William Frédéric Edwards

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William Frédéric Edwards (1777–1842) was a French physiologist, of Jamaican background, who was also a pioneer anthropologist. He has been called "the father of ethnology in France".[1]


He was born in Jamaica to English parents, and was a pupil at New College, Hackney, a contemporary of William Hazlitt.[2][3] Educated also in Bruges, he worked first in the city library there. He went to Paris in 1808 as a medical student. There he studied under François Magendie, wrote a thesis on the physiology of the eye, and became Magendie's assistant.[1][4]

Edwards was naturalised in France in 1828,[5] and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1829.[6] He belonged to or contributed to a number of French learned societies;[7] in 1832 he was elected to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and Académie Royale de Médécine.[4][8]

Scientific works[edit]

Edwards began independent research in 1815–6, working on manganese oxide compounds with Pierre Chevillot. At the same time he began investigations on asphyxia in animals.[9]

Edwards was a vitalist who studied the effect of physical forces on processes in living organisms.[10] His work led to the book De l'influence des agens physiques sur la vie (1824) (English translation by Thomas Hodgkin). Edwards was following a direction in Lavoisier's research on "animal chemistry", and addressing questions raised in Magendie's journal. He carried out experimental work at the Collège de France.[11]

Racial theories[edit]

Edwards was influenced by Amédée Thierry,[12] to whom he addressed his 1829 essay Des caractères physiologiques des races humaines considérés dans leurs rapports avec l'histoire.[13] Thierry had studied the backgrounds of the Gauls and Franks of the Late Antique period in France. Edwards took up a theory of "permanence of types", influenced also by René Primevère Lesson.[14] As related by Edwards, he had been convinced of such a permanence since the early 1820s, when on a visit to London he was discussing the works of James Cowles Prichard with Hodgkin and Robert Knox. Knox convinced him, with the help of an Ancient Egyptian tomb exhibited by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, that Egyptian and other ethnic "types" persisted from antiquity.[15]

As Edwards made clear, his notion of "type" was flexible; and racial types became fundamental to 19th century debate on ethnology.[16] He followed on from the studies of Johann Kaspar Lavater and Franz Joseph Gall in physiognomy,[17] and pioneered the concept of race as determined by the shape of the face and head.[18] He supplemented his physiological work with a study of the Celtic languages.[5][19]

Stendhal took his ideas on race from Edwards,[20] who in fact established the concept of ethnologie (ethnology) in France.[21] Another personal contact among writers was Jules Michelet: Edwards became his physician, and Michelet took ideas about "persistence of races" from Edwards and Thierry. This theorising applied very much to Europeans and particularly French people, and Edwards believed his own observations confirmed it.[22] Edwards has been called the first anthropologist to discuss race. One of his concerns was justification of French nationalism.[23]

Edwards came to theorise broadly about human diversity, influenced by polygenism,[7] and argued in favour of fixed types and characters attached to populations.[24] He undermined the environmentalist monogenism of Prichard, in which climate had affected human populations after a single creation:[25] he made a point of discounting the influence of climate on animal physiology in general.[26] A remark he made about cross-bred animal populations, to the effect that one type comes to predominate, was quoted by Charles Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.[27]

Société Ethnologique de Paris and its influence[edit]

Edwards followed up his work correlating physiological characteristics with races, and other interests, by the foundation in 1839 of the Société Ethnologique de Paris, with a broader programme including also languages and traditions; its goal was to define human groups and identify their origins. The foundation of the Ethnological Society of New York and Ethnological Society of London followed within a few years.[28][29] When Paul Broca founded the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris in 1859, he drew on the definition Edwards had given of ethnology.[30]


