The Laboratory had found its soul.

Sometime between five-thirty and six, the same voice summoned us again. “Je m’en vaisl” It was the signal for farewells. Every evening the ritual was the same. One of us accompanied M. Boule—stepping briskly down the main stairs, his derby set squarely on his big forehead, his umbrella on his arm—while conversations begun in the Labo continued across the Pont d’Austerlitz and along the Canal to the Place de la Bastille. There he bought his copy of the Temps at the kiosk on the corner and took his tram. “A demain, Madame.” “Bon soir, Monsieur Boule.”

In the laboratory, the months passed timeless. The bones from the Pyrenees cave were long since classified. Fossils from all ages littered my desk as I dug deeper into the world’s history, below man and his brother mammals to coldblooded things that crawled and swam. I sketched them from all angles, compared, noted, read. M. Boule took exception to my drawing. “It is not enough that it should be correct, it must look well,” he insisted. “A scientist must have something of the artist in him.” He prided himself on his own skill with brush and pencil. In art, his taste was conservative. He had no patience, with “modernism”—all “froth and smartness and no underpinning,” he said. Moreover, it was dishonest, an attempt to get results without effort. “Everything I have, I worked for,” he said belligerently.

In post-war France, he claimed, work was losing its prestige. The young cared only for money and preferment. The State reflected the trend and set the example. Where was the encouragement that had made France the Mecca of pure science? Only the practical sciences, the money-making ones, counted; they received all the attention and all the public funds. Pure science was the poor relation. I have never seen him angrier than the day a begging campaign for French laboratories was launched in Paris. “The glory of France, begging in the streets!”

The Museum budget had been trimmed to the bone.

There was little money for books. During the winter months, the great galleries that housed the richest collection in the world, remained unheated. Precious specimens cracked and split, making new work for Mile. Raymonde’s gifted fingers and for the technical staff below stairs. Retrenchments had begun with the war, but the Museum had as yet no share in post-war prosperity. M. Boule kept a watchful eye on expenditures, but even his “candle-end economy” as the staff was inclined to call it, could not work miracles. Graver still in its bearing on the future, was the lack of young scientists. The war had wiped out one generation; the post-war young saw little future in pure science. Already in his sixties, M. Boule worried about his successor. Who would follow him in the chair of Paleontology of the Museum and carry on the Laboratory’s great traditions? “Some politician’s pet,” he said wrathfully. The one man qualified to succeed him was the Pere Teilhard, but how could the Republic admit a Jesuit as the head of a State institution? That was unthinkable. M. Boule, like all republicans of his generation, was a staunch anti-clerical.

All that first winter, the Pere’s Chinese specimens filled the Labo. Piece by piece, they moved up from the basement workroom—long bones and skulls of great hippos and rhinoceros. M. Boule grumbled: we would soon be driven out of doors because of the “Pere’s bones.” Making his rounds of the Labo, he would pause by the Pere’s chair where the latter, eyes glued to the binoculars, scratched diligently with a needle freeing a tiny rodent’s skull from a block of limestone. “How’s the rat?” he inquired, laying an affectionate hand on the priest’s shoulder. We spoke familiarly of our fossil beasts, Latin terms being strictly taboo outside of purely technical discussions. When a layman, bringing bones for identification, would charge his tongue with latinity—”Don’t you think, Monsieur le Professeur, this might be a felis catus silvestris?”—M. Boule’s eyes would crinkle behind his glasses. “You mean a pussy?” I had been two years in the Labo, when M. Boule set me exploring what he called “an old sea-bottom”—a collection of sandstone nodules from a Madagascar site, containing imprints of various sea-creatures. Invertebrates were good discipline, he said, and it was time I did something serious on my own. He rebuked my lack of enthusiasm. “There may be more of the world’s history in one of these nodules than in all the Pere’s bones,” he said, holding up the imprint of an ammonite, complete with its curving lip and delicate lace-like sutures. “Grand” geology, he reminded me, was made up of just such insignificant fragments.

I was learning one of the great lessons of French science: the importance of detail, not as an isolated fragment, but as part of a vast pattern. You were never allowed to lose sight of the pattern. In science, as in every phase of French thought and philosophy, there was that same concern with the universal. The detail was merely the point of focus, the approach to a transcending truth common to all men. L’ esprit de synthese, it was France’s contribution to the thinking world.

German science, as M. Boule maintained, stopped at the detail, studied each fragment for itself, painstakingly, elaborately. All very useful, but what then? “Of seventy-five specimens, they will make seventy-five new species—separate, dissect, divide until they are lost in the dust they create. This dust must be brought together, amalgamated. On it you can build. What do these fossils tell you?” he insisted.

