French Historical Studies 25.2 (2002) 331-356
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Alexis Carrel, the Unknown:
Eugenics and Population Research under Vichy
Andrés Horacio Reggiani
De Pétain á Le Pen, en passant par Carrel.
In November 1991 the Front National held a meeting in the town of Saint-Raphaël (Var) to publicize its new interest in environmental issues. In his keynote speech the secretary-general of the party, Bruno Mégret, attacked the Greens for opening the gates to immigration. He stated that "true ecology goes hand in hand with the defense of identity," and in a calculated effort to dress the party's écolofascisme with respectable credentials he claimed Alexis Carrel as "a man of the Right and the founder of ecology." 1 Most people remembered Carrel (1873–1944) as the recipient of the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and the author of the best-selling book Man, the Unknown (1935). Few, however, recalled his fascist and eugenic views; and only a handful of scholars knew of his role as head of the Fondation Française pour l'Etude des Problèmes Humains, a research institution created by [End Page 331] Vichy—and the forerunner of today's Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques (INED). The anti-immigration party's opportunistic reference to the Nobel laureate awakened the interest of the French public in Carrel's past affiliations and ignited a bitter dispute between scholars, political groups, and the media. Shortly afterward, Lyon libération questioned the wisdom of having a school of medicine of the University of Lyon named after someone associated, as they claimed, with biological racism and Nazi euthanasia practices. 2 These charges forced the authorities of the university to consider whether the school should have its name changed. 3
Several books were published, some attacking but others defending the Nobel laureate. 4 An ad hoc commission of scholars conducted an inquiry to determine whether the historical record justified the demands by Carrel's critics to wipe his name off places of public honor. 5 Meanwhile radio and television stations ensured a mass audience for the controversy by featuring prominent intellectuals and academics. The climax was reached when, coinciding with the trial of Paul Touvier, human rights and antifascist organizations linked Carrel and Vichy to their crusade against the Far Right and Le Pen. These groups led a highly successful campaign of public awareness aimed at stripping the name of Carrel off streets and buildings. 6 In May 1995, the Palais des Congrès of Lyon hosted a conference on Carrel and scientific racism [End Page 332] at which several of the participants accused the inquiry commission of whitewashing the controversial scientist. 7 In early 1996, after five years of embarrassing publicity, the governing board of the University of Lyon decided to rename its school of medicine after René Laënnec, inventor of the stethoscope. 8 Like so many postwar settlings of accounts with the Vichy years, an individual became the epicenter of a larger political storm, here about the role of the state in social science knowledge.
Nor was it by happenstance that the larger political dispute centered on how Carrel's life should be remembered. Born into the Catholic bourgeoisie of Lyon, he received his elementary and high school education at a Jesuit institution. He went to medical school and in 1891 got his degree from the University of Lyon. However, his nonconformist personality and vocal criticism of the nepotistic practices of French academia hindered his career prospects. It has been also argued that in the ideologically charged atmosphere of the church-state rift the public repercussions of the "Lourdes affair" further isolated him from the anticlerical university milieu. 9 Thus, in 1904 he left France after several times failing the competitive examinations for a hospital position. 10 He [End Page 333] went first to French-speaking Canada with the intention of becoming a farmer. He gave up the idea at once, appalled by the poverty and "backwardness" of rural life. The wide interest aroused in his new technique for suturing blood...