Dorst was born at Mulhouse and studied biology and paleontology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Paris. In 1947 he joined the staff of the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. He succeeded Jacques Berlioz as chairman of Mammifères et Oiseaux in 1964, and was elected as director of the museum in 1975, resigning in 1985 to protest against government reforms of the museum.
Dorst was a member of the Académie des Sciences, one of the founders and second president of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos, president of the 16th International Ornithological Congress (IOC), and vice president of the Commission of Protection of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Dorst was one of the writers of the documentary Le Peuple Migrateur (Winged Migration), and the film is dedicated to him.
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