To M. Boule, the Germans were the children, the parvenus of science. The labored, hermetic language of German science afforded convincing proof. To them, the scientist was still the shaman, the sorcerer, the man-who-knows-secrets and guards them jealously, whereas the mission of true science was to reveal. Its language should be crystal clear, so that a child might understand. He held out Gau-dry’s “Enchainements” as a model. “It reads like a fairytale,” he said.

So simple to read, but oh, how difficult to write! When I began putting things on paper, M. Boule frowned at my reports. “This is so involved. Why can’t you say it simply?” Rip would go his pencil. “Like this—” A twist, a phrase dropped, a word added . . . “There, it says the same thing, with clarity and elegance.” It was not enough to put facts and findings on paper, anyhow. Science “obliged,” like literature or any of the arts. Form was essential. Style.

The same painstaking care for form went into every phase of laboratory work. How many times our preparatrice took apart the fragments of a skull she was piecing together under M. Boule’s direction, because some one fragment was an imperceptible millimeter out of line! The casts made in the basement workroom had all the patined perfection of the originals, each in its way a work of art. M. Boule had an eye to them all. Every monograph of the “Annales de Pa-leontologie” which he edited was as carefully prepared as an art edition. Specimens were photographed, photographed again, pages set up with infinite care and an eye to artistic effect. Choice of characters, paper, appearance of the page —not a detail was overlooked, for the beauty of the whole.

As he hated slipshod work, M. Boule hated bluff, bombast, and honor-seeking. Science brought its own reward, or should, he said. The outstanding figure in his field—he had no doubts whatsoever on that point (was not Paleontology a “child of France, born in the Paris Museum,” to quote Gaudry, his predecessor?)—M. Boule was not n member of the Academie des Sciences. He refused to solicit votes and make the official visits his candidacy would have required. It was not humility, but intense stubborn pride. He was above such things. He professed scathing contempt for colleagues, French and foreign, who travelled hither and yon, lecturing, writing for the non-scientific press, gathering “easy laurels.” They were publicity-seekers, “journalists” (one of the most biting words of his vocabulary). The place of a scientist was in his laboratory.

He took gleeful delight when he caught one of them in error. At such times the Labo rocked for days with Homeric laughter—as on one occasion when a colleague of his, a somewhat pompous gentleman with a handle to his name, sent M. Boule the lower jaw of a cave bear, or so he termed it, which he said had puzzled his own laboratory. The jaw was toothless. How could such an animal have reached adult age without teeth? He wrote quite a pathetic letter about it, speculating on its probable diet.

When the jaw arrived, M. Boule summoned us to his office.

“What do you say to this, Monsieur Vabbd?” he asked, his eyes dancing with malice. He held out the jaw—a massive bone, slightly curved, with not a tooth-socket visible. “Well, what is it?”

The Pere looked embarrassed. The sender was an old friend.

“It is . . . evidently . . . a jaw, part of a lower jaw,” he said hesitatingly. “What part?”

“The . . . er . . . branche montante, above the jaw angle.”

“Where no teeth grow. Parfait. And what sort of beast?”

“A horse,” said the Pere in a low voice.

“A horse—poor old Dobbin with no teeth in his cheeks I” M. Boule rocked happily on his heels and wiped his eyes. “Now run away all of you, I’m going to write him one of those letters . . .”

I suspect M. Boule’s delight in the learned gentleman’s discomfiture was heightened by the fact that the latter was an aristocrat. He professed great scorn for ci-devants (they had no place in a republic, he said) yet I suspect he both respected and resented titles, as something fate had denied him—something that was permanently and unjustly beyond  «

his reach. He avoided using the aristocratic prefix when speaking to a man, though when mentioning him—particularly when the latter was a collaborator of his—he never failed to give it in full. One man he spoke of solely by his title and always with deepest respect: le Prince—the late Albert I of Monaco who had founded the Institut de Pale-ontologie Humaine of which M. Boule was director.

From time to time, there came to the Labo a visitor whom M. Boule held in high esteem. We were made aware of his presence when a voice, astonishingly young, rang through the upper hall.

“Eh bien, my old friend—”

“Bonjour, Monsieur le President!”

It was Clemenceau, always curious of prehistory—it gave him, he said, a long view of man’s stupidities and food for his chronic pessimism. He would sit on the edge of his chair {his legs were failing him) and twit me with my fondness for bones—a curious and sterile passion for a young woman, he said. “I shall soon be bones myself, Madame—unfortunately not so pleasant to handle as these!”