  1. ^ a b George W. Stocking, Jr. (editor), Bones, Bodies, Behavior: essays on biological anthropology (1990), pp. 20–22; Google Books.
  2. ^ lordbyron.org, Memoirs of William Hazlitt, William Frédéric Edwards.
  3. ^ A. C. Grayling, The Quarrel of the Age: the life and times of William Hazlitt (2000), Phoenix Press, p. 312.
  4. ^ a b J. G. Reinis (1 January 1999). The Portrait Medallions of David DÁngers: An Illustrated Catalogue of Davidś Contemporary and Retrospective Portraits in Bronze. Polymath Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-937370-01-8. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  5. ^ a b (in French) Claude Blanckaert, Un fil d’Ariane dans le labyrinthe des origines… Langues, races et classification ethnologique au XIXe siècle.
  6. ^ Royal Society database, Edwards; William Frederick.
  7. ^ a b Elizabeth A. Williams (8 August 2002). The Physical and the Moral: Anthropology, Physiology, and Philosophical Medicine in France, 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-521-52462-9. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  8. ^ (in French) textesrares.com/philo19, Notice de Victor Cousin, 1832.
  9. ^ Charles Richet, William Milne Edwards : La Chaleur Animale : 1777-1842 (1893), p. 9; archive.org.
  10. ^ Jeffrey P. Baker (9 May 1996). The Machine in the Nursery: Incubator Technology and the Origins of Newborn Intensive Care. JHU Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-8018-5173-5. Retrieved 28 May 2012. 
  11. ^ Elizabeth A. Williams (8 August 2002). The Physical and the Moral: Anthropology, Physiology, and Philosophical Medicine in France, 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-521-52462-9. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  12. ^ Martin S. Staum, Labeling People: French scholars on society, race and empire, 1815-1848 (2003), p. 129; Google Books.
  13. ^ Staffan Müller-Wille, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Heredity Produced: at the crossroads of biology, politics, and culture, 1500-1870 (2007), p. 363; Google Books.
  14. ^ Martin S. Staum (20 August 2003). Labeling People: French Scholars on Society, Race and Empire, 1815-1848. McGill-Queens. p. 129. ISBN 978-0-7735-2580-1. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  15. ^ Robert Young (12 January 1995). Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-415-05374-7. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  16. ^ Martin Bulmer (editor), Racism, Oxford Readers (1999), p. 35; PDF.
  17. ^ Madeleine Anjubault Simons (1980). Sémiotisme de Stendhal. Librairie Droz. p. 91. ISBN 978-2-600-03575-0. Retrieved 28 May 2012. 
  18. ^ Peter Fryer (1 January 1984). Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. University of Alberta. p. 609. ISBN 978-0-86104-749-9. Retrieved 28 May 2012. 
  19. ^ William Frédéric Edwards (1844). Recherches sur les langues celtiques. Imprimerie royale. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  20. ^ Annette Smith (1984). Gobineau et l'histoire naturelle. Librairie Droz. p. 96. ISBN 978-2-600-03601-6. Retrieved 28 May 2012. 
  21. ^ Bronwen Douglas, Chris Ballard (editors), Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the science of race 1750-1940 (2008), p. 53;Google Books.
  22. ^ Stephen A. Kippur (1981). Jules Michelet, a Study of Mind and Sensibility. SUNY Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-87395-430-3. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  23. ^ Fatimah Tobing Rony (17 September 1996). The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Duke University Press. p. 223 note 17. ISBN 978-0-8223-1840-8. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  24. ^ Ian Tattersall; Rob DeSalle (16 September 2011). Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth. Texas A&M University Press. pp. 22–. ISBN 978-1-60344-425-5. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  25. ^ Gérald Gaillard (21 July 2004). The Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. Routledge. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-415-22825-1. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  26. ^ Victor Courtet (1838). La science politique fondée sur la science de l'homme, ou Étude des races humaines sous le rapport philosophique, historique et social (in French). A. Bertrand. p. 75. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  27. ^ s:The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication/XV
  28. ^ Joan Leopold (1999). The Prix Volney: Contributions to Comparative Indo-European, African and Chinese Linguistics : Max Müller and Steinthal. Springer. p. 716. ISBN 978-0-7923-2507-9. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  29. ^ Paul Broca, History of the Proceedings of the Anthropological Society of Paris, in Anthropological Review (1863) vol. 1 II p. 278; archive.org.
  30. ^ (in French) Jean-Claude Wartelle, La Société d’Anthropologie de Paris de 1859 à 1920.

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