Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 357–402

The singular fate of genetics in the history of French biology, 1900–1940

  • Richard M. Burian
  • Jean Gayon
  • Doris Zallen

DOI: 10.1007/BF00144087

Cite this article as:
Burian, R.M., Gayon, J. & Zallen, D. J Hist Biol (1988) 21: 357. doi:10.1007/BF00144087


In this study we have examined the reception of Mendelism in France from 1900 to 1940, and the place of some of the extra-Mendelian traditions of research that contributed to the development of genetics in France after World War II. Our major findings are:
  1. (1)

    Mendelism was widely disseminated in France and thoroughly understood by many French biologists from 1900 on. With the notable exception of Lucien Cuénot, however, there were few fundamental contributions to the Mendelian tradition, and virtually none from about 1915 to the midthirties. Prior to 1900, Cuénot's work was already marked by a striking interest in physiological mechanisms; his physiological preoccupations played a considerable role in his account of the inheritance of coat color and of susceptibility to tumors in mice. His analysis of the roles of the many genes involved in pigment formation was developed with an eye to one of the first models of the metabolic reactions involved. It yielded one of the earliest suggestions that the steps controlled by single genes involve enzymes as the products of genes.

  2. (2)

    The inflexible structure of the French universities played an important role in discouraging research in genetics and in the failure to train the post-World War I generation in that discipline.

  3. (3)

    During this period the disciplines of physiology, microbiology, and causal embryology were dominant in French experimental biology. The issues that were most prominent within these disciplines—differentiation and development, regulation of growth and morphology, infection and assimilation—were not easily treated within genetics. The failure of Mendelism to resolve a variety of legitimate explanatory issues to the satisfaction of serious investigators trained in the dominant French disciplines also contributed to the failure of Mendelism to penetrate French science. The violent anti-Mendelian polemics put forward by many of the most committed neo-Lamarckians raised many of the same issues regarding the supposed insufficiency of Mendelism. Cuénot's reluctance to encourage his students to pursue careers in genetics illustrates the compound nature of the resistance.


Despite the absence of a developed tradition of Mendelian research, a French school of molecular genetics had developed by the 1950s. It flourished outside the university system at the Institut Pasteur, the Institut de Biologie physico-chimique, and the CNRS (though some of its leading figures had university connections), and it was only beginning to enter into university curricula. The most important indigenous research that informed the new tradition was that of Eugène Wollman on “paraheredity” of phage infection and lysogeny, of André Lwoff on the physiology and nutritional requirements of protozoa and bacteria, and the embryologically influenced genetic investigations of Boris Ephrussi. The conceptual and methodological resources of the French school were enriched by this background; a full understanding of the products of the fifties, we believe, requires a proper appreciation of these antecedents. Molecular genetics in France grew out of the Pasteurian tradition of microbiology and the highly developed tradition of causal embryology as modified by Ephrussi. Both of these traditions were extra-Mendelian and not anti-Mendelian, but they both shared a number of the problems and assumptions that were at the center of the extremist resistance to Mendelism. In many respects, then, it is more fruitful to see the entry of French biology into molecular genetics as a development of its microbial-physiological and causal-embryological traditions, coopting the tools and techniques of genetics, rather than the other way around.

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard M. Burian
    • 1
  • Jean Gayon
    • 2
  • Doris Zallen
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA
  2. 2.Faculté de lettres et philosophieUniversité de BourgogneDijonFrance
  3. 3.Center for Programs in the HumanitiesVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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