I remember one day hearing him speculate as to who or what would inherit the earth after the disappearance of man. M. Boule suggested the insects, that ancient and hostile order which, with few exceptions, man had never succeeded in taming. The Tiger favored microbes, the oldest forms of all. Thus the circle would be complete, he said, from the first life-cells on the planet to the last. Whatever man’s successor might be, his domination of the earth was fragile. “A change of temperature, a shift in the chemical composition of the atmosphere—and adieu man and his works,” the Tiger said cheerfully. He seemed to find pleasure in the thought that man’s days like his own were numbered.

Pere Teilhard remained aloof from such speculations. “The scientific attitude carries him only so far; then he takes a leap into philosophy,” M. Boule commented dryly. His own philosophy of life, like that of the Tiger, followed the line from Voltaire to Anatole France: an elegant scepticism tinged with bitterness. For the individual, death was the end. “The only germ of immortality is in the species.”

M. Boule had another point in common with the Tiger: a verbal ruthlessness that won him many enemies. He prided himself on saying to a man’s face what he thought of him, and as he had a poor opinion of most, that happened frequently and he never minced words. Foreign visitors found him intractable, for he was intensely chauvinistic, and rarely penetrated that bristling outer crust. We who lived close to him accepted the fireworks as part of M. Boule’s essential dynamism and learned to overlook even the explosions we provoked when we ran afoul of any of his pet theories. (He respected an adversary who held his ground and refused to be browbeaten.) Wary as any Auvergnat of formulating an opinion, once he had done so, and published it, he was adamant. On other subjects, he could be of an open mind. “What do you think?” he would ask. Or with a shrug, “I don’t know, I have no idea. Try to figure it out yourself.” Science, he stressed, taught humility. “We spend our life building up theories that the next generation tears down.”

As a woman, I held a privileged status in the laboratory family. I was never more aware of it than the day I upset the skull of a megaceros—a beautiful specimen with delicate branching antlers, topheavy on its metal support—and sent it crashing to the library floor. M. Boule, who had heard the fracas, came charging from his office, every hair bristling. “Well—that’s a fine business I” he shouted—and stopped abruptly. He eyed me, pitiful among the ruins, and the anger faded from his voice. “It’s not a mountain, it can be mended,” he said shortly and turned away. That was all. “A lucky thing it was you, Madame,” Auguste the garcon said significantly as he gathered up the fragments.

Concerning women, M. Boule held definite and restricted opinions. He treated them with old-fashioned courtesy thai; carried with it a shade of humorous disdain. Women were ornaments, not to be taken seriously outside their biological role. Standing by my table in his white coat and brandishing his pipe, he would hold forth on the subject with his customary vehemence, until someone reminded him: “And Madame?” “Oh,” impatiently, “a case of individual variation. Besides, she works like a man!”

When I came to the Labo, Marcellin Boule had reached the peak of his career. He was rounding out the last decade of his more than thirty years in the chair of Paleontology of the Museum. His great contribution to science—”human” paleontology, the study of man as a fossil—had found concrete expression in his book “Les Hommes Fossiles” and in the work of the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine which he directed. He was already busy with the weighty volume of his “Elements de Paleontologie,” the crowning work of his career, published in collaboration with one of his most gifted students on the eve of the present war.

As a scientist, he continued the line of his great predecessors: Cuvier, Lamarck, Gaudry. Not one of us but felt it. Daily in the laboratory, Ave breathed in the atmosphere of the great and enduring traditions of the past. He belonged also to the generation of the men who had carried “the Republic of M. Thiers” through the early years of the century. From Thiers to Clemenceau to Poincare, he was like them all—honest, irascible, cautious, staunchly republican, chauvinistic. He could be a far-seeing scientist and a narrow-visioned petty bourgeois, all in one. For the sake of the first, we forgot the latter and ignored the apparent paradox.

As the years passed, there crept into the hush of the Labo echoes of unrest beyond the walls. At the seat of government the pendulum of power swung uneasily between Left and Right, while factions quarreled and from beyond the Rhine mounted again the shadow of international war. From the Reich came letters written by men of science, each with its stereotyped ending: “In the Fuehrer’s Germany all is well,” and even an occasional “Heil Hitler.” M. Boule railed at the “servility” of German science; at the same time he was troubled. As discussions in the laboratory shifted from science to politics, he forgot to worry about the future of his laboratory as he worried about the future of France.

“Marcellin Boule died in retirement,” reads the Vichy dispatch. I can picture the bitterness of his last days in the Cantal hills of his boyhood, when he must have felt that all the France he loved had crumbled into dust. Yet I know there must have been moments when he viewed the black tragedy of defeat with the far-seeing eye of the scientist familiar with the cataclysms of the past. Defeat is the detail—men and institutions may crumble, but the flame that is France transcends defeat. France belongs to the world pattern; we must never forget the pattern. “On this dust we can build.”


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