How did the French Revolution affect the conduct and organisation of the sciences?


The French Revolution has been regarded as a crippling crisis for French natural philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century. Historians have argued that vital infrastructure for scientific discovery was demolished and science was viewed as an enemy of the republic that was incompatible with Jacobin ideologies. Scientific academies were abolished at the height of the The Reign of Terror and Charles Gillispie wrote that this was "a simple act of intellectual vandalism"1. A paradigm shift led to the association of counterrevolutionary thinking with learned pursuit of knowledge. However, there is another side – with the revolution came increased mathematisation and a more logical approach to organisation. The word "liberté" in the Republic's new motto allowed for open discussion of natural philosophy and a move toward meritocracy replacing the injustice of the admission processes to certain institutes of learning.


Murmurs of enmity toward natural philosophy in the beginning stages of the revolution had escalated into full blown opposition in the mid 1790s. The Académie Royale des Sciences had been fundamental to the progress of French learning since its inception and was widely regarded and an institute for elite science before it was made to close in August 1793. Another important scientific organization, the Bureau de Commerce, was dissolved by revolutionaries in 1791 and the Jacobin Convention was cited as reason to abolish other academies devoted to the sciences.

Proponents of the revolution were not necessarily opposed to the idea of scientific study. Rather, there was a vague connection between aristocratic institutions with close ties to the previous system of government which, in the republican fervour of the Revolution, tended to be exaggerated. Lavoisier, who had contributed an enormous amount to the emerging field of chemistry, found himself presented as a reactionary member of the previous regime. Despite his novel ideas that removed the need for "phlogiston" he was killed for his involvement in pre-Revolutionary taxation – not even his prestigious role as a natural philosopher was sufficient to spare his life.

The idea that politics ought to be prioritised before natural philosophy became increasingly popular in the 1790s. The Académie was abolished for little other reason than it represented counterrevolutionary ideals. There was an air of perceived exclusivity that was intolerable in the new Republic and hence sufficient to override its positive scientific achievements. Even engineering schools were victims of extreme Jacbobinism almost entirely due to lingering associations to the French monarchy. Intellectuals were not judged on their erudition and contributions to science but instead by their personal affiliations and ideologies.


However, the desire for quantification had left some room for scientific institutions in the early stages of the revolution. Metrification was based on "pure reason" which was favoured at the time and the Académie's involvement was instrumental in the creation of the earliest versions of the Système International. Scientific institutions also suited the needs of the Revolution in its first years. A vast pillage of expensive silverware had been acquired from rich émigrés and the members of the Académie were of substantial assistance in assaying the silverware. Military innovations were also greatly sought after and intensive educational programmes in the sciences were established toward this end. However, it must be said that there was very little science for the sake of knowledge – the military slant means that most research was purely practical and utilitarian.

Science had become so integrated with France's central administration that it continued to be practised and work continued in several fields. Moreover, the new liberties under the Republic allowed for new academies to be founded as well as the reestablishment of societies such as the Société Philomathique. Compared to the old scientific academies, institutions such as the Institut de France tended toward being geniocratic with wealth and status no longer such significant factors in the admissions process. Publishing freedoms also allowed several the inception of several new journals promoting particular specialised aspects of science.

Inside France the practice of medicine also changed after the early 1790s. Prior to then, French hospitals had been in an appalling condition rife with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The military required more trained medics and the Revolution removed the affiliation of many hospitals with churches. Medical education was also overhauled and was radically restructured over the following decade. The understanding of physiology and pathology was greatly increased and, in the early nineteenth century "the French canonised the ritual of modern physical examination"2: patient were expected to cooperate with more intimate examinations that involved the four cardinal arts of bedside diagnosticians. Organisation in hospitals improved so that contagious diseases could be quarantined, and experiments were better deigned in that there was less bias toward preferred hypotheses.


The French Revolution affected the whole of science in varied ways. Where the revolutionaries found a use for innovation it was encouraged and supported. The new changes in thinking allowed science to distance itself from and even criticise religion's dictums. However, all too often scientific thought was restricted by the zeal of Jacobinism to obliterate all pre-Revolutionary traces – as the Terror continued theories were judged on the politics of whoever formulated them and institutions were broadly tarred with the same brush as stalwart antirevolutionaries. Only later could scientific institutions re-establish themselves and the communication made possible by established journals continue. Importantly, science in the Republic of France was largely without the aristocratic elitism of the Ancien Régime but there were still very few women involved. The whole organisation of medicine in France and conduct between doctors and patients was pushed into renovation after the Revolution. However, despite the vast progress made, latent xenophobia prevented several advances proliferating through Europe until some time later.

  • i Gillispie, Charles Coulston. "Science In The French Revolution", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 45, issue 5, pp.677-684 (1959).
  • ii Bynum, W. F. Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, chapter 2, p.33. (Cambridge, 1994).
  • Fara, Patricia. Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004).
  • Hankins, Thomas L. Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1985).
  • Russell, Colin A. Science and Social Change, 1700-1900 (1983).
  • Outram, Dorinda. "New spaces in natural history", Cultures of Natural History pp. 249-265 (1996).