Did the self-made man fake it with Bohemian fossils?

Richard Fortey

  • The Deprat Affair: Ambition, Revenge and Deceit in French Indochina by Roger Osborne
    Cape, 244 pp, £15.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 224 05295 0

On 23 May 1909, Jacques Deprat left France for Hanoi with his young family to start a career as a geologist in the Service Géologique de l’Indochine. His advancement had been won against the odds. His beginnings were humble, if respectable, and he had progressed by virtue of hard work. He had published brilliant papers on the geological structure of Corsica, which had eventually earned him the respect of a distinguished sponsor, Professor Termier at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. At the turn of the century the academic hierarchy in France was rigid and class-ridden, and Deprat would have got nowhere without a patron. In the colonial service the snobbery was compounded; with the right background you didn’t have to do much to survive and prosper. The kind of lassitude that George Orwell describes so well in Burmese Days was to be found equally among the French colonies to the East: a sweltering indolence encouraged social intrigue and discouraged intellectual effort.

Deprat entered this milieu with unbounded energy and a determination to make his mark. These were the heroic days of geology, when the structures of remote regions of the world were being deciphered for the first time; heroic in the most literal sense, too, for geologists were obliged to climb peaks and scale cliffs as they made their maps of the strata. This was no barrier to Deprat, who was an expert mountaineer from boyhood. He rejoiced in the dangers, and seemed to exult in visiting areas more remote than had been reached before. The ground he covered in each field season was prodigious. His studies were published as memoirs which now sit in the dustier parts of reference libraries, though when they were first released they were seized on by contemporary geologists with enthusiasm. Quite quickly, Deprat became globally famous. At the World Geological Congress of 1913, he sat next to the president of the Congress for the official photograph. He was brilliant, 33, and the world was his geological oyster. (Roger Osborne notes dryly that Honoré Lantenois, the Director of the Service Géologique de l’Indochine, was on the very edge of the same picture, ‘as far from the centre as it is possible to be’.) The photograph encapsulates the way in which the old order was giving ground to the new meritocracy. Global science cared nothing for the niceties of French society, and was beginning to accord more importance to results than privilege. It is reasonable to surmise that Lantenois was bitter at his eclipse by Deprat – after all, the older man had built up the geological survey of Indochina almost from its inception.

On 20 March 1917, Lantenois summoned Deprat to his office and accused him of deliberately planting fossil specimens of European origin among those he claimed to have collected from a remote region of Annam. These were specimens of crucial importance, for they provided evidence that the oldest strata over the whole of this vast region date from the Ordovician period, about 470 million years ago. Prime among them were fossils of trilobites: exotic, crustacean-like carapaces with an absolutely reliable time signature. Lantenois’s charge was based on the evidence of Henri Mansuy, the palaeontologist with the geological survey in Hanoi, whose careful accounts of the palaeontology of Vietnam are still referred to today. His job was to describe and name the new fossils that Deprat recovered from his fieldwork, and he provided the factual base for much of the geological speculation on which Deprat’s reputation was founded. Mansuy had been surprised to find that Deprat’s fossils coincided exactly with species from Bohemia. They were too good to be true, and later he claimed that they were not true – Deprat, it seemed, had been a bit too keen to prove his case.

Lantenois’s initial accusations were moderate; at this stage it might have been possible for Deprat to make a tactical retreat. ‘I’ve been working so hard,’ he could have said. ‘Trays get mixed up, a lapse, a confusion engendered by exhaustion.’ Deprat was on a knife edge between confessing to error and defending a fabrication. He was a clever and talented man, and his geological innovations were real enough. He probably despised the wooden Lantenois. Maybe worldwide recognition had made him over-confident. He responded by defending himself aggressively: how dare they challenge his account of how and where the fossils were found? So began the slow process of Deprat’s disgrace, which Roger Osborne has reconstructed in exemplary detail. What lends drama to the account is the inexorable way in which the establishment reasserted itself. As one commission of inquiry succeeded another, and as the great names of the Société Géologique de France were called on to adjudicate, so the self-made man Deprat lost, one by one, the friends he had made on his way from obscurity to fame.

It was a protracted business. Deprat had to go back to the field under the eye of Lantenois in an attempt to replicate his discoveries; he failed. The contentious trilobites were sent to France, where their likely origin in the rocks of Bohemia was confirmed by a leading authority. By 1918 Deprat had shifted his ground. It was, he claimed, Mansuy who had substituted the fossils in order to ruin Deprat and replace him in the Service. We feel for the man, because he seems to be a hero for our times: somebody who had fought to make his way purely through talent and hard work. It even seems possible that Deprat’s explanation might be true: not everyone examines every specimen in the course of field-work.

