Metzger, Hél

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(b. Chatou, near Paris, France, 26 August 1889; d. on the way to Auschwitz, Poland, after February 1944)

chemistry, history of science, philosophy.

The daughter of Paul Bruhl and Jenny Adler, and the niece of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Hélène Metzger earned the brevet supérieur at a time when girls did not go to lycée to prepare for the baccalauréat and rarely attended university. She studied mineralogy with Frédéric Wallerant in his laboratory at the Sorbonne and in May 1912 received a diplôme d’études supérieures in physics under him for her memoir “Étude cristallographique du chlorate de lithium.”

On 13 May 1913 she married Paul Metzger, a professor of history and geography at Lyons. In September 1914 he was reported missing in one of the first battles of World War I. A widow at twenty-five, she henceforth devoted herself entirely to research, commencing with her work on crystallography. Animated by a wide-ranging curiosity and an eminently philosophic cast of mind, she became interested in a historical approach to science.

Hélène Metzger’s abilities as historian of science were evident as early as 1918 in her doctoral thesis, La genèse de la science des cristaux, which she defended in Paris. In this work she showed how crystallography slowly became differentiated from mineralogy, physics, and chemistry, until at the end of the eighteenth century it had developed into an independent science. Convinced that scientific revolutions are the visible effect of a previous underlying current, she took chemistry as an example and conceived a vast plan that was to lead her research from the beginning of the seventeenth century to Lavoisier. The general title was Les doctrines chimiques en France, du début du XVIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. The first part appeared in 1923, and in 1924 it won for its author the Prix Binoux of the Académie des Sciences. Nicolas Lemery was the central character, but importance was accorded to authors little known until then.

Newton, Stahl, Boerhaave et la doctrine chimique, published in 1930, may be considered the second installment of the projected work. Sections of what would have been the third part can be found in lectures delivered in 1932–1933 at the Institut d’Histoire des Sciences of the University of Paris; they were published in 1935 under the title La philosophie de la matière chez Lavoisier.

A synthetic view of the history of chemistry, as Hélène Metzger conceived of it, can be found in the little volume La chimie, written in 1926 (published in 1930) for the series Histoire du Monde, edited by Eugène Cavaignac.

Drawn to philosophical reflection and preoccupied by epistemological problems, Hélène Metzger submitted an essay to a contest held by the Académic des Sciences Morales et Politiques that won the Prix Bordin in philosophy in 1925 and was published in 1926 under the title Les concepts scientifiques. This study deals with both psychology and logic and takes examples from the history of science to show how concepts arise and become transformed and how they can be classified.

A disciple of both Émile Meyerson and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Hélène Metzger was not satisfied with a strictly positivist position. She followed Meyerson in seeking out the philosophical bases of science, and Lévy-Bruhl in extending her investigations to the nonrational aspects of thought, which are as prevalent in the civilized as in the primitive mind. It was the activity of the entire human intellect that she wanted to uncover by following the scientists in their groping; she was as interested in “false” ideas as in those currently considered “true.” For her, religious, metaphysical, and scientific ideas formed a unified whole in a given historical period, and she believed that one group could not properly be studied by artificially separating it from others. If that viewpoint is widely accepted today, it is partly because she helped to establish it.

The best example of Hélène Metzger’s approach is the thesis she presented to the fifth section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1938, published as Attraction universelle et religion naturelle chez quelques commentateurs anglais de Newton. Encouraged by Léon Brunschvicg, she wished to pursue this synthetic study of the development of scientific and philosophical thought by a thorough examination of the work of Condillac in relation to that of Lavoisier and the chemists of the end of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, this project was never carried out; after the beginning of the German occupation of Paris, she moved to Lyons to work, at the Bureau d’études Israëlites, on a study of Jewish monotheism. Her conclusions appeared in 1947 in Revue philosophique; the preamble was published in 1954 in a volume prepared by her brother, Adrien Bruhl: La science, l’appel de la religion et la volonté humaine. Hélène Metzger was arrested in the Rue Vaubécour in Lyons in February 1944, deported to Drancy, and then sent to Auschwitz; it has proved impossible to establish the circumstances and the date of her death.

