Quite the Guernseyman: Jean-Baptiste Charcot

6th March 2019
Quite the Guernseyman:  Jean-Baptiste Charcot

Jean-Baptiste Charcot, ‘the Polar Gentleman.’ Doctor, sportsman, Olympic medallist, polar explorer, friend of Captain Scott, and husband of Victor Hugo's grand-daughter Jeanne, this admirable French hero reserved a special place for Guernsey. [By Dinah Bott]

Jean-Baptiste Charcot was born near Paris in July 1867, the son of one of the most eminent of French doctors, the Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, whose research in psychiatry and hypnosis influenced Sigmund Freud. In his youth Jean-Baptiste sailed around the French coast in small craft and dreamed of being a sailor, but his father was determined he would follow in his footsteps. When he was thirteen he visited Guernsey with his family.  In 1884, Victor Hugo’s grandson Georges contracted pleurisy and was attended to by Dr Charcot. He was sixteen. Dr Charcot was a great friend of the popular author Alphonse Daudet, and their sons became friends with the Hugo children, Georges and Jeanne – they were all very close in age. This tangled web was to last many years beyond the death of Victor Hugo in 1885.

Jean-Baptiste studied medicine with Alphonse Daudet’s son, Léon. Charcot’s father was their professor. They were great friends with Georges Hugo, who was wealthy enough not to have to work; they were politically active, getting into the papers for fighting and scuffles – scandalous, as they were very much the It generation of the 1880s and 1890s.

When he was 21 [1888] Charcot visited Guernsey in a yacht he owned, called the Pourquoi Pas? It is possible that he brought Georges Hugo and Léon Daudet with him to stay at Hauteville House.

All went well enough until Daudet failed an examination that Charcot passed with flying colours. Daudet lashed out at him with the gibe that Charcot had only passed because of his father’s influence. Charcot never forgave him; he did not want to be known as ‘his father’s son’ and was determined to make his own mark.

Charcot had been a sailor since his earliest childhood and was very well-travelled. He was also a champion rugby player with the club he helped found, L’Olympique, playing right prop. In 1893 Charcot’s father died and left him a small fortune. Charcot was by this time a successful doctor, specialising in muscle atrophy. In 1895 he gained his doctorate and had a daughter, Marion, by a nurse, who died in childbirth. He had several sloops built for him, all called the Pourquoi-Pas?

In 1896 he became re-acquainted with the newly-divorced Jeanne Hugo and they married in November. He was rugby champion the same year. In 1900 Charcot won two Olympic silver medals for sailing. Jean-Baptiste duelled with and then publicly argued with Jeanne's ex-husband, Léon Daudet, whom he accused of harrassing her. This ended up in a very embarassing court case and lost him the friendship of Georges Hugo, whom Charcot had nearly flattened in a theatre for defending Daudet; Georges took his best friend's side.

The sea took up more and more of his time and he decided to put much of his legacy into a new undertaking, the first ever French polar expedition, which was to be backed by the French government, to the dismay of his new wife Jeanne Hugo. In 1903 he set off in a new boat he had had built in St Malo, Le Français, and made for the Antarctic. He saw himself as a scientist rather than an explorer, and took a team of scientists with him. He was the expedition’s commander and bacteriologist and succeeded in mapping the extent of the Antarctic which had been up to then unknown. When he returned in 1905 Jeanne Hugo divorced him for desertion.

In January 1907 he married the daughter of a lawyer friend of his, ‘Meg’ Cléry. Unlike Jeanne Hugo, Meg, an artist, was very happy to travel with him and accompanied him to Guernsey several times. Charcot constructed a new boat, the definitive Pourquoi-Pas?. His next expedition was again under the auspices of the government. He was the first explorer to use powered sleds, which he tried out in the Alps along with his friend Captain Robert Scott. The idea of the expedition was to further the work of the English to the South of New Zealand. Among the ship’s amenities were a library and a record player with 500 records.

