50 Famous People – Jean-Henri Fabre

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Growing up in Minnesota, I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of insects. We had a couple kinds of butterflies, some grasshoppers and dragonflies, and that was about it. (We didn’t have much in the way of birds, either.) Since I lived in the city, I didn’t have many opportunities for bird watching or insect collecting. The local library had a few books on North American birds, but I don’t remember seeing anything on insects. So, I had no idea who the subject of this mook was.

Jean-Henri Fabre was a primarily-self-taught French entomologist, living from 1823 to 1915. His father attempted to run restaurants in several cities in France, and failed with all of them. Fabre grew up with relatives in the countryside, where he developed an interest in plants and animals from an early age. He attended school for a while but started working from around age 14 to help raise money for the family, selling lemons or working construction sites. He attended school in order to gain a teaching certificate, and then taught physics and chemistry at several schools while attempting to conduct his own studies on the side. He discovered the works of Leon Dufour and decided to focus on insect studies. Eventually, he quit teaching to concentrate on work in his own lab, and wrote 10 volumes based on his observations. He’s very well-known in Japan, in part because of his humorous writing style (which was unlike the tedious pedantry common at the time).

The intro manga has Merrino trying to come up with a new insect-based machine to play with, and Daichi pulls out a stack of books from under his shirt. He gets into a dispute with Utako, who thinks insects are creepy, while Daichi himself feels that bug collecting is a “real man’s game”. Studybell appears in an attempt to cure Utako of her phobia. At the end of the lesson, she still dislikes bugs, but not quite as much as before. Merrino announces that he’s found a bug not detailed in Daichi’s books, so he’s chosen it for the basis of his new machine – a giant cockroach.

The artist for the main manga this time is Yayoi Furudori, creator of Fuku Fuku and Library Wars – Spitfire. There’s a decided shojo feel for the character designs, but the backgrounds and detail work on the insects are very good. Overall, the “westernization”  of the characters isn’t as distracting as normal. The story picks up with Fabre, age 32, bringing home a beetle that was just stung by a wasp. He shows it to his wife and demonstrates that it’s not actually dead, just paralyzed. The insects are similar to the ones Dufour wrote about in his research papers, but there’s a puzzle that hasn’t been answered yet. Mainly, how did the wasp deliver the venom to the beetle through its hard upper shell? There’s no puncture wound. After long study, Fabre tried stealing a beetle from one of the wasps, substituting it for one that he’d brought with him. Thinking that it had failed to subdue the beetle the first time, the wasp struck again, and Fabre could see that the stinger was curled under the beetle where it could reach the more vulnerable abdomen area. Fabre writes up his findings, which eventually make their way to Dufour. He writes a letter to Fabre, but rather than being angry at having been proven wrong, he commends the younger man for his work and encourages him to keep doing insect research.

Time passes, and Fabre is still poor. Teaching doesn’t pay well and he doesn’t like the work. He and his family move to different schools in different cities, but his heart’s not in it. One day, as he’s trying to write the first volume of his collection, he decides to ask his second oldest son, Jules, to help him with his research. Of all the children he’s had, only Jules and one of his daughters shares his interest in insects. One of the other daughters has finished making dinner and she calls to Jules and her father to come eat, but they’re engrossed in looking at a caterpillar and ignore her. But, before volume 1 can be finished, Jules falls ill and dies at age 16. Fabre himself collapses from grief and sees a vision of the boy eagerly waiting to read his father’s books. When he recovers, Fabre completes book 1, then tries to get a publisher for it. (A sidebar mentions that Fabre discovered a new insect while researching the first volume, and named it after Jules.) He moves the family to a new home a few miles away, in a section of undeveloped land that his christens “Arumus” (Japanese spelling, means “wilderness”). He then welcomes the insects there into his household. He stays there until his death at age 91, completing all 10 volumes on insects, as well as observations on other plants and animals. (Note that I can’t find information on Fabre’s children, such as names and how many he had. The Japanese pronunciation of Jules is “Jule”, so I’m guessing at how it’s spelled.)

The textbook section describes pretty much the same information given above, but with more detail on his father’s financial failings, and listings of the schools he taught at. Pictures include shots of Fabre, his wife and older son (Paul, who became an insect photographer), pictures of his insect collections and his lab. There’s also some excerpts of his observations (the Aesop story of the ant and grasshopper got it wrong. Outside of the original story being about an ant and cicada, the cicada is the one that does all the work in pulling sap from trees, and the ants steal it away. So, the cicada is the forthright worker, and the ants are just lazy thieves.) The last two pages have illustrations by Chikaba Kumada (1911-2009), an illustrator known as “the petit Fabre”, due to the detailed work he did on insects and plants for textbooks.

The TCG cards are for Ernest Seton, Yuan Shikai, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sven Hedin, Henry Ford, Pierre de Coubertin, Sun Yat-sen, Ramsay MacDonald and Anne Sullivan.

If you want to know what western textbooks don’t teach you about insect history, this mook is for you. (Side note: Asahi Shimbun has included an ad on the back page of this mook announcing that the second series of illustrated famous people will start up at the end of January, 2013. It will feature 30 more names, such as Hans Andersen, Caesar, Newton and Tolstoy.)

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