Two years after Meigen was born his grandparents died and his parents moved to the family estate. This was already heavily indebted by the Seven Years' War, then bad crops and rash speculations forced sale and the family moved back to Solingen.
Meigen attended the town school but only for a short time. Fortunately he had learned to read and write on his grandfather’s estate and he read widely at home as well as taking an interest in natural history. A lodger in the household, a state surveyor named Stamm gave Meigen instruction in mathematics. Another family friend a Reformed Church organist and teacher called Berger, gave him lessons from his 10th year on in piano, orthography, and calligraphy, Later on, in 1776, he also taught him French.
In the Autumn of 1779 he returned to Solingen to help his parents, at first by giving private lessons in French, but in the following year he started a French school that lasted until early in 1784. During his few free hours in this period he studied history from Charles Rollin's 15 volume Roman History and that author's 4 volume Ancient History (both in French). The only entomological work in his possession at this time was Moder's (or Kleemann's) Caterpillar Calendar.
Later in 1784 he was recommended to Pelzer, a tradesman in Aachen, for the position of resident tutor. On taking up the post, he was treated as a family member. Pelzer had a cousin in Aachen by the name of Mathias Baumhauer, a wool merchant's son, who was a very able entomologist. Baumhauer had a butterfly collection including about 1200 species as well as numbers of insects of all other orders.
He soon found that wing venation alone was not enough to classify the Dipera correctly and he began to make drawings of the antennae viewed under a 20-power wooden-framed microscope purchased at the fair in Aachen, This, a lens of about 6-power, and his own very sharp eyesight and visual memory led him to the next important conclusion, that the Diptera could only be classified using character combinations; what is now known as an eclectic system..
There he became closely acquainted with a man called Weniger, who shared his interests in botany and entomology. His enthusiasm for entomology and botany became broader and he decided to extend his studies to world species. Weniger felt likewise and they contacted a Herr Gerning in Frankfurt. Gerning wrote to his son in the Netherlands, who bought insect specimens for him. A Swiss, Count von Meuron, who was in the Dutch service and whose brother was governor of Trincomalee on Ceylon heard of their wishes and obtained for them the offer of positions as surgeons on an East Indiaman, with an additional stipend. This plan was given up when Meigen’s mother opposed it.
In 1796, Meigen took a job teaching French in Stolberg, 2 hours from Aachen. Here he remained without further change of residence until his death. In Stolberg outside of school hours he taught drawing, geography, history and piano. He also met a brass-worker named J. A. Peltzer, who was a mathematician and owned a 60-power Tiedemann achromatic telescope. Soon Meigen was teaching astronomy as well.
In 1801 Meigen met the French naturalist Count Lacépède who had come to Stolberg to visit the brass works. They talked about natural history and Meigen showed Count Lacépède his drawings of Diptera. The following day Meigen was asked to visit Count Lacépède who asked him to join Capt. Baudin's voyage around the world as a botanist. Meigen declined.
In 1802 Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger who must have heard of Meigen from Count Lacépède and was at the baths in Aachen with Johann Centurius Hoffmannsegg invited him to join them. Meigen took his drawings along, and made arrangements with Illiger and Hoffmannsegg for future work. Illiger had captured a new and unknown Dipteron and showed a pen drawing of it to Meigen, asking him how it should be classified. Meigen described it as Eoxocera Hoffmannseggi. Illiger also agreed to proofread Meigen's first work on Diptera which was then published in 1804 by Reichard in Braunschweig.
In the same year Fabricius visited Paris and saw Meigen’s work. On returning home, he wrote Meigen and arranged to meet him in Aachen. A few days later Fabricius came to Stolberg Here he was shown all of Meigen's new genera in order that he might use them in the projected new edition of Systema Antliatorum. Fabricius criticized Meigen for his eclectic method, asserting that a classification should be based upon one part of the body, (mainly mouthparts) not on several different parts. Meigen pointed out that Fabricius himself did not consistently follow his own precepts but even so Fabricius refused to use the eclectic method.
From 1812 to 1814 Meigen drew some maps for the municipality of Stolberg. He also corresponded again with Count von Hoffmannsegg, until the latter sold his collection to the Berlin Museum.
