Jacques Géry, 1917 – 2007
One of the great ichthyologists of our times has left us. Jacques Géry the extraordinary Frenchman, the gentleman par excellence, this humble man, has fallen asleep forever. I called once him the greatest characoid expert of the world, especially after the publication of his magnum work “Characoids of the World” (Géry 1977), which until today is considered the reference book for Characiformes. When my words came to his attention, he said: “In the scientific world, never express appreciation such as my good friend, the best ichthyologist, or similar. The one who makes compliments is always suspected of having something to ask. There are two aspects of life: science (i.e. facts), and the rest. In the first only logics is at work. Subjectivity, sentiment, ideology, friendship, etc. has nothing to do with it.”
Jacques Géry, 1917 – 2007
One of the great ichthyologists of our times has left us. Jacques Géry the extraordinary Frenchman, the gentleman par excellence, this humble man, has fallen asleep forever. I called once him the greatest characoid expert of the world, especially after the publication of his magnum work “Characoids of the World” (Géry 1977), which until today is considered the reference book for Characiformes. When my words came to his attention, he said: “In the scientific world, never express appreciation such as my good friend, the best ichthyologist, or similar. The one who makes compliments is always suspected of having something to ask. There are two aspects of life: science (i.e. facts), and the rest. In the first only logics is at work. Subjectivity, sentiment, ideology, friendship, etc. has nothing to do with it.” But now, after being fortunate enough to having known Jacques and to work with him for the last four decades, I may say without hesitation and without being able to ask him (unfortunately): “You were the greatest expert who ever worked on the entire group of characiform fishes, you knew those fishes better than anyone else did – and probably no one will ever gain as much knowledge about them as you did.”
In 1997, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I wrote about Jacques and his work, about his live and listed all of his publications in medicine and surgery, his aquarium articles and miscellaneous other publications, encompassing his immense contribution to zoology and ichthyology (in aqua Vol. 2, Issue 4). He never stopped working, and as I was in the process of compiling a list of his papers published over the last 10 years, a fax arrived: “Sarlat the 20th of June 2007: I am very sad that I have to tell you that Jacques passed away on June 15th; after a long stay in the hospital. It was a welcome relief. He died peacefully. His cremation took place in Périgueux the following day amidst family only. Georgie Géry”
This news hit me like a stroke, especially as I had spoken to Georgie the night before and she had not told me. I could not believe it. I had not talked to Jacques for a few months, but we always had fax contact, and one of those fax messages was of special interest to him: it was the description of new neon tetra species, which I had discovered and which he intended to published. Jacques had described the third neon tetra (Hyphessobrycon simulans Géry, 1963) and that fourth contribution would have given him the satisfaction of having described half of the species of the most popular group of aquarium fishes worldwide.
I found not words, only a few weeks earlier Georgie had told me that he had lost 20 kilos, but was recovering from the chemotherapy and probably coming home soon – and now this tremendous shock! The world has lost a man, who certainly can be considered as one of the great scientists who ever lived, one who has contributed to the knowledge of fishes as only a few others did. Jacques Géry was already a legend during his life-time, now he will be a legend forever.
I will always remember: while working at Gulf Fish Farms in Florida in the 1960s, my dear friend Ross Socolof told me, after I had just bred the blue neon tetra, now known as Paracheirodon simulans (Géry, 1963): “You must meet the man who described it, he is the world expert on characoids”. It took, however, almost another 10 years before I had an opportunity to drive up a narrow, winding road leading to his castle in south-western France, were he lived with Georgie until 1982, the year of his retirement. I was amazed by the friendly reception. I recall sitting on the terrace of this huge chateau (authentic castle without heating) overlooking the park and their horses. We talked for hours about Amazonia, the fish collections he had received from me over the last years, about Mozart and Tchaikovsky, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Castro, Victor Hugo or Moldier, Britski, Weitzman and Vari, whom he admired, as well as the Japanese Emperor Akahito, also an ichthyologist, and many more. With Jacques I could have a conversation about almost anything. He would tell me about the newest computer software or game. Every time I came to visit him – some years more than once – we were sitting most of the night discussing about mechanisms of evolution, speciation and distribution of species, sympatric and allopatric distribution patterns, mimicry, or what is a species.
