Joseph Paul Gaimard
Since his father had died in 1799 during uprisings in the Midi, Gaimard’s early training was directed by relatives. He entered the naval medical school at Toulon and, through success in academic competition, was named surgeon in the royal navy.
Gaimard's talents and background earned him a place as surgeon and naturalist aboard the Uranie, commanded by Louis Claude de Freycinet and charged with investigating the meteorology, oceanography, and natural history of vast areas of the South Pacific Ocean. Assisting him were Jean Rene Constant Quoy, surgeon and naturalist, Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupre, pharmacologist and botanist, and François Arago’s youngest brother, Jacques, draftsman.
All were subject to regular naval discipline, Freycinet hoping to avoid the customary willfulness of scientific explorers. Upon their return from the circumnavigation of the globe in 1820 Gaimard and Quoy prepared a detailed account of their zoological discoveries. Gaimard thus early made his mark in one of the great periods of French maritime activity and earnest overseas scientific exploration.
Early in 1826, he toured Europe to inspect natural history collections and to prepare for his departure as the first surgeon to the famed expedition of J. S. C. Dumont d’Urville. As captain of the Astrolabe, Dumont d’Urville’s double task was to conduct a scientific survey of Oceania and to seek traces of the lost La Perouse expedition. Between 1826 and 1829 Gaimard was again in the South Pacific, and once again he and Quoy prepared an account of their zoological collections and discoveries. While this work was in press, an outbreak of Asiatic cholera was reported from western Russia. The indefatigable and audacious Gaimard immediately set out to assess the epidemic. He spent several months observing the disease in eastern Europe and encountered it again upon his return to Paris in 1832. His report on cholera, an affliction all the more terrifying for its utter novelty in western Europe, remains a classic account of the disease.
Gaimard soon set off on further exploratory voyages. He led a large scientific team aboard the Recherche to Iceland and Greenland, and a few years later, serving as director of the Scientific Commission for the North, he conducted extensive explorations in Lapland and on Spitsbergen and the Faeroes. With the latter journey, Gaimard’s frenetic, albeit highly productive, wandering apparently came to an end. His later years remain a supreme mystery, but he evidently settled in Paris and was fully occupied with the preparation and publication of the official reports of the expeditions to Iceland and to northern Europe.
Of Gaimard’s personality little is known save for effusive but perhaps accurate references to his uncommon benevolence and a readiness to serve France whatever be the task imposed. Details of his personal life also remain quite unknown. Clearly, Gaimard was devoted as much to the sheer pleasure of travel as to the joy of scientific discovery. His talents as a naturalist were indeed great, and he was assiduous and successful in seeing to completion the official reports of every expedition in which he participated.