Leo Errera (1858-1905)
Leo Errera was born in an extremely rich Brussels family of Venetian origin. His secondary education took place at the Athénée of Brussels and under the strict rule of private teachers. He was a brilliant pupil and entered early at the Free University of Brussels, when he already knew many languages. He obtained his candidate diploma in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, which is followed by a doctorate in natural sciences in 1879. About five years earlier he had become a member of the Royal Botanical Society of Belgium. In 1875 he delivers to François Crépin, with whom he already went out plant hunting, a text on the vegetation in the surroundings of Nice, for the Bulletin. But he soon leaves floristics aside and becomes one of the strongest promoters of the laboratory as a place to produce and acquire “modern” scientific knowledge. Directy after leaving university he regularly visits several foreign laboratories. Some attribute the choice of research subjects by Leo Errera to an early reading of the works of Charles Darwin.
The botanist starts his academic career at the Free University of Brussels in 1884, where he eventually becomes responsible for the course of general botany, after the death of another pillar of the Royal Botanical Society, J.-E. Bommer (1829-1895). To support his teachings with practicals and for his research programme, he starts a botanical laboratory at his home institution. From these humble beginnings and the Institute of Botany that succeeds it come some of the biggest names in Belgian botany, such as Emile De Wildeman (1866-1947) and Jean Massart (1865-1925), who can be considered as his spiritual child. The laboratory was installed in the State Botanical Garden, while the Institute was next door. This is because Errera was also active in the State Botanical Garden, of which he joined its Supervisory Board in 1884. He was the secretary of his board until his sudden death in 1905.
His testament stated that a sum of 15,000 francs should be placed at the profit of the Royal Belgian Botanical Society to create a triennial prize awarded for research in plant anatomy, embryology or physiology, the domains he explored during his productive career. The Society decided that the prize will be named after the generous donor, who had been part of the administrative council of the society since 1880. In 1905 he had represented the society at the International Botanical Congress in Vienna. Leo Errera, who was also active in the Belgian Society for Microscopy and the Belgian Alpine Club (of which François Crépin was also a member), can be considered as one of the early defenders in Belgium of the Darwinian transmutation of species.
In December 1905, the society decided that Leo Errera’s name will always be the first on its list of members.
Text: Denis Diagre-Vanderpelen
Translation: Renate Wesselingh