While on a family trip to France in the summer of 2017, I discovered the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy in the Jardins des Plantes of Paris. Part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, it is a hanger-like building, crammed with over 1,000 reconstructed animal skeletons, and lined with cabinets of preserved soft tissue specimens. Jars of brains, stomachs, and other viscera were arranged to allow the ready comparison of anatomical features. Although I’m a clinical anatomist, it was difficult to tear myself away from this comparative anatomy. Of the seven days we spent in Paris, I devoted two days to the exhibits, and still was able to absorb only a small fraction of them. Not only was the space beautiful and awe-inspiring, but the weight of history was palpable. After all, much of this collection was assembled and studied by Cuvier himself. Needless to say, I was in anatomy heaven!
Georges Cuvier is considered by some to be the “father of paleontology”. His work as a comparative anatomist eventually led to the acceptance of extinction as a phenomenon. Due to religious doctrine, there was quite a bit of resistance to the idea that some animals were no longer found on Earth, and (the story goes) that Cuvier’s detailed analysis of mammoth and elephant mandibles definitively proved that elephants weren’t simply evolved mammoths. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, and perhaps personally validated by the importance that anatomy knowledge and careful observation played in Cuvier’s success story. As someone who is deeply interested in the study of anatomy, I like to stress to my students that the analysis of form can provide a wealth of knowledge, and Cuvier’s evidence which helped lead to academic acceptance of extinction is an example I have used to illustrate this.
The Hall of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology is easy to find within the National Museum. It is located in the Fifth Arrondisement with easy access from the Jussieu metro stop. The building was constructed in preparation for the 1900 world fair, and has lovely architectural details, but insufficient air conditioning! If you plan to visit in the summer like I did, be sure to go as early as possible, as the heat can be stifling. In fact, the Hall of Paleontology on the second floor is often closed for excessive heat! If you find yourself in Paris, be sure to carve out some time to explore this delightful museum.
Melissa Clouse received her Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Berea College (Berea, KY) and spent five years as an officer in the United States Air Force, in a career field that had absolutely nothing to do with biology. She received her Master’s of Science in Clinical Anatomy from Creighton University (Omaha, NE) and spent five years conducting research in the characteristics of intranasal prion infection. She is now an instructor and advisor at Doane University (Crete, NE), where she teaches human anatomy and cadaver dissection and serves as the Director of Pre-Health Programs.