In 1818, Meigen's longtime friend, the tireless collector, Baumhauer died in Paris. His widow brought his collection to Aachen and got Meigen to determine it. He took on the determination of at least 50,000 specimens from Germany, France, the Pyrenees, the Alps and northern Italy and worked on it for a year and a half. The collection was then sold for 1100 Dutch guilders, part of it going to Leiden and part to Luttich.
These years were very certainly hard. In 1816 and 1817 Because of poor harvests, food prices rose enormously. There were 7 children in his family at this time and his income was extremely low, there being now no demand for a French teacher, the French Empire having collapsed. Eventually, through the fortunate intervention of the inspector of water supply, he got a well paid contract for some map-drawing lasting a couple of years. Astronomy also brought him some map-work.
On 23 July, Wiedemann and Meigen returned to Copenhagen, where Meigen stayed On 30 July they were back in Kiel, where everything in the collections of Fabricius and Westermann was carefully examined and compared and the unknown species drawn and described. After completing the research in Kiel, both left for Hamburg. There Meigen examined the Winthem collection, but there were so many new species in it that Winthem decided to send it all to Stolberg, where it could be worked on more conveniently. Also in Hamburg, Meigen met the entomologist Sommer from Altona and the botanist Johann Georg Christian Lehmann.
The trip to Denmark and Sweden lasted altogether 12 weeks, the result of which was a series of colored drawings of more than 400 species of insects, together with their descriptions and a large amount of corrections and notes. Studies of his collection of the Diptera in Fabricius ' collection led to a very substantial revision.
In 1825, Meigen made a translation of François Fénelon ‘s Telemachus, and in the same year he was enabled to attend a meeting of naturalists in Berlin. Meigen's expenses were organised by Nees von Esenbeck, and many to whom he was known through his works on Diptera. He also saw there again Wiedemann. He took advantage of this occasion to examine the collection of the Berlin Museum and those of Ruthé and Bouché.
Von Winthem visited Meigen in 1826. Meigen also made a trip in that year to Crefeld and Düsseldorf. The following year, 1824, a Handbook for Butterfly Collectors appeared under his name, and he also started a much larger work on Lepidoptera. This latter appeared in fascicles, each of 10 quarto plates lithographed by Meigen himself. It went as far as the Euphalaenae, where lack of funds brought it to a close. He coloured the plates in a few copies. The figures, except a very few borrowed from other works, were drawn by Meigen from specimens, many from the collection of an old friend Seeger.
After discontinuance of the work on Lepidoptera and the completion of that on Diptera with its 6th volume, Meigen had Diptera sent to him for determination from many sources. Outstanding among them were contributions from Joseph Waltl and Heinrich Georg Bronn, These induced him to work up a supplementary volume, which was notable for the division of the genera Tachina, Musca and Anthomyia into a number of genera based upon more critical characters than those used previous French and English workers.
At the same time Meigen worked industriously, on a Flora of Germany, which was not completed until a few years before his death. The last volume of this work, also containing numerous drawings made largely from nature by Meigen himself, appeared in 1842. It was his last work.
When the French dipterologist Jean Macquart visited him in 1839 to see his collection, Meigen also showed him 2 thick quarto volumes of drawings containing 300 plates of colored and mostly enlarged drawings of all the species that had described. Macquart told Meigen that he would like to buy them, quoting a price of 1800 francs on behalf of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He paid an additional 1200 francs for Meigen's collection of Diptera, which also went to Paris.
Meigen then disposed of his library and the remainder of his collection. His books and fruit and plant collection were bought by the Verein für narturliche Wissenschaften und Gewerbe (Society for useful sciences and industry) in Aachen, All of his insects other than Diptera were bought by Arnold Foerster, along with a few manuscripts including colored drawings of Hymenoptera.
In 1839, the Crown-Prince of Prussia awarded Meigen with a pension of 200 thalers a year.
Meigen described a vast number of European Diptera (mostly valid) and his work laid the foundations of all later work on this important insect group.
This masterwork work has a long and complicated history, with successive versions in French as well as German.