One of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe: Meet Clémence Royer

Introduction & Fast Facts

Clemence_Royer_1865_Nadar This week, while reading an excellent article in Isis (“Crafting a New Science: Defining Paleoanthropology and Its Relationship to Prehistoric Archaeology, 1860-1890” by Matthew Goodrum), I came across a name I was unfamiliar with. The name was Clémence Royer, and Goodrum introduced her because she was one of the first people to use the term “paleo-anthropologie” in print. Side note, Goodrum writes that the first  person to use the term was Louis Lartet in 1872. Lartet was a naturalist who excavated Paleolithic sites in the 1860s and discovered Cro-Magnon skeletons in 1868. Royer entered Goodrum’s story because she was the next to publish on “paleo-anthropologie” in 1879. Goodrum argued that Royer, the first woman to become a member of the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris and the first French translator of Darwin’s Origin, helped define the study of paleoanthropology in the nineteenth century. So naturally, I had to know more about her. Of course there are books and articles written on this naturalist, but here are just a couple of interesting things I learned while briefly looking into her.

1. Her translation of The Origin was criticized darwin3

Her translation apparently incorporated some of her “radical” politics, such as eugenics, both in footnotes and woven throughout the text. She even changed the Origin‘s subtitle, adding “laws of progress” to it. Royer struck Darwin as “one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe” (letter to Asa Gray, June 1862), and he later switched to a different translator after she refused to make some changes he requested. Interestingly (and not surprisingly for the time), many of the criticisms of her translation noted her sex, more on this in a Darwin Correspondence blog post.

2. She Lectured for Women

The lecture series was called “the philosophy of nature and history in 40 lessons,” and it began in 1859 in Lausanne. She encouraged women to embrace science as a potential source of knowledge, and encouraged them to get involved. She was very interesting in Lamarck and frequently lectured on his principles. The lectures were very popular and she eventually expanded to other Swiss cities and later to Italy.

3. She wrote for the feminist newspaper, La Fronde lafronde

Simply glancing at Royer’s career illustrates her strong role in nineteenth century feminism, particularly in science. The newspaper La Fronde, written entirely for women, is just one example of her involvement with bringing women to an equal level. La Fronde is an interesting tangent itself, check out this blog post on the founding of La Fronde, in 1897.

Those are just a few things I read about that I thought you all might find interesting. I look forward to reading more in her biography. Are any of you all familiar with Clémence Royer, do you have any interesting stories about her to add? Thanks for reading, and thanks Dr. Goodrum for introducing me to this interesting historical figure!


Clémence Augustine Royer. Epigenesys.

Goodrum, Matthew R. “Crafting a New Science: Defining Paleoanthropology and Its Relationship to Prehistoric Archaeology, 1860–1890.” Isis 105, no. 4 (2014): 706-733.

Hardman, Phillipa. “One of