5 September 1908: Report from Dépêche de Cherbourg of 2 Sept. ‘Good things come to those who wait. Charcot got propitious winds, heading out to Madeira. In fact, he had waited so long that he was becoming a bit of a joke in France – the Pourquoi Pas? was called the Pourquoi-Pas-Rester?' ['The Why Not? was becoming known as the Why-not-stay-here?'] 'However, the first port of call after leaving Cherbourg was not Madeira but Guernsey.  It came in majestically at ll a.m. yesterday and moored. It seems to like our port, where it has spent its time partying and giving lots of dinners and teas to friends and acquaintances. ‘If the Partira-Pas – sorry, the Pourquoi Pas? – ['If the Not-going-anywhere - sorry, the Why Not?'] stays this long in every port it checks in at along its route, we wonder when it will actually arrive at the South Pole, if indeed it ever does.’

Interview with the Commander

Dr Charcot conducted the [journalists] through the vessel, which is completely new. He spoke English quite perfectly. 820 tons. From just above the waterline and down to the keel her sides are 2 feet nine inches in thickness. Between the two hulls of which the ship is composed is a layer two inches thick of felt, so placed as to prevent the excessively cold air of the Atlantic region from entering the vessel, and/or retaining the warmth that has been generated inside.

M Charcot, who has been to Guernsey on many occasions, is very fond of the island. He is taking a memento of it with him, for yesterday Mme Charcot, who is an excellent artist, was occupied for several hours in painting in oil a view of the town as seen from the Pool.

The Pourquoi Pas? left Havre, as stated above, on the 15th August, and put into Cherbourg for coal. After remaining there about a fortnight she left last Sunday. During Monday she was overtaken by the great southerly gale which sprang up that day. As it was useless trying to steam against it, and steaming against the gale would have used up a quantity of her coals, M Charcot, who in Tuesday morning faintly saw Guernsey though the driving rain, decide to bear for it and shelter. The sea then was mountain high, and as the vessel, when off Pleinmont, went about – steam in the meantime having been got up and sail taken in – a tremendous wave came on board. It did little damage but some repairs were needed.

When the vessel left Havre a portion of the cabin fittings was left unfinished. But advantage has been taken of her stay in Guernsey for this to be effected, the work being carried out by Messrs Lovell & Co., of Smith-Street. As there were also several blacksmith’s jobs to be done on board, these have been carried out by the Guernsey Railway Co.

Before concluding this account it might be interesting to add that the whole of the officers and men on the vessel, with the exception of seven additional men who have been engaged – accompanied M Charcot in Le Français during her first expedition to the Antarctic regions. Thus M Charcot knows pretty much what kind of men he is in command of.

The Pourquoi Pas? will resume her voyage tomorrow and it is probable that at least two years will elapse ‘ere news of her are heard after arriving at her destination at the South Pole.’ [Star]

June 1910: Dr Charcot’s return. [3 June 1910] 

The Pourquoi Pas? anchored off the roads at 11.30 p.m. Monday night. Several photographers were busy on Monday taking views of the vessel, including a representative of an illustrated London paper. A representative of the Parisian Press was also a visitor to the island for the return of the expedition. Early photographs were taken by Mr Woodwards and Mr Singelton, who soon after were able to exhibit views of the vessel.

Our pictures, which were necessarily prepared in advance of the Pourquoi Pas’ arrival, are from photographs by Mr T A Bramley, of 71, Mount Durand, taken before she started for the Antarctic. She had made a good run from the Azores, the last point which she had touched on her way home from South America. At  5 o’clock next morning Dr Charcot came ashore and went to Mr Wright’s boarding-house on the Esplanade, where Madame Charcot had been staying awaiting her husband’s arrival. Madame Charcot was accompanied by her little daughter and her mother.

