This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
François Péron (1775-1810), naturalist, explorer and historian, was born on 22 August 1775 at Cérilly, Allier, France. His widowed mother made sacrifices to provide him with a sound education at Cérilly College, where the principal was impressed by the boy's ability and instructed him in theology as a possible future priest. War and revolution interrupted his studies. In 1792 he joined the army and served on the Rhine. He was wounded and captured at Kaiserslautern, and spent the idle months of his incarceration in Magdeburg fortress reading published accounts of voyages of exploration. Having lost an eye he was repatriated in 1794 and invalided out of the army. He spent three years at the Paris Medical School and also developed a growing interest in natural history from studying in the Paris Museum. Bad health and an unhappy love affair led him to forsake medical studies and seek a place in Nicolas Baudin's expedition then preparing to leave for the South Seas. Thanks to the influence of Jussieu, professor of botany at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, the committee of the Institute appointed him natural historian and anthropologist.
Péron's history of the voyage reveals his curiosity and indefatigable zeal as a scientist. He devoted himself to a rigorous research programme, including hydrographic surveys and a remarkable variety of scientific problems. His six-hourly records of meteorological information, and notes on surface and depth temperatures of the Indian Ocean complement the work done by Johann Forster during James Cook's exploration of the Pacific. His work on natural history, however, did not suffer as a result of other interests. As the result of death and desertion, by the time Baudin reached the Western Australian coast, Péron was the only remaining zoologist, with the exception of the fatally ill Maugé, of the five who had embarked. Working in co-operation with the artist Le Sueur, his devoted friend, he and his helpers collected 100,000 specimens of animal life. Although his early death prevented him from classifying his great collection, representing some 2500 species, in itself it made a fundamental contribution to Australian zoology and was the basis of later publications by Lamarck and the authors of the Nouveau Dictionnaire d'Histoire Naturelle.
Péron also interested himself in the 'noble savage'. He made observations on the indigenous inhabitants of the regions visited and left statistical records, especially from tests made with de Régnier's new dynamometer. With this instrument he measured the output of physical force of 'natural man' living in his natural state, comparing the result with 'civilized' European man, but his samples were too small to be significant. However, his observations on the Aboriginals, the value of which has still to be assessed, are of permanent importance in revealing the complexity of Australian types and cultures. He intended to use his material for a natural history of the types of man, but this was never completed. After his return to France in 1804 he was commissioned to write the official history of Baudin's expedition, Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes … sur les Corvettes le Géographe, le Naturaliste et la Goélette le Casuarina, pendant les Années 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 (Paris, 1807-16), which aimed to present a scientifically integrated but preliminary account of the expedition. His subsequently published papers revealed his grasp of detail and breadth of knowledge, and indicated his capacity as a scientist. However, his personality and training did not fit him for a lengthy voyage of discovery. He did not understand Baudin's problems, and his patriotism led him to upset Governor Philip Gidley King and to make Matthew Flinders suspicious. He openly encouraged insubordination on the voyage and permanently blackened Baudin's work and character in the official history.
A chest complaint and old wounds caused him to give up writing the Voyage at volume 2, page 230, and it was completed by Louis de Freycinet. Péron retired to his home village, where he died on 14 December 1810.
Leslie R. Marchant and J. H. Reynolds, 'Péron, François (1775–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peron-francois-2545/text3463, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 31 July 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967