During the interwar years Hélène Metzger’s works—which included many articles in Isis, Archeion, and Scientia and her contributions to the Vocabulaire historique (prepared by the Centre International de Synthèse), which appeared in Revue de synthèse and Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications—had a considerable impact on the history of science and on epistemology. Her personal influence among historians of science was still more decisive. She participated in the first four international congresses of the history of science and was a charter member of the Comité International d’Histoire des Sciences (converted into the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences in 1929). She served as its administratortreasurer from 5 June 1931 until her arrest. She organized the Academy’s library in the Rue Colbert in Paris, and her philosophical concerns are clearly reflected in its holdings.

In 1939 Hélène Metzger was placed in charge of the history of science library of the Centre International de Synthese. An ardent participant in all the meetings of its history of science section—as is attested by the issues of Archeion—and secretary of the Groupe Français d’Historiens des Sciences, she enlivened the discussions with her subtle and often ironic remarks, which were always pertinent and erudite, if somewhat disconcerting in their impulsiveness. Cordial to young scholars and to French and foreign colleagues, she was an inceptive influence for many studies, Aldo Mieli, Pierre Brunet, Federigo Enriques, Alexandre Koyré, George Sarton, Paul Mouy, and Robert Lenoble all derived inspiration for their work from their contact with Hélène Metzger.


I. Original Works. Metzger’s books are La genèse de la science des cristaux (Paris, 1918; repr. 1970); Les doctrines chimuques en France, du début du XVIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1923; repr. 1970); Les concepts scientifiques (Paris, 1926); La civilisation européenne, pt. 4, La chimie (Paris. 1930); Newton, Stahl, Boerhaave et la doctrine chimique (Paris, 1930); La philosophie de la matière chez Lavoisier (Paris, 1935); Attraction universelle et religion naturelle chez quelques commentateurs anglais de Newton (Paris, 1938); and La science, l’appel de la religion et la volonté humaine (Paris, 1954).

Her principal articles are “L’évolution du règne métallique d’aprés les alchimistes du XVIIe siècle,” in Isis, 4 (1922), 464–483: “La philosophie de la matière chez Stahl et ses disciples,” ibid., 8 (1925), 427–464; “Newton et l’evolution de la théorie chimique,” in Archeion, 9 (1928) 243–256, 433–461, and 10 (1929; incorrectly numbered 11 ), 13–25—the three parts were also brought together in a booklet (Rome, n.d.); “La philosophie de Lucien Lévy-Bruhl et l’histoire des sciences,” in Archeion. 12 (1930), 15–24; “Eugène Chevreul historien de la chimie,” ibid., 14 (1932), 6–11; “introduction à l’étude du rôle de Lavoisier dans l’histoire des sciences,” ibid., 31–50; “L’historien des sciences doit-il se faire le contemporain des savants dont il parle?” ibid., 15 (1933), 34–44; “Tribunal de l’histoire et théorie de la connaissance scientifique,” ibid., 17 (1935), 1–18: “La signification de l’histoire de la pensée scienitfique,” in Scientia, 57 (June 1935), 449–453; “L’a priori dans la doctrine scientifique et l’histoire des sciences,” in Archeion, 18 (1936), 29–79; “La méthode philosophique dans l’histoire des sciences,” ibid., 19 (1937), 204–216; “Alchimie. Communication pour servir au Vocahulaire historique,” in Revue de synthèse, 16 , no, I (Apr. 1938), 43–53; and “Atomisme. Communication pour servir au Vocahulaire historique,” in Revue d’hiistoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 1 , no. 1 (July 1947), 51–62.

II. Secondary Literature. See Marie Boas, in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 12 (1959), 432–435; Pierre Brunei, in Revue d’ histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, I , no. 1 (July 1947), 68–70; and Suzanne Delorme, in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 1 (1948), 326–327.

Suzanne Delorme