In Memoriam: Jacques Géry (March 12, 1917 – June 15, 2007) | Details | Articles

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Issue: November 2007

Author: Heiko Bleher

Photographer: Heiko Bleher

A tribute to one of the aquarium hobby’s greats—an ichthyologist, characin expert, noted surgeon, and dear friend whose legacy lives on in our greater understanding of some of the most popular aquarium fishes.

One of the great ichthyologists of our time has left us. Jacques Géry, the extraordinary Frenchman, the gentleman par excellence, and a humble man, has fallen asleep forever, and the world has lost one of the greatest scientists that ever lived. Having contributed to the knowledge of fishes as only few others have, Jacques Géry was already a legend in his lifetime—now he will be a legend forever.

I once called him the greatest characoid expert in the world, after his magnum work Characoids of the World (TFH Publications, 1977). This book is still considered the reference book for Characiformes. He was an expert on the entire group and knew these fishes better than anyone else; it’s likely that no one will ever learn as much about them as he already knew. But that was not his only focus. His work on topics such as medicine and surgery, aquarium topics, zoology, and ichthyology were widely published.

When I received the telegram from his wife Georgie, I was stunned. I was always in contact with Jacques, most recently about his description of a new neon tetra species that I had discovered. Since he had described the third neon species, Paracheirodon simulans (Géry 1963), with this one, he would have had the satisfaction of having described half of the species of the most popular aquarium fishes worldwide.

A Broad Intellect

I had just bred the new neon tetra, now Paracheirodon simulans, and while working at Gulf Fish Farms in Florida in the 1960s, my dear friend Ross Socolof said to me, “You must meet the man who described it. He is the world expert on characoids.” But it was almost 10 more years before I was able to drive up a narrow winding road leading to Jacques Géry’s castle in southwestern France, where he lived until he retired in 1982. I was amazed by the friendly reception. We sat on the terrace of this huge chateau overlooking the park and his horses. We talked for hours about Amazonia, the fish collection I had sent him, and about Mozart and Tchaikovsky, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, Castro, Victor Hugo, Molière, Britski, Weitzman, Vari, and many others.

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 we sat up most of the night discussing mechanisms of evolution, speciation and distribution of species, sympatric and allopatric living forms, and mimicry. We even had discussions about what a species actually is.

I could ask him about any of the 1600-plus characiform species. His knowledge on characoids (and many other fish groups and species) was unbelievable. He was knowledgeable about the specimens and the work of any other researcher. He knew about any igarapé, lago, or river in Amazonia, every habitat where fishes occur—even though he traveled only about 10 times to that region, working in museums and doing some collecting in São Paulo, Manaus, Lima, Cuiabá, and Trinidad. One time we went together to collect the later-described Inpaichthys kerri Géry & Junk 1977. Jacques was probably the only researcher who always carried a folding chair. While collecting along the Amazon, every time I jumped into the water he opened his chair and read a book (quite often a Stephen King title).

It is no wonder that one of his last papers was, besides a re-description of a rare curimatid species, about the correction of type localities from the Thayer Expedition (1865-1866). Many of those had been erroneously reported, but Jacques finally corrected the locations so we can now all refer to them correctly. Jacques also corrected the type localities of the Symphysodon species and subspecies with me in 2004.

His knowledge covered most of the freshwater fish habitats on Earth. He would recognize a creek I mentioned, whether in Argentina or the Republic of the Congo, whether an affluent of the Mekong or a Tibetan lake (where no characoids live). He was conversant about the destruction of natural habitats and the loss of endemic species around the world. He knew about the nutrition of many fish species and their particularities in behavior. In addition he had an immense interest in collecting antiques such as ancient locks and masks from Africa and Australasia. Recently his attention was oriented to the extremely rare stone figures made centuries ago only among a few African tribes. During my last field trips to Mozambique, Cameroon, Gabon, and Guinea, instead of looking out for characoids, he wanted me first of all to search for some of those rare stone sculptures.

Two Careers

Jacques Géry was born 1917 in Paris. He studied medicine in Strasburg and worked at the Hôpitaux there and later as an internist in Clairvivre (Dordogne). During World War II he took care of wounded English soldiers in Germany and also went to Hamburg, where he met Eduard Schmidt (later Schmidt-Focke), the famous gynecologist and pioneer of modern discus breeding. In 1947 he was promoted to Chef de Clinique adjoint on the Faculté de Médicine in Strasburg, where he also finished his Thèse de Médicine. He became a famous plastic surgeon and worked until 1960 in the clinic of Briey, where he kept 40 aquaria.

