Poey was born in Havana, the son of French and Spanish parents. He spent several years (1804 to 1807) of his life in Pau then studied law in Madrid. He became a lawyer in Spain but was forced to leave due to his liberal ideas, returning to Cuba in 1823. He began to concentrate on the study of the natural science and travelled to France in 1825 with his wife. He began writing on the butterflies of Cuba and acquiring knowledge on fish, later supplying Georges Cuvier and Valenciennes with fish specimens from Cuba. He took part in the foundation, in 1832, of the Société Entomologique de France.
Poey returned to Cuba in 1833 where he founded the Museum of Natural History in 1839. In 1842 he became the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Havana. He also took part in the creation of the Academy of Science (natural, physical and medical) of Havana and was a president of the anthropological Society.
Cuba commemorated the 175 birthday of Poey’s birth by a series of six stamps and a stamp sheet in 1974. This same country celebrated the 200th anniversary birthday of his birth by the emission of a series of four illustrated fish stamps in 1999.