S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Peron, Francois (physical anthropology)

Born: 22 August 1775, Cérilly, France.
Died: 14 December 1810, Cérilly, France.

François Péron, French traveller and naturalist, was on a voyage to the Indian Ocean during 1792-1795 and was for some time marooned on the island New Amsterdam (c. 38ºS, 70ºE), roughly halfway between South Africa and Australia. From 1800 to 1804 he participated in the voyages of discovery of the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, and the schooner Casuarina. The expedition was led by Captain Nicolas Baudin, while Louis C.D. de Freycinet* commanded the Casuarina. The main purpose of the expedition seems to have been to explore the south and south-west coasts of Australia. Some features along the Australian coast were named after Péron, for example, Péron Island (in Anson Bay, Northern Territory), Mount Péron (off the coast of Western Australia, c. 30ºS), and the Péron Peninsula (Western Australia, c. 26ºS).

After his return to France in 1804 Péron edited an account of the expedition and its work, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australis..., which was published in Paris in two volumes. Volume 1 appeared in 1807, but Péron died before he could finish Volume 2. That volume, published in 1816, was completed by Freycinet, who was also responsible for the maps it contained. Volume 1 was translated into English as A voyage of discovery to the southern hemisphere... (London, 1809). Péron also wrote a number of papers on his observations during the expedition, for example, on dysentery (1804), a new genus of phosphorescent marine organisms which he named Pysosoma (1804), water temperatures of the sea, both on the surface and at various depths (1804-1805), and practical applications of meteorological observations to hygiene (1808). Furthermore, with Charles A. Lesueur (1778-1846) as co-author, he produced eight more papers during 1808-1810, describing various jelly-fish, molluscs, and other marine animals.

While at the Cape during the 1800-1804 expedition Péron studied the native inhabitants, particularly the genital organs of Khoi (Hottentot) women. His observations were described in "Sur le tablier des femmes hottentotes" (on the apron of female Hottentots), which was published in the Journal de Physique, de Chimie, et de l'Histoire Naturelle (1805, Vol. 61, pp. 210-217). The paper dealt with the unusual length of the labia minora in Khoi women. In 1883, many decades after his death, a small book (75p) was published by the Société Zoologique de France under his name, with Charles A. Lesueur as co-author, entitled Obsevations sur le tablier des femmes hottentotes. It included a note on the French expedition of 1800-1804 by G. Lennier, and a critical review of both steatopygia (an excess of fat on the buttocks) and the apron of Khoisan women by Dr Raphael Blanchard.

During his voyages Péron visited many places, including the Cape of Good Hope, Arabia, the islands Anjouan (now Nzwani) and Mayotte in the Comoros, the north-west coast of America, the Sandwich Islands (now Efate, in the New Hebrides, Pacific Ocean), China, Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion. In total he collected more than 2500 new species of animals. He made a special study of the phosphorescent animals found in the ocean, and of jellyfish, but also carried out ethnographic studies in the Antilles (West Indies), Australia and Tasmania. His valuable narrative of these voyages was published posthumously as Memoires du Capitaine Péron, sur ses voyages aux côtes d'Afrique, en Arabie, a l'Ile d'Amsterdam, aux iles d'Anjouan et de Mayotte, aux côtes nord-ouest de l'Amérique, aux iles Sandwich, a la Chine, etc. (Paris, 1924, 2 vols). The South African shells Atlanta peron and Onchidium peron were named after him.

List of sources:
Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

Debus, A.G. (Ed.) World who's who in science. Chicago: Marquis, 1968.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, combined 9th and 10th edition, 1875-1902.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Compiled by: C. Plug