A frequent contributor to The Ark, the Revd David Sox
has been researching the life and achievements of a remarkable French priest,
the naturalist, Father Armand David (pronounced: Daveed).
BY DAVID SOX
ENTER KEW GARDENS BY THE LION GATE and turn right. You are at plot 485.
Facing you is a sturdy tree, identified as Father David’s maple: Acer davidii.
Go over to the Princess of Wales conservatory and you will see Davidia
involucrata, known popularly as the Handkerchief or Dove tree with its ethereal
white bracts that look like flowers.
In Woburn Abbey’s park you can see Father David’s deer, Elaphurus davidianus,
an odd creature called ‘sibuxiang’: the four unlikes. That was because it seems
to have the tail of a donkey, antlers of a deer, neck of a camel and hooves of
But it is with the giant panda that Father David will forever be linked in
the public’s mind. He was the first Westerner to observe the creature. Père
Armand David (1826-1900) was a French Basque by birth and a Lazarist missionary
priest by vocation. He was born at Espelette near Bayonne in the Pyrenees. While
other boys played games, Armand chased butterflies and collected flowers.
From his father, a doctor of medicine, he inherited a love of nature as well
as the habit of trekking through the mountains for hours at a time. That would
be very important later in his life.
Armand said that he ‘passionately loved the beauties of nature’ but was also
drawn to the Congregation of the Missions founded in 1625 by St Vincent de Paul.
When he was ordained in 1862 it was obvious that he had an extraordinary ability
in botany and zoology. Unlike others, Armand saw no difficulties between natural
history and religion. In fact, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared
in 1859, Père David said that he had often thought about such matters: ‘Is it
not reasonable to believe that the principal types of animals and plants …
underwent slow modification and were gradually divided into races, species and
varieties which continue to propagate and increase’…
For long Armand was fascinated about China and it was no secret that was
where he hoped to go in his ministry. His superiors knew of this but they asked
him first to teach science at their college in Italy. The boys loved him and a
number of them followed him into scientific studies.
Ten years later, when he was 35, Armand was sent to the missions in China.
However, it was apparent that Armand would be far more effective as a scientist
that as a missionary. In 1868 the French government requested his superiors that
the priest be allowed to dedicate himself full-time to exploratory scientific
work funded by the State.
During his three trips in imperial China (1866-1874) Père David discovered
200 species of animals, 63 of which were hitherto unknown to zoologists. He also
found more than 1570 plants which included 250 new species.
Apart from the Handkerchief tree and maple named in his honour, there are the
butterfly bush, buddleia davidii; a clematis, clematis hereacleifolia var.
davidiana; a lily, lilium davidii; a peach, prunus davidiana; a photinia,
photonia davidiana and many more.
In the animal world Father David encountered golden monkeys, serow, 58
species of birds, about 100 insect species, many snails and fish and the Chinese
giant salamander. Added to all of this, his attitude towards the environment was
uniquely advanced. Regarding China’s deforestation he wrote in 1875:
‘From one year’s end to another one hears the hatchet and the axe cutting the
most beautiful trees. The destruction of these primitive forests, of which there
are only fragments in all of China, progresses with unfortunate speed. They will
never be replaced. With the great trees will disappear a multitude of shrubs
which cannot survive except in their shade; also all the animals small and
large, which need the forest in order to live and perpetuate their species … it
is unbelievable that the Creator could have placed so many diverse organisms on
the earth, each one so admirable in its sphere, so perfect in its role only to
permit man, his masterpiece, to destroy them forever.’
Deforestation continues at an alarming rate in China, as do its carbon
emissions. The deer named for Père David were hunted to extinction in the wild
but the priest’s interest led to an eventual captive breeding in England. Other
creatures have also benefited from the example of the Lazarist, including the
one which has come to be the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund (see opposite
After a number of near-fatal illnesses, Père David returned to France in
1874. He spent his remaining days at the mother-house of his order in Paris. He
died peacefully on 10 November 1900 at the age of 74. As with all members of his
order, the grave is marked with a simple cross. At Père David’s, an admirer
recently placed a toy panda.
In a letter to The Independent newspaper, 4th May 2007, David Sox writes from
the Natural History Museum, London:
Sir, Regarding your timely article on China’s growth and its environmental
effects (25 April), we have been there before. The remarkable French
missionary-naturalist Père Armand David (who saved from extinction the deer now
named for him and was the first Westerner to observe the panda) wrote in 1875:
From one year’s end to another one hears the hatchet and the axe cutting the
most beautiful trees.
The destruction of these primitive forests, of which there are only fragments
in all of China, progresses with unfortunate speed. They will never be replaced.
With the great trees will disappear a multitude of shrubs which cannot survive
except in their shade; also all the animals small and large, which need the
forest in order to live and perpetuate their species.
It is unbelievable that the Creator could have placed so many diverse
organisms on the earth, each one so admirable in its sphere, so perfect in its
role, only to permit man, his masterpiece, to destroy them for ever.
Return to: Number 207 - Autumn/Winter 2007