Science and Political Exile in Nineteenth-Century Europe

The exiles who left their country in the nineteenth century during periods of political agitation included a number of scientists. For them, exile was accompanied by specific obstacles such as finding a university position, maintaining scientific activity in a new context, changing language, and becoming a part of new networks. At the same time, it prompted the circulation of scientists and communication among them, and became an indirect conveyor of a new form of diffusion for ideas in the Republic of Letters.

Frontispice of Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie (History of the Mathematical Sciences in Italy) by Guillaume Libri, Paris, Renouard, 1841.
Frontispice of Histoire des sciences mathématiques en Italie (History of the Mathematical Sciences in Italy) by Guillaume Libri, Paris, Renouard, 1841.

The waves of political exiles that accompanied the major periods of political agitation during the nineteenth century (in connection with the French Revolution, the movements of 1830, the People’s Spring, or the early 1870s), were very sociologically diverse: they included aristocrats driven out with their monarch, laborers and artisans belonging to the professions, as well as intellectuals.  Among the latter, the somewhat overwhelming figures of Victor Hugo and Ugo Foscolo have too often led to the consideration of only those writers who left a striking trace of their experience in exile. However, alongside them were also scientists who were perhaps less numerous and no doubt less visible, but for whom the experience of exile was no less decisive. In what ways was the life of an exiled scientist different than that of his peers who were chased by the thousands from their countries during the century of exile? How was their scientific activity affected by their forced displacement to a country that was not theirs?

The Engagements of Scientists during the Revolutionary Era

The revolutionary period was marked by the unprecedented engagement of scientists in political life. Many of them engaged directly in the revolutionary administration, either as experts, as the scientists who accompanied Bonaparte in Egypt, or directly in connection with political positions. During the Bourbon Restoration, the most skillful of them succeeded in having their past engagement forgotten by returning to their academic field or by offering their service to the restored regime, as was the case, for instance, with Berthollet, who voted for Napoleon’s deposition at the very last moment after serving him for a long time. However, those who were most compromised were forced to flee. This was particularly true for those involved in the administrations implemented by the French during the Napoleonic Wars in Italy or Spain: the historian Luigi Pepe, who studied the Italian world, drew attention to the case of the mathematician Lorenzo Mascheroni (1750-1800), who dedicated his Geometria del compasso (Geometry of Compass, 1797) to the French emperor, and contributed to the drafting of the Constitution of the Cisalpine Republic. Pellegrino Rossi, who is well known due to his assassination in Rome, which sparked the riots of 1848, had the same type of path, for as a partisan of Murat he had to flee Italy in 1815 and settle in Switzerland and later France, where he taught law. In Spain, Isabelle Renaudet has revealed the case of the doctor García Suelto, who became a doctor in the imperial army in 1808, and had to follow the defeated French army like many other afrancesados.

Even for those who remained in their positions in their countries, the years following the Bourbon Restoration were precarious, as scientists with the reputation of being liberal were the subject of particular surveillance, with the least false step potentially costing them their position and forcing them into exile. This is what happened to Guglielmo Libri, the Tuscan mathematician who found refuge in France, where with the support of Guizot he acquired French nationality and a position at the Collège de France. The astronomer Ottaviano Fabrizio Mossotti, who was close to carbonarism, fled Pisa in 1823 and found refuge in England, Argentina, and later Corfu, before his return was authorized in 1840. Georg Büchner, who is more known for his literary oeuvre than the medical research he conducted at the University of Strasbourg and later at the University of Giessen, had to flee Germany in 1836 where he was persecuted for his satirical articles, and found refuge at the University of Zurich.

Finding a position in the country of arrival was often a challenge, one that could lead scientists to adapt their research to the needs of the universities that welcomed them: Francesco Orioli, who was initially a professor of physics in Perugia and later Bologna, left Italy for France after the revolutions of 1830, but had to accept a position teaching… Roman and Etruscan history. This dual scientific identity left its mark on him, such that a few years later he was simultaneously offered a chair in Roman history at the University of Brussels and another in the physical sciences at the University of Corfu. His choice of the latter was as much a personal decision to join a center of Italian liberalism in exile as it was a return to his initial disciplinary passion.

Not all scientists were in the revolutionary camp, far from it; each change of regime could cost an academic a position and force him to move away. The mathematician Augustin Louis Cauchy, a legitimist who refused to swear an oath to Louis-Philippe after the Three Glorious Days of 1830, chose to settle in Switzerland, where he tried in vain to create a teaching institute for émigré scientists, and later in Torino, where at the invitation of King Charles Albert he obtained a chair in sublime physics at the university.

Political and Scientific Circulations Following the People’s Spring

During the People’s Spring in 1848, universities played a central role in the revolutionary unrest sweeping across Europe. A number of professors were involved in parliamentary assemblies, such as Quirico Filopanti in Rome, or in provisional governments, such as François Arago in France. The phase of repression that followed revolutionary movements rarely left them in place; Arago enjoyed the goodwill of Napoleon III, but Filopanti did not have such luck, nor did numerous Neapolitan, Lombard, Hungarian, and Polish scientists who had to flee repression. Large numbers of Polish students were involved in the movement, and flocked with some of their professors toward Western Europe, as demonstrated by Carole Barrera.

The movement did not stop, for that matter, with the revolutions of 1848. Piotr Daszkiewicz also took the same path leaving Poland: the Polish Uprising of January 1863 prompted other scientists to leave, such as the surgeon Teofil Chudziński (1840-1897), who settled in France, where he became a specialist in comparative anatomy. Similarly, Szymon Dickstein (1858-1884) had to interrupt his studies in the natural sciences in his native Poland due to his involvement in the anarchist movement, and to settle in Geneva and later Paris. He is known to posterity for his role in the diffusion of Marxism, but has largely been forgotten for his Polish translation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which did a great deal for the diffusion of Darwinism in his native country. In France it was the geographer Élisée Reclus (1830-1905) whose anarchist and later communard engagement were obstacles to his career in France; he had to seek refuge in Switzerland and later Belgium, where he briefly obtained a position as professor, which was quickly withdrawn after Auguste Vaillant’s anarchist attack in 1894.

The sudden need to seek political exile thus raised a series of constraints for a scientific career, including adapting one’s practice, changing language and sometimes discipline, and renouncing a position, among others. However, it would be misleading to reduce exile solely to its logic of persecution and negative aspects. The forced displacement of scientists was also a tremendous vector for the circulation and diffusion of scientific ideas; the scientists who successfully joined the academic world of their country of arrival became channels for knowledge produced in their country of origin: freshly installed in his new position in Paris, Guglielmo Libri embarked upon a monumental History of the Mathematical Sciences in Italy (1839-1841), whose stated goal was to show Europe the importance of Italian scientific research. As for Cauchy, who made the journey in the opposite direction, his forced passage through Switzerland and Italy increased the substantial resonance of his work, making a lasting mark on the generations of mathematicians he met there. Even those who returned to their country of origin brought with them new knowledge and the ties they had made with foreign colleagues, which helped facilitate the circulation of scientific ideas.

Translated by Arby Gharibian

To quote from this article

Antonin Durand , « Science and Political Exile in Nineteenth-Century Europe », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 11/03/22 , consulted on 02/10/2023. Permalink :


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