As lawyers go, little of the life of Edouard Alfred Martel can be said to merely be off the beaten path. If anything, he was under the beaten path. Martel, law degree and all, was one of if not the pioneer and founder of cave exploration, now known as speleology (the science) or spelunking (the hobby).

But in Martel's day, neither the science or the hobby had a fancy name. The very few eccentrics that descended into caves were simply pot-holers or cavers.

To some observers, there may have been other names for these individuals who voluntarily disappeared into a gloomy, black hole in the ground, an underground so many of his contemporaries associated with Hell. This, the 1800s spelunker did, retained to the surface only by a single rope.

Edouard Alfred MartelLawyer/Spelunker Edouard Alfred Martel was a born on July 1, 1859 in Pontoise, France. La Ville de Pontoise  remains proud of this native son -  from the town website in 2013:

"Great destinies do not follow the beaten path. The life of native Pontoisien Edouard Alfred Martel is proof of that. This famous Pontoisien, born July 1, 1859, had the career path of a lawyer following the career paths of his family. But things would not transpire that way."

The locals describe his epiphany away from the law has been twofold. First, he was an avid reader of Jules Verne. Secondly, in 1866, while vacationing in the Pyrenees with his parents, Martel visited the Gargas caves with its prehistoric engravings and drawings. Martel was hooked, entranced by the unworldly aura of caves, and cave exploration, and especially the prospect of being where no human being had been before.1

He studied and obtained his law degree from Condorcet University.  After mandatory military service to his country which ended in 1886,  Martel was called to the bar by the Tribunal de Commerce at la Seine.

Then, a brief career as a lawyer got in the way. Martel did see clients in the inside of courtroom but his passion was cave exploration and immediately, he uses short vacation time to travel to different places in Europe where, his research program, there were caves to be explored:

"Martel, a French lawyer, investigated more than 1000 caverns in Europe and the US for three decades. A self-taught scientist, he measured, not and photographed as he went.

"To probe these cracks in the earth, Martel relied on a rope ring with pulleys, a winch, and a collapsible canvas boat for subterranean rivers."2

Edouard Martel at workThe French language description3 of his early days exploits are far richer in the danger and the stunt-man character of the first man ever to have entered so many caves dangling from rudimentary ropes, deep caves which are today tourist attractions

Increasingly, lawyering gave way to speleology and by 1899, he had left the profession of law entirely. This was especially facilitated by his purchase of the land surrounding a cave in Padirac, France. He had special access portals made in the person dollars this attraction brought him allowed him to pursue his worldwide passion speleology.

It was a gift to the world as Martel was not just a bon vivant. He pushed and developed the initial technology now so highly refined in an occupation which now has but did not then have a name, speleology. Everywhere he went, he took assiduous notes, drawings and maps. and then he shared his information with abandon. Between 1990 and 1936, the year of his death, he published 18 books and 900 articles detailing his explorations.

At Tarn, there is a statuite of him.

He wrote in 1901:

Il faut y entrer sans crainte: qui sait quelle surprise vous attends." {Enter without fear: who knows what awaits you?}

One of his greatest contributions to science was the realization of the extent of underground water in the concept that the cleanliness of this underground water could be directly related to the ground above, and vice versa. In 1907, he was given the most prestigious prize for contributions to science in France, the Grand Prix des Sciences Physiques of the Académie des Sciences.

E.A. Martel at "work".The number of caves around the world but Martel was the first to enter or descend to a great depth is too long to list. Once attuned to the possibility of a subterranean world underneath them, governments everywhere called upon him to first go inside, explore, and report back on the cave. His most significant explorations- now all major tourist attractions - include:

  • Kakouetta (near Larrau, France);
  • Mammoth Cave (Kentucky), now a National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park and owned, once, by Franklin Gorin, also a lawyer). The world's longest known cave at 400 miles of interconnected passages;
  • Gaping Gill, Yorkshire, England;
  • Aven Armand, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lozère, France;
  • Gouffre de Barranco, Spain; and
  • Abime de Rabanel, l'Hérault, France

Spelunking, especially in his era was so phyically demanding, that he did less and less of it as he aged. Martel died in 1938 at the age of 79.

So profound was the contribution of this Pontoisien lawyer that many speleologists and spelunkers alike consider him to be the founder of what they do.

"Greatest of all in the underground world, to all pot-holers he was The Master."4


  • Edouard-Alfred Martel, Père de la spéléologie, website of the Ville de Pontoise, France, information retrieved on August 14, 2013 []. Also, NOTE 3.
  • NOTE 1: Martel once said: "Nul être humain ne nous a précedé dans ces profondeurs. Nil ne sait où nous allons ni ce que nous voyons. Rien d'aussi étrangement beau ne s'est jamais présenté à nos yeux, ensemble et spontanément, nous nous posons la même question réciproque: est-ce que nous ne rêvons pas?"
  • NOTE 2: Williams, A. R., Braving Caves, National Geographic, August 2013, page 122.
  • NOTE 3: "Le matériel utilisé à l’époque contribue à  faire de  lui une  légende. Une bougie nichée dans le ruban de son chapeau, Martel descend dans l’abîme à califourchon sur un bâton de bois retenu en son milieu par une corde de chanvre que de solides gaillards laissent filer de la surface. Tournoyant dans le vide, il se laisse "glisser"  lentement vers le fond du gouffre, où débutent ses fabuleuses découvertes."
  • NOTE 4: Roberts, E.E., Edouard Alfred Martel (1899-1938), 7:24 Yorkshire Rambling Club Journal, p. 105-106 (1947)