Louis A. Péringuey, a Frenchman of Basque extraction, saw active service in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 as a boy of fifteen. This cut short his schooling and he had no university education. Between 1871 and 1878 he visited Senegal, Gambia, and Madagascar to collect plants and animals for museums. He came to the Cape Colony in 1879 and taught French at the South African College and the Diocesan College in Cape Town. In 1892 he married Bertha Marcellis. Their son, Louis C. Péringuey*, later collected insects.
From June 1882 Péringuey began studying and arranging the Coleoptera (beetle) collection of the South African Museum, Cape Town, as an unpaid volunteer. Two years later he was appointed an assistant on the staff of the museum. His "First contribution to the South African coleopterous fauna" was published in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society in 1883. It was the first of some 30 papers and monographs on South African Coleoptera during the next 40 years, totalling over 3000 printed pages. The most important was his "Descriptive Catalogue of the Coleoptera of South Africa" which, although not including all the families, formed the basis of our knowledge of South African beetles. It was published in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society and its successor, the Royal Society of South Africa, in 11 parts between 1893 and 1909. His final paper on this order, "Descriptions of new species of Carabidae (Coleoptera)..." was published posthumously in the Annals of the South African Museum in 1926. His work on the coleoptera alone was important enough to make him the pioneer of South African systematic entomology.
Though Péringuey's lack of formal training meant that his knowledge of zoology was limited, he had an unrivalled knowledge of the insect fauna of South Africa. Between 1898 and 1914 he published six papers on South African wasps of the family Mutillidae (known as velvet ants) in the Annals of the South African Museum, describing many new species. In the Order Diptera (flies) the genus Peringueyomyina (family Tanyderidae) was named after him by the American entomologist C.P. Alexander in 1921. He was also commemorated in a species of alderfly, Chloroniella peringueyi (family Corydalidae), and in the black-cocktail ant, Crematogaster peringueyi. Among his many publications were several entomological papers in French journals, though most of his work was published locally.
The threat of phylloxera (root rot) in South African vineyards became acute in the mid-1880's and because there was no official government entomologist to deal with it the Cape government appointed Péringuey as inspector of vineyards in 1885, as a member of the Phylloxera Commission in 1886, and as colonial viticulturalist in 1889. After visiting France and Algeria he tackled the problem by applying harsh eradicative measures that proved unsuccessful. He published a "Note on the Phylloxera vastatrix at the Cape" in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society in 1886, and contributed some articles of interest to farmers to the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope.
In 1891 Peringuey made a tour of the eastern districts to investigate the causes of heavy losses of citrus trees. In his report, published in the Agricultural Journal of 23 April 1891, he is referred to as "Government Entomologist", which is misleading as he was merely on temporary loan to the Department of Agriculture from the South African Museum. During this visit to the Eastern Cape he identified insects for the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, and at a meeting of the Albany Natural History Society (Grahamstown) asked members to submit natural history papers to the South African Philosophical Society for publication in its Transactions. From 1906 he lectured in forest entomology at the South African School of Forestry, established that year in association with the South African College
Having been acting curator of the museum for several short periods from 1886 onwards, Péringuey was appointed assistant director of the museum in 1896, but remained keeper of the Department of Insects. Though his entomological studies continued unabated, he developed a strong interest also in prehistory and exhibited some stone artefacts before the South African Philosophical Society in 1892 and 1896. A paper by him on "The Stone Ages of South Africa" was published in the Annals of the museum in 1898. The next year he made a major archaeological discovery near Stellenbosch in the form of a large deposit of [Early Stone Age] artefacts which he described as belonging to the Palaeolithic period. He estimated their age as some 250 000 years, though his geologist friend, G.S. Corstorphine*, regarded the deposits as younger. He found similar artefacts elsewhere in the district, and also near Paarl and Hopefield. The find was announced at a meeting of the South African Philosophical Society in 1899 and published in Nature the next year. These and similar artefacts came to be described as belonging to the "Stellenbosch Culture". The site of the original find was proclaimed a national monument in 1962. Péringuey again discussed "The Stone Age in South Africa" in the volume Science in South Africa (Cape Town, 1905), published in preparation for the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science in South Africa, and in a paper read at this meeting. In these contributions he recognised two periods in South African prehistory which he called "recent" (during which coastal middens were deposited) and "older" (including the Stellenbosch culture). A few years later (Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1909) he concluded that European terms for prehistoric cultures, such as Chellean, Acheulean and Mousterian, were not suitable for South Africa. In "The Stone Ages of South Africa as represented in the collection of the South African Museum" (Annals, 1911, 218p) he divided local Stone Age artefacts into three main types.
Péringuey's interest in prehistory extended to rock art and San culture, leading to a paper, "On rock-engravings of animals and the human figure...", in the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society (1906). Further papers by him on the San and Khoi, and their relation to prehistoric cultures, appeared in various journals to 1921. He has furthermore been credited with organising the first systematic survey of coastal cave shelters (Dubow, 1995). The breadth of his interest is demonstrated by a paper on the so-called post-office stones at the Cape, "Inscriptions left by early European navigators on their way to the East". It was originally published in the Annals of the South African Museum, and later re-published several times as a monograph. Other side interests are reflected in "A note on the whales frequenting South African waters" (Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1921), and the fact that a land snail, Opeas peringueyi, was named after him by M. Connolly* in 1923.
In 1906 Péringuey succeeded W. Sclater* as director of the South African Museum, a post he held until his death in 1924. As director he initiated important additions to the museum's collections and exhibits, for example, an extensive collection of whale skeletons; a unique set of casts of living San, made by James Drury*; a collection of rock art; and a large collection of skulls and skeletons from archaeological excavations. Part of the latter collection was sent to F.C. Shrubsall in London for analysis, while stone artefacts were presented to various museums in Europe.
Péringuey's contributions to science were duly recognised. In 1907 the University of the Cape of Good Hope awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree. He was elected a Fellow of both the Entomological Society of London and the Zoological Society of London, and was a member of the Société Entomologique de France. In 1884 he became a member of the South African Philosophical Society. From 1886 he served on its council continuously until it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908, was its president in 1889-1890 and 1899-1900, and secretary in 1896-1898 and 1903-1907. He continued as secretary of the Royal Society of South Africa from 1908 to 1912, then as president from 1912 to 1918, and was subsequently elected a member of council several times. By 1903 he had joined the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was awarded its South Africa Medal (Gold) in 1911. As a member of the South African Ornithologists' Union he served as joint vice-president during 1907-1911 and 1914-1916, and as president for 1913/14.
He was a tall and strongly built man with a dominating personality, an excessive capacity for work, and a prodigious memory. However, he was also short-tempered, obstinate, and sensitive to criticism.