The ponderous machinery of French justice ground on. Deprat claimed that Lantenois was in cahoots with Mansuy. Lantenois in turn became more vindictive, pulling strings to secure the downfall of his troublesome subordinate. Mansuy’s reputation was publicly endorsed. It was not until November 1920 that Deprat was finally removed from the service. Humiliated and ruined, he apparently disappeared; and that should have been the end of the matter.

But it is more interesting than that. In 1926, a novel was published called Les Chiens aboient (‘The Baying Hounds’), by one Herbert Wild. It recounts the ordeal of a young and brilliant geologist suffering the humiliations which followed accusations that he had substituted fossil specimens. The names have been altered (the hero is called Dorpat) but it is evidently a blow-by-blow account of the Deprat affair. It is not surprising that the detail was so richly observed. For ‘Herbert Wild’ was in fact Jacques Deprat, and Les Chiens aboient was his attempt to give his own version of events. ‘Wild’ is a good writer and makes a persuasive case. Neither Lantenois nor Mansuy made any comparable counter-cases. Through Les Chiens we can clearly imagine the outrage felt by a young and talented geologist, and, following the alleged machinations of Lantenois (who is even accused of planting a subsequent specimen, further to incriminate ‘Dorpat’), feel anger on his behalf. Of course he’s innocent! But then you wonder whether your sympathies haven’t simply been manipulated by a novel. Roger Osborne is aware of the curiousness of a situation in which someone branded as a scientific liar attempts to vindicate his reputation with a work of fiction written under a pseudonym. The novel might even be a means for Deprat to accommodate his guilt by retelling the story with an innocent hero. Those who have found Deprat peculiarly sympathetic – notably Michel Durand-Delga, who tried to rehabilitate him in 1995 – believe he was telling the truth in the only way he then could, from behind a mask.

‘Herbert Wild’ went on to make a modest living as a writer of fiction. He also became famous as a mountaineer, and combined his new callings in novels about alpinism. Whether he was guilty or not, you have to admire his persistence and ingenuity. But the fact remains that Les Chiens aboient is an intriguingly ambiguous account. If Deprat was innocent, then others must have been guilty: but why should the otherwise truthful Mansuy have lied on this one occasion? And if Lantenois were the final suspect, why did he exhibit real vindictiveness only when Deprat started flinging out accusations? The one truth we now have access to resides with the fossil specimens, and a few of the disputed trilobites have survived, having originally been sent to France at the height of the scandal. They were examined by the unimpeachable Jean-Louis Henry a few years ago, and he was of the opinion that they were indeed from Bohemia, and not from Vietnam. One of them was a species which I had collected myself not far from Prague a decade ago, and to me it was an old friend – even the rock type on which it sat looked identical. On the scientific evidence, it would seem that Deprat was lying – everything else is conjecture.

Deprat is not unique. More than fifty years after his misdemeanour, another geologist, V.J. Gupta, was discovered to have systematically lied about fossils purportedly found in remote areas of the Himalayas. Ironically enough, some were trilobites, and of these a few were probably originally from Bohemia – though I doubt Gupta had heard of the Deprat affair. Several palaeontologists of my acquaintance got egg on their faces from their (innocent) association with Gupta. But whereas Deprat’s lapse was a single one, Gupta seems to have lied repeatedly: he had moved from obscurity to fame on the proceeds of fraud. Gupta, too, is an intelligent and even charming man – or so I learn from those who did doctoral work with him at the University of Aberystwyth. But Deprat is the more interesting case. He had genuinely advanced the cause of science before his probable fraud. The most difficult thing to explain is why he should have felt the need to gild his achievements with a false cosmetic.

For Osborne, though his interpretations of the facts are judicious, Deprat’s indubitably heroic attractions always sway the case when it is ambiguous. Deprat is a far more appealing character than the apparatchik Lantenois or the shadowy Mansuy; yet his behaviour after the accusations seems more that of the liar than of the wronged and persecuted victim. His increasingly wild counter-accusations smack of fiction. It is wrong of Osborne to claim that his identification of European species in Asia was a prescient anticipation of what would today be acceptable in the light of plate tectonics. Other fossils, like graptolites, had been recognised globally for several decades before Deprat ever set foot in Vietnam. He is not a neglected prophet, for all that his genuine achievements deserved rehabilitation. I would be willing to place a large wager that when field geologists once more visit Nui Nga Ma – the site of Deprat’s nemesis – there will be no Bohemian trilobites littered about the hillside.

I can think of no other story that so well illustrates the ambiguous boundary between science and fiction. The surprising thing is not that deceptions happen, but that they happen so rarely. Science relies so heavily on the veracity of the individual scientist, and is so tolerant of error, that the temptation to supply bogus evidence in pursuit of celebrity is omnipresent. Yet very few investigators succumb. Those that do deserve the shame that follows. In the Deprat Affair the sinner was so much more attractive a character than those he sinned against that what might have been an unimportant peccadillo, best forgotten, almost assumes the status of tragedy. Roger Osborne has done a service in reviving this sad tale of a remarkable man.