His passion for freshwater fishes had been with him since the age of 13, and before World War II one of the first species he bred was Hyphessobrycon flammeus Myers 1924. In 1951 he started to publish articles on ornamental fishes, plants, and aquariums, both for beginners and for advanced hobbyists. Already by 1958 he had written 72 articles in popular magazines and books. His first fish article was “Les Molliensia, description, moeurs, reproduction.” It was published in the first French aquarium journal L’Aquarium et les Poissons, for which he was the Editor-in-Chief from 1951 to 1957. Jacques wrote about anabantoids, cyprinids, gobiids, atherinids, loaches, and silurids. He also wrote about livebearers and puffers, and killies and cichlids (although the latter two he hated). He published several articles on biology and mimicry, but his main passion was always for characoids.

In 1952 he wrote a long paper on his favorite Hyphessobrycon flammeus, followed with a large article on Nannostominae in 1953, then one year later a still larger paper on the subfamily Pyrrhulininae. Also in 1954 he began to write about African characoids, and in 1955 and 1956 he researched these fishes in the wild for the first time. Many other research expeditions followed.

Jacques published his first scientific paper on fishes in 1959 with Roeboexodon gen. n. de Guyane, and shortly after that he described Thayeria ifati Géry 1959. The latter was also one of his favorites. He worked for decades on it and wanted to revise the genus. But in 2005 he gave his whole collection to Flávio C. T. Lima, the great young Brazilian ichthyologist, who promised to finish the revision soon with several new species and with Géry as one of the authors.

Ichthyology Wins Out

At the age of 44 he was a highly recommended surgeon across France and had published many scientific medical papers (from 1941 up to June 1960), but he became a student again, simply because he loved fishes more than plastic surgery. Jacques wrote his thesis on the Serrasalmidae of Guyane. He never did agree with the nine characiform families of some or the recent concept of 14 families. He also did not agree to the lumping of Crenuchidae and Characidiidae, as he (and Mahnert) had worked on those almost half of a century, and he stuck to his concept of 19 characiform families until the end. Jacques also got a second degree in 1960, with his thesis on the alarm substance in cyprinids. From that year on he dedicated the rest of his life to characiform fishes with rare but occasional focus on other groups. He worked with them intensively until his retirement and kept right on afterwards. In fact, Jacques worked until the end—even after his chemotherapy he continued with descriptions and papers until the end of 2006.

He agreed rarely with cladists, and even less with splitters or with researchers who worked very fast. Jacques was also against the publication of scientific papers in popular journals, especially if done by “unprofessional aquarists,” as he called them. He helped to get Aqua (International Journal of Ichthyology) off the ground in the early 1990s, consulting, reviewing papers, and doing much more. With his help Aqua has become one of the world’s leading journals of ichthyology. He was the first on its editorial board and stayed with it until 2006, when he resigned because of his advanced age and so much work still needing to be accomplished. But he wanted to continue to publish in it, and he has several papers in press or in the works; they will be published soon.

Jacques’ accurate and precise descriptions took him often years to finalize, and when I asked why, he said, “Science can wait.” He worked on the description of Hemigrammus bleheri Géry & Mahnert 1986 (published in Tropical Fish Hobbyist,July 1986) for almost 20 years after its discovery. His work on the characiforms of the Rio Guaporé (Río Iténez for the Bolivians)—probably the most species- and biomass-rich of the smaller rivers on Earth—was never finished, but Jacques worked on it for the last 15 years and has almost 350 pages written with nearly 200 characiform species, at least 20 of them new. This is probably the largest single work he has done after Characoids of the World. Hopefully someone can finish it…

A Profound Loss

The Géry family has lost a husband, father, and grandfather. I have lost a person I admired and looked up to, and a man from whom I learned more than from any other teacher. But the world has lost a species. With Jacques’ passing, one of the most precious species of this planet has become extinct: a species that gave everything and asked for almost nothing, a humble and gentle species that described hundreds of new species, but was unable to describe himself.

His name is immortal, not only in the genus and all the species named in his honor (not only characids), but also in the immense work he has done for science—the last 25 years of which, after his retirement, was without any pay. As long as science and scientific descriptions of species continue, or until all wild fishes have become extinct, he will live on.

Au revoir Jacques. Hopefully we will see each other in fish heaven.

—Italy June 20th, 2007


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