I could ask him about any of the more than 1600 characiform species and he would always have an answer. His knowledge on characoids (and many other fish taxa) was beyond believe. I could ask about specimens collected by any researcher like La Condamine, Löfling, Ferreira, Humboldt, Spix & Martius, Natterer, Langsdorff, Adalbert (Prince Heinrich Wilhelm), the Schomburgk brothers, or Wallace, the specimens collected by the Thayer Expedition lead by Agassiz; he also knew Steindachner’s and Eigenmann’s collections, and so many others. I could just ask him about any Igarapé, Furo, Paraná, Lago or River in Amazonia, any location or habitat were fishes occur, even though he travelled only about 10 times to that region, working in museums and institutions such as those in São Paulo, Manaus, Lima, Cuiabá, Trindad and he did some collecting. One time we went together on the Transamazonica to collect a species, which was later described as Inpaichthys kerri Géry & Junk, 1977.
His knowledge on geography, aquatic habitats and their locations was amazing. It is not surprising that one of his last papers was, besides a re-description of a rare curimatid species, was about the correct type localities of the Thayer Expedition (1865-1866), many of which contained errors in the original publication. Jacques finally identified the correct collecting sites of every scientist publishing on the region. In 2004, he also corrected, together with me, the type localities of all nominal Symphysodon species and subspecies.
His geographical knowledge encompassed most fresh water habitats on planet earth. Whether I mentioned a creek in Argentina or Equateur (Democratic Republic of Congo), a tributary of the Mekong or lakes in Tibet (were no characoids live), or whether I asked him about the destruction of natural habitats, hydroelectric dams, or the flooding of precious wilderness areas with endemic species, he would always be aware and have an answer. He even knew about feeding habits and nutritional requirements of many fish species, and their peculiarities in behaviour. In addition, he had an immense interest in collecting antiques. Every time I arrived at his place, I saw his already large collection of knifes growing, as did the collection of his ancient locks and masks from Africa and Australasia. For years, Georgie ran an antiquities shop and they frequently went to auctions. Recently, his attention was directed towards extremely rare stone figures made centuries ago, by very few African tribes only. During my last field trips to Mozambique, Cameroon, Gabon and Guinea, rather than asking me to look for characoids, he wanted me to search for some of those rare stone sculptures, and when I travelled to the Russian Federation lately, he asked me to look for old icons.
One time, I remember well, he came to Germany and we went to visit several museums where he checked some collections and species but his main interest was selling cards, of which Jacques had a huge collection from the middle ages and older. We drove to Stuttgart in a Turbo Porsche and at 250 km/h the front window blew out. He never forgot that, and I never forget that Jacques was probably the only researcher I met, who always carried a folding chair. When we were collecting along the Transamazonica, he would open his chair whenever I jumped into the water, and read a book (quite often one by Stephen King).
Jacques Géry was born on 12 March 1917 in Paris. He studied medicine in Strasburg and at the age of 20 started working at the Hôpitaux (hospitals) there. Later he worked as an internist in Claivivre (Dordogne). During World War II he treated wounded English soldiers in Germany, where he learnt perfect German. He travelled to Hamburg, where he met Eduard Schmidt (later Schmidt-Focke), the famous gynecologist and pioneer of modern discus breeding at Aquarium Hamburg. In 1947 he was promoted to Chef de Clinique ajoint at the Faculté de Médicine in Strasburg, were he submitted his Thése de Médicine on 20 July 1947. He became a famous plastic surgeon and worked until 1960 in the clinic of Briey, where he kept 40 aquariums with a wide variety of fish species. Since the age of 13 he had a passion for freshwater fishes, and one of the first species he bred was Hyphessobrycon flammeus Myers, 1924. This was even before World War II. In 1951 he started to publish articles on ornamental fishes, plants and aquariums for beginners and advanced hobbyists. By 1958, he had written 72 articles in popular magazines and books, his first fish article being: “Les Molliensia, description, moeurs, reproduction”. It was published in the first French aquarium journal “L’Aquarium & les Poissons”, of which he was the Editor-in-Chief from 1951 to 1957. Jacques wrote about anabantoids, cyprinids, gobiids, atherinids, loaches and silurids, about livebearers and puffers, killies and cichlids, even though he disliked the latter two taxa and the people working on them. He also published several articles on biology and mimicry, but his passion for characoids had started much earlier.
In 1952 he wrote a long paper on his at that time favorite Hyphessobrycon flammeus. In 1953, a large article on the Nannostominae followed, and a year later an even larger one on the subfamily Pyrrhulininae. Also in 1954, he began writing about African characoids, and during the following two years he studied fishes in the wild for the first time. From November 1955 to February 1956 he investigated the ichthyofauna of the Republique de Guinée. Many other research expeditions followed to Gabon, French Guyane, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, etc.
Jacques published his first scientific paper on fishes in 1959 on Roeboexodon gen. n. de Guyane, shortly after that he had described Thayeria ifati Géry, 1959, the latter species being one of his favourites. He worked on it for decades and intended to revise the genus. However, in 2005 he gave all his collection to Flávio C. T. Lima, the great young Brazilian ichthyologist, who promised to finish the revision soon, with several new species and Géry as one of the co-authors.
Jacques, who between 1941 and 1960 published many medical papers, was in high esteem as a surgeon across France. However, loving fishes more than plastic surgery, he again became a student at the age of 44. His friend and France’s most famous zoologist told him: “Being a surgeon is not worth it …”. Jacques wrote his thesis on the Serrasalmidae of Guyana. He did neither agree with the division of Characiformes into nine families, nor with the recent concept of recognising 14 families, placing an incredible number of genera and species “incertae sedis” in the “Checklist of Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America” by Reis et al. (2003), stating: “Why did they publish this confusion? They should have stayed with the concept established by knowledge- able ichthyologists and researchers. Only after they find new information, this could be changed …”. He also rejected the lumping of Crenuchidae and Characidiidae, as he (and Volker Mahnert) had worked on those two families for almost half a century, and he always stuck to his concept of 19 characiform families. In 1960, Jacques prepared a second thesis on alarm substance in cyprinids, and from that year onwards he dedicated the rest of his life to characiform fishes, rarely publishing on other groups. Until his retirement in 1982, he intensively worked on characiforms, and even more so later on as I found out.
Jacques worked until the end of his life. Even after medical treatment and chemotherapy he continued publishing. He rarely agreed with cladists and even less so with splitters or researchers, who worked superficially. Jacques also spoke out against the publication of scientific papers in popular journals, particularly those by “unprofessional aquarists”, as he called them. He was actually one of the persons who helped getting our journal “aqua” off the ground in the early 1990s. Jacques helped from the start, always offering advice and reviewing papers. With Jacques Géry’s help, “aqua” has become one of the world’s leading journals of ichthyology. He was the first to join the journal’s Editorial Board and remained a Board Member until 2006, when he resigned because of his advanced age and the amount of work still to be done. However, he decided to continue publishing in “aqua”, and several of his papers are in preparation or in press, partly with co-authors.
Jacques’ accurate and detailed descriptions often took him years to finish, and whenever I asked “why?”, he would answer: “science can wait, if I do not publish, someone else will”. After I had discovered it, he worked for almost 20 years on the species Hemigrammus bleheri Géry & Mahnert, 1987. He was not able to finish his work on the characiforms of the Rio Guaporé (Río Iténez as it is called in Bolivia), probably globally the small river richest in species and biomass. Jacques worked on this subject for the last 15 years and has written almost 350 pages, describing nearly 200 characiform species from that river system alone, at least 20 of which are new to science. This is probably the largest single publication he has prepared after his “Characoids of the World”. Hopefully someone will be able to finalise it!
The Géry family lost a husband, father and grandfather (Gregory, Jacques’ only son with Georgie, has two children). I have lost a person whom I admired and looked up to more than to my father or anyone else, a man from whom I learned more than from any teacher. The scientific world has lost a person of whom I once wrote: “Jacques is a representative of an almost extinct species”, (Bleher 1997), which I confirm today. With Jacques, one of the most precious species on this planet has become extinct: a species that gave everything and asked for (almost) nothing, a humble and gentle species which described hundreds of new species, but failed to describe himself.
His name is immortal, not only because of the genus Geryichthys Zarske, 1997 and all the species named in his honour. After his retirement he continued working for 25 years without remuneration, publishing hundreds of papers, which will serve as a source of knowledge and inspiration for generations to come, at least as long scientific descriptions of species continue, or until all wild fish have become extinct. Jacques was, as I am, a strong believer that Homo sapiens is the worst of all living creatures, continuing to destroy nature and natural habitats at an ever increasing pace, and eventually destroying himself.
Au revoir, Jacques, hopefully we will see each other in fish heaven
Italy 20 June 2007