The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Aspects of French Theoretical Physics in the Nineteenth Century

J. W. Herivel*

In France, as in other European countries, especially Britain and Germany, the nineteenth century was a period of great progress and achievement in science. This would still have been true if Claude Bernard and Louis Pasteur had been the only outstanding French scientists of the nineteenth century, whereas there were, of course, many others apart from an impressive number of brilliant French mathematicians. Nevertheless, although it was a great century for French science there was perhaps something rather disappointing about it, and something rather ingrowing about the attitude of French scientists towards scientific developments in other countries. For example, the French took it hard that the creator of the theory of evolution should have been an Englishman, remembering too late Darwin's predecessor Lamarck, and they certainly were very slow in accepting Darwin's theory of evolution.1 Again, the French may have felt that after the important contributions of French scientists such as Coulomb, Poisson, Biot and, above all, Ampère, the theory of electricity and magnetism which is today principally associated with the names of Faraday and Maxwell should have been created by a Frenchman. Once again this new theory was only accepted very slowly and hesitantly, and even unwillingly, in France—one thinks, for example, of the criticisms levelled at the theory by Pierre Duhem in his “The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory”.2 Of course it might be that if one knew how to weigh properly the various achievements of French scientists in different branches of science one would find that, allowing for her rather static population during the nineteenth century, the total contribution of France compared well with those of Britain and Germany. Nevertheless, in one case at least, that of theoretical physics, there seems to have been an unmistakable failure to live up to the promise of the beginning of the century. The purpose of this paper is to advance possible reasons to explain this failure.


* Slightly emended version of a paper read to the Society on 22 November 1965. The research on which this paper is based was carried out in Paris in 1964 with the aid of a Bourse de Marque awarded by the French Government through their Embassy in London, and with a grant from the Research Committee of the Academic Council of the Queen's University, Belfast.