René Catala, a life of quiet achievement
René Catala, a native of the Vosges region of France, was a distinguished biologist, a Doctor of the University of Paris, an Institut de France prize winner, a Paris Natural History Museum correspondent and French Aquiculture Society and Entomological Society award winner. In 1946, he played a key role in founding the French Oceania Institute (IFO), which became ORSTOM (Overseas Office of Scientific and Technical Research) in 1964 and then IRD (Institute for Research and Development) in 1998. In 1956, his passion for marine ecology also inspired René Catala to found the Noumea Aquarium, now the Lagoon Aquarium.
From a very young age, René Catala (1901-1988) was fascinated by natural science and, more specifically, entomology. He spent 17 years in Madagascar, where he dedicated his time and energy to the development of coffee, pepper and vanilla plantations and to setting up a laboratory where he studied Urania ripheus, one of the world’s most beautiful moths. He returned to France in 1937 and spent the next few years completing his Doctorate in Natural History in Paris. He then heard reports of the stunning beauty and diversity of New Caledonia’s lagoon but had to wait until 1945 to be sent to New Caledonia by the Colonial Research Office on a “fact finding mission” preparing the ground for the possible establishment of a “French Oceania Institute” along the same lines as the “French Black Africa Institute” based in Dakar.
The postwar years were not the most conducive period for a project of this kind. However, thanks to his personal contacts with a number of American citizens and to his tenacity, René Catala was successful in persuading the U.S. government to grant France a considerable donation in terms of buildings, equipment and vessels. This precious grant (set out in the Blum-Byrnes agreements between France and the United States, signed on 28 May 1946) made it possible to set up the French Oceania Institute in Noumea in a short space of time. The IFO was formally established by Ministerial Decree on 8 August 1946 and Maurice Leenhardt was appointed Director. His brief was to “encourage, promote and carry out scientific research of all kinds, build up collections and establish working relations with all scientific bodies in France and abroad”. The IRD continues to work diligently to pursue this mission, with the Noumea Centre representing the largest French and European platform for scientific research in the Pacific Region.
In 1946, René Catala threw himself into a new challenge: building an aquarium in Noumea. He financed his dream project out of his own pocket, with a grant from the Noumea City Authorities helping to fund the final stage of work. The aquarium was completed in 1956. René Catala was at that time the only scientist in the world to show marine organisms never previously seen in a living state. The aquarium soon attracted attention thanks to Dr. Catala’s discoveries, the most significant of which was the fluorescent properties of some corals; one species of fluorescent coral was named after him.
Dr. Catala’s achievements have contributed greatly to scientific insight and research and to increasing knowledge and understanding of New Caledonia’s natural heritage. Marking both the 70th anniversary of the IRD and the 60th anniversary of the Aquarium, 2016 provides the ideal opportunity to pay tribute to this remarkable but little-known scientific trailblazer, a worthy candidate for the portrait stamp issues dedicated to “notable New Caledonians”.
In memory of Alain Gerbault, who also loved the sea and worked as a diver at the Aquarium for 26 years.