Between 9 and 10 Dr Charcot went aboard the The Pourquoi Pas? and shortly after he and a number of his staff returned ashore.  Baron de Coudenhove, the acting French consular agent, called in the intrepid explorer, who afterwards courteously received some Pressmen, although he was busily occupied with the making of arrangements incidental to his arrival here and projected departure. Another visitor was Mr J[ohn] Williams, who presented the doctor with a large bunch of flowers.

After proceeding to Paris, Dr Charcot will go to London to lecture on his travels before the Royal Geographical Society. He speaks English fluently. Dr Charcot expressed himself eminently satisfied with the results of the expedition. The object in view was not to reach the South Pole but to add to scientific knowledge concerning the Antarctic regions.  One member of the party is M Benoît Boland (son of the late M Henri Boland [of the Guille-Allès Library]) who was born in St Peter Port. Accompanied by the Baron de Coudenhove, the Acting French Consular agent, Dr Charcot on Wednesday called at the District Office, where he was received by Col. R H Carr-Ellison, (representing His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor). Dr Charcot and Baron de Coudenhove afterwards visited the Bailiff at the Court House.

On Wednesday Dr Charcot received the following telegram from Captain Scott, of the British Antarctic Expedition:

Dr Charcot, Explorer, Guernsey.

Deeply grateful for your extremely kind telegram. The Terra Nova will be near Southampton from June 3 to June 8. Myself, officers, and men would consider it a great honour if you would visit us there. We would greatly appreciate an opportunity to congratulate you on your splendid work and receive your personal good wishes. Shall be delighted to see Madam Charcot if she can accompany you. Scott.

In his reply Dr Charcot expressed regret that his arrangements prevented him from taking The Pourquoi Pas? across to Southampton to meet the Terra Nova.' (Later Charcot, who was a great friend of Scott's and had tested electric sleds with him in Switzerland, raised a cairn to him there in tribute after his death.)

Second voyage: June 1 1912

May 28 1912 ‘Death of Mr A  P Roger [silversmith in the Arcade], residence Les Tilleuls St Martin, aged 64 (b. 1858). Lived many years in house next to Hauteville House, the residence of M Victor Hugo, a personal friend. Mr Roger was a friend of Dr Charcot who by coincidence arrived this morning.’

‘Dr Charcot has again visited the island with his famous exploration ship, The Pourquoi Pas?. Dr Charcot, for some reason, appears to have a ‘warm corner in his heart’ for Guernsey, and honoured the island by making it his first European port of call on his return from the Antarctic. He has now made Guernsey his last European port of call on setting out on a fresh voyage. A short cruise, which will extend over three months, will be undertaken by Dr Charcot, at the instance of the French government. The cruise will embrace the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic, and Iceland. The doctor will take with him the director of fisheries, and the cruise will be divided into two parts, each extending over six weeks. It is designed not only for oceanographical study, but aspirants for a captain’s certificate will be enabled to join for theoretical and practical instruction. On each occasion, on the return of the Pourquoi Pas? to St Malo, examinations will be made and certificates granted.’

May 1913

‘The Pourquoi Pas? arrived here on Monday and a representative of the Guernsey Weekly Press was afforded an opportunity of interviewing the distinguished Arctic explorer, Dr Jean Charcot on Tuesday, when with Madame Charcot, he was visiting his old friend, Mr John Williams, at the Arcade.

Dr Charcot stated that he was on an oceanographical voyage with fifteen cadets, the voyage being financed by the French government. The Pourquoi Pas? left St Malo at 11 o’clock on Monday morning and reached St Peter Port shortly after 4 o’clock. The vessel is due to leave St Peter-Port either this evening or tomorrow morning, and will proceed to Brest, where two natural history professors are to embark. On board the vessel now is a professor of seamanship. From Brest a two month’s tour is to be made in the Bay of Biscay, when scientific investigations are to be carried out. The PP then returns to France with the 15 cadets and is to take another 15 for a two months’ tour.’

