Théophile Durand

Théophile Durand

Born in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (Brussels), Durand soon established in Liège with his parents. He began to collect plants in that region quite young under the influence of one of his father’s friends. Although he studied pharmacy at the university of Liège, he never graduated for he had to move to Switzerland in order to recover from a severe illness. There he met H. Pittier and collaborated with him on some work about native Swiss flora. Later Pittier moved to Costa Rica and provided Durand and the botanic garden with dried specimens Durand would study, making his first steps in exotic botany in the process.

In 1879, Durand became a volunteer at the State Botanic Garden in Brussels. In 1881, he was offered a first official job in the institution thanks to the support of Director François Crépin. He wrote contributions to several botanical fields (teratology, monographies, exotic flora, cryptogamy and phanerogamy, phytogeography) before releasing the famous Index Generum Phanerogamarum (1888).

In 1895-1896 the botanic garden began to work on samples and dried specimens originating in the Independent State of Congo (then a private property of King Léopold II). With Emile De Wildeman, another botanist of the State botanic garden, Durand was in charge of that steadily growing collection. Thank to it, Durand soon became one of the most impressive connoisseurs of the African Flora having, at the time of his death (1912) published hundreds, if not thousands, of pages on that topic.

His huge work on Congolese botany culminated in 1909 with the Sylloge Florae Congolanae written in collaboration with his daughter Hélène, a famous plant illustrator . It was nothing less that a complete synthesis of all the knowledge on Phanerogams of that area. It was awarded the Emile Laurent prize by the Belgian Academy (1907-1908).

As one may notice, Durand tended to focus more and more on bibliographical and documentary work. This resulted from steadily decreasing eyesight. His collaboration to the Index Kewensis (first supplement, 1901-1906), for instance, proves that he had become a famous taxonomist at an international level and that he suffered from shortened sight.

From 1901 to 1912 Théopile Durand ran the national botanic garden after François Crépin retired. This decade was supposed to bring huge improvements to the institution thanks to a so-called reform, that eventually mostly failed. King Léopold of Belgium was then in need of scienfic help and expertise to make some money out of his private Congolese property. Indeed, he wanted to promote agricultural development there and to show that he wanted to "civilize" Congo. Science fulfilled both requirements. By identifying the right plants to grow (mostly rubber producing species) botanists helped him to develop prosperous commercial activities. On the other hand, by writing and describing the native flora, scientists of the Belgian botanic garden helped him to show the world that the King cherished sciences. Call it propaganda.

This is the reason why Leopold II actively supported the botanic garden and the aforementioned "reform". First a Colonial Section was created, although Belgium had no colony at all! Some new collaborators were hired (Jean Massart, for instance), new greenhouses were created, old ones improved and lots of attractive and scientific displays designed, too. The Bulletin du Jardin Botanique de l’Etat was even published for the first time in 1902. The financial means of the botanic garden were up, too, despite the fact that the Belgian Catholic ministers despised the institution. The botanic garden, indeed, was supposed to be a nest full of enemies of political catholicism: liberals from the masonic University of Brussels, liberals from the city administration, Jews (although it was never said in public) & free-masons.

All in all, Durand benefited from the King’s support to improve the botanic garden.

Then came new enemies: urban development threatened to split the garden open for a while in order to establish new railways and air pollution was turning really noxious to the living collections. This gave the catholic ministers a good pretext to save some money on the botanic garden. Who would spend money on an institution that was supposed to be destroyed in parts or even moved away from the center of the town? The ministers decided not to do and the botanic garden began to decay for years. The end of Durand’s Era was saddened by shorteage of financial helps, aging buildings and greenhouses, archaic infrastructures and the loss of brilliant and influential personalities : Massart left for a better future, and a handful of very supporting members of the board died.

Durand himself died in 1912. His daughter Hélène was officially hired by the botanic garden shortly after as an illustrator.

by Dr. Denis Diagre

Example Publications

  • Durand, Théophile: Phanérogames. Prodrome de la flore belge. Bruxelles, A. Castaigne, 1899
  • Durand, Théophile & Hélène: Sylloge florae congolanae [Phanerogamae]. Ouvrage couronné par l’Académie royale de Belgique, Bruxelles, A. de Boeck, 1909
  • Wildeman, Émile Auguste Joseph de & Théophile Durand: Illustrations de la flore du Congo. & Contributions à la flore du Congo. Bruxelles, Charles vande Weghe, 1898-1902,
  • by Dr. Denis Diagre

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