THE POPULAR SCIENCE PRESS AND THE DISSEMINATION OF BIOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE

Axel Hohnsbein

Context, key moments, orientations

Beginning in the 1830s, the dissemination of the biological knowledge became part of the trend towards the popularisation of science via the press. At that period, with the opening of the weekly sessions of the Academy of Sciences to a wider audience enabling journalists to tackle scientific topics, the first generation of these popularisers emerged. At the same time, the technological advances were such that they made it easier to communicate information to the press, although scientists were generally suspicious of such publicity. Faced with academicians frustrated by inaccurate press reports, Arago decided in 1835 to found the Comptes rendus des séances hebdomadaires de l’Académie des sciences (Proceedings of the Weekly Meetings of the French Academy of Sciences), which then became the main providers of information for journalists.

Scientific columns and annual reports of proceedings

The first form of popular science journalism that developed in this context was the scientific newspaper column: Le Globe, the Journal des débatsLe SiècleLa PresseLe MoniteurLe ConstitutionnelLe Pays and L’Événement all featured such columns. These newspapers assigned a single person the task of writing a regular article on the lines of the literary column: the tone could vary but it often resembled a free-flowing discussion. The columnist, who might deal with medicine, astronomy or even physics, thus established the diffusion of science as an integral part of everyday life, while the periodical employing him in return offered him a fairly free outlet for showcasing his ideas.

A good way to survey this type of output is not to consult the periodicals but to first seek out the annual reports of proceedings – works published each year during the Christmas season – that most columnists produced by collecting together their columns. Figuier launched this trend in 1856 with his L’Année scientifique et industrielle (The Year in Science and Industry), but it gave rise to an impressive number of emulators, of which an exhaustive list has yet to be established. The annual reports of Figuier, Samuel-Henri Berthoud, Henri de Parville and Victor Meunier are a good place to start with in terms of getting a sense of this type of publication.

General interest magazines

The second form of popular science journalism was emerging simultaneously in general-interest magazines, which dealt with science, literature as well as art: these publications were primarily aimed at a readership that was eager for knowledge. Girardin launched the first periodical of this type, the Journal des connaissances utiles, in 1831, which was initially successful but suffered greatly from the appearance of Édouard Charton’s Magasin pittoresque in 1833. Saint-Simonian in inspiration, this periodical should be seen as the founding model of the popularising press in the nineteenth century. All general-interest magazines, such as Le Musée des familles or Le Magasin d’éducation et de récréation, would have to find their own niche and strive to innovate, sometimes by publishing new fiction or by targeting the children’s public in particular.

Published weekly, the Magasin pittoresque consisted of eight pages divided into two columns, and it sold for two sous. With continuous page numbering, it was conceived so that all the issues could be bound together at the end of the year, with a table of contents being specially created for the occasion: although published as a periodical, it thus became a book in the end. A hybrid object, it capitalised on its dual nature: both a work sold in bookshops and one that belonged to the realm of newspapers and journals. Examining biological knowledge in this type of publication, in which the natural sciences were among the favourite topics of interest, allows us to focus closely on the relationship between text and image and the degree to which the dramatic and scientifically rigorous functions of the illustrations picturesque competed against / complemented each other.

A popularising press focused on science in general

A third form of scientific journalism later developed along the lines of the general-interest magazine: Napoleon III muzzled the press when he took power in 1852, directly promoting the emergence of a host of non-political magazines. The first weeklies dedicated to the popularisation of science appeared at this time. Logically, the 1855 Exposition Universelle gave rise to a number of specialist publications: Cosmos – founded in 1852 by Abbé Moigno – was followed by L’Ami des sciences, La Science pour tous and Le Musée des sciences.

With a few exceptions, most of these titles aspired to resemble a Magasin pittoresque specialising in science, but, due to a lack of resources, experience and legitimacy, it was not until the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 war that these aspirations were fully realised: founded in 1873, the journal La Nature was edited by Gaston Tissandier, who had been trained by Charton at the Magasin pittoresque. Tissandier retained the layout but not the pricing. With a much higher price, Tissandier’s periodical drew on the power of the publisher Masson to offer illustrations of unparalleled visual quality, with texts written by both professional popularisers and scholars.

From its inception, Nature became the dominant model in its category, with many periodicals striving to compete with it throughout the century. It was not until 1913 that La Science et la vie, which would later become Science et vie, would emerge to reshape this area of the publishing landscape.

This type of press is especially interesting when it comes to studying the transmission of biological knowledge: under the Second Empire, for example, these publications took quite a keen interest in the microscopic, with scientists such as Claude Bernard and Charles Robin contributing to the renewed appreciation for the use of optical technology in a medical context. The quarrel over spontaneous generation can also be followed in mainstream periodicals such as La Science pour tous or Le Musée des sciences, whose illustrations often prove to be interesting. The Revue des cours scientifiques de la France et de l’étranger (the future Revue scientifique), founded in 1863 by Germer Baillière, offered lessons and lectures, most of which were reproduced without alteration (but with few illustrations), which is ideal as a way of comparing the writing style of journalists with that of scholars targeting the public at large. In general, the medical, zoological and botanical fields are a constant feature of these periodicals.

After 1870, the attention of popularisers shifted more towards physiological issues, with the question of body norms becoming an obsession, something that can easily be seen in the growing number of articles dealing with teratology, hygiene and anthropology. Apart from La Nature and the Scientific Review, the following publications are of particular interest: L’Ami des sciencesLa Science pour tousLe Musée des sciencesLa Science pittoresqueLa Science populaire and the second incarnation of La Science illustrée (1888).

The press specialising in biological knowledge

A fourth form of science journalism still requires detailed mapping: the biological press. A search of the BnF (French National Library) catalogue for the period 1800-1900 using the word ‘biology’ identifies three publications that were dominant in terms of their longevity, with Masson occupying an important place: the Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de biologie et de ses filiales (Masson, 1849-1998), the Archives de biologie (Masson, 1880-1974) and L’Année biologique (1895-2001). Three German-language titles also seem particularly interesting in terms of longevity: Zeitschrift für Biologie (1865-1922), Biologisches Zentralblatt (1881-1996) and Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der gesammten Medicin in allen Ländern (1841-1916), which from 1843 onwards devoted one of its four sections to biology.

If we carry out a search based on the same criteria using other terms (‘botany’, ‘natural sciences’, ‘natural history’, ‘physiology’, ‘hygiene’, ‘anatomy’, etc.), the corpus becomes overwhelming. The word ‘medicine’ alone turns up several hundred periodicals published just in the nineteenth century. In all these fields, publications by learned societies seem to predominate in the first half of the century, with other publications bearing more popular sounding titles appearing after 1850. Only systematic classification will make it possible to determine the proportion of scholarly and popularising periodicals, with care being necessary to distinguish the various subcategories specific to certain fields


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