Dr Charcot expressed his delight at being back again in Guernsey, a place he has so frequently visited since his boyhood. He remarked: ‘You see, I am now quite a Guernseyman!’ [Guernsey Evening Press, 17 May 1913]

1914-18: The Great War

Charcot’s connection to Guernsey became even stronger: he was the commander of a Q-ship (a decoy boat and U-boat destroyer), and from 1916 operated out of the French seaplane base in St Peter Port, patrolling the coast of Brittany and Normandy.

September 1925: Dr Charcot, the Explorer, calls here.

'Dr J Charcot, the eminent explorer and scientist, never forgets Guernsey in his travels with his famous exploration ship, the Pourquoi-Pas? And yesterday at noon his beautiful ship came to an anchorage in the Russel, en route from the frigid north to St Malo.

Dr Charcot, who was accompanied by Mme Charcot and Miss Charcot, landed here, and paid a visit to Mr John Williams of the Commercial Arcade (comme de coutume/as per usual).

Interviewed as he was making purchases in High Street, and while Madame was quite intrigued with the latest fashions on view, Dr Charcot expressed his delight in ‘once again visiting dear old Guernsey.’ ‘But,’ he added, I have only one complaint to make, the rate of exchange makes it difficult to spot bargains!’

De Charcot, it will be remembered, gallantly offered to seek for the missing explorer Amundsen when he was reported missing some months ago. The Pourquoi Pas?, observed the explorer, has been locked in ice on Greenland and Iceland for some time. He is now proceeding with her and a number of scientific savants to the Bay of Biscay for the purpose of taking soundings, and for deep sea geological work, the results of his investigations usually appearing in the French leading journals.'

Why Not?

'Dr Charcot, it will be remembered, once delivered a most entrancing lecture at Elizabeth College Hall. We asked him whether he might again appear as a lecturer, and he replied that usually his visits were too short to admit of any arrangements being made, but that should he visit the island in September next year, then he would be very pleased indeed to deliver a lecture, if desired. The Pourquoi Pas? is due to leave for St Malo on Monday. ‘I never set out on expeditions without calling here. This is a very charming spot.’

October 1928: In search of Amundsen

'The Pourquoi Pas? came in once again yesterday afternoon and this morning we had a chat with the genial chief, Dr Jean Baptiste Charcot, who loves Guernsey and her people so much that he never passes the island without a ‘Bonjour’ to the inhabitants of ‘St Peter’s’ as he calls our town, and never starts on any voyage without calling here en route.

He came with his family when he was 13 and Guernsey weaved a special spell on his heart. His next visit was when he was 21, when he came in a small sailing ship, the Pourquoi Pas also, of some 15 tons.

It was of his last expedition we were anxious to learn, and he said it was a very sad one.' [He could not locate Admundsen whose plane, it transpired, had crashed into the sea.]

'While out in the Arctic the doctor celebrated his 61st birthday, (15 July 1928) and the staff and crew did not forget him. He left Guernsey roads this soon and the Pourquoi Pas? is now going to lay up for the winter.'

July 1936: Charcot’s last call in to St Peter Port

'Famous explorer’s ship in roadstead.

Dr Charcot, the famous French explorer, visited Guernsey last week, renewing old friendships with Sarnians. Interviewed Dr Charcot said he left St Malo at 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon in the exploration ship The Pourquoi Pas? on a three month visit to Greenland for scientific research work. The learned and intrepid doctor, who does not seem to have aged at all during the past 20 years, was wearing the small red symbol rosette of Officer Grande Croix Legion d’Honneur.

‘You know,‘  he added, ‘I cannot pass Guernsey by on my way, for I love your little island and its people. And I was just wondering why I had not yet see, my friend of the Guernsey Evening Press.’

Accompanying Dr Charcot were several young scientists. Dr Charcot speaks English with perfect fluency.'

Charcot's last voyage: The tragic loss of the ship and crew