Etienne Leopold Trouvelot was born 26 December 1827
. He fled his native country because his politics did not agree with those of King Louis Phillippe
. Starting in the 1850
s, he lived in Medford
, outside Boston
, made a living painting portraits, and became friends with Louis Agassiz
and other natural historians in the area. His astronomical
illustrations made him famous; they are still treasured in research libraries as among the best of the field's pictures produced before photography
. However, it was another interest of his that got him into scientific history.
Trouvelot wanted to try cultivating silk in the Americas. He was not alone; many experimenters, including Benjamin Franklin, did their best to raise silkworms in the Western Hemisphere, but without success. The demand for silk was large, and starting in 1849 a blight killed off a large portion of the Mediterranean coast's silkworms. (Louis Pasteur did his best to analyze and treat the diseases affecting them, but even after his solutions were implemented, French production of silk was less than half what it had been a decade before.) Trouvelot published accounts of his previous seven years of research in American Naturalist in 1867; he reported that he was working on domesticating the Polyphemus moth (Telea polyphemus), a different species from that usually cultivated in the Old World (Bombyx mori). He kept five acres of woodland, surrounded by an eight-foot fence and covered with netting to keep birds out, housing probably a million caterpillars. He also tried cross-breeding different species, but his 1867 papers showed that he had found that moths of different genera could not cross-breed.
Because of this, it is not certain why he was experimenting with the gypsy moth (at different times called Lymantria dispar, Bombyx dispar, and Porthetrea dispar) at all if he knew they couldn't breed with silkworms. This species was never cultivated for silk anywhere, and though native to Japan, was already known in Europe as a forest-devastating pest. However, Trouvelot did have some gypsy moth caterpillars, and one day in 1869 a storm blew off the netting. He was aware of the possible hazards and tried to kill the caterpillars before they could spread outside his enclosures. When this failed, he announced to the public that these pests had escaped. Their spread was slow, but by the 1890s they did enough damage for federal and state authorities in Massachusetts to try unsuccessfully to eradicate them with arsenic-based poisons (probably doing as much damage to agriculture as the moths did, as well as hurting many of the people spraying the poison).
However, this did not affect Trouvelot's reputation at the time. Working with various American large reflecting telescopes, he produced great drawings of astronomical phenomena, some of which were published once they could be reproduced with chromolithography. He was eventually given a faculty position at Harvard University in astronomy. A crater on the moon was named in honor of Trouvelot and he won the French Academy's Valz prize for his astronomical research.
After the end of Louis Phillippe's reign, the Third Republic government was set up in France, and Trouvelot returned to his homeland in 1882. He died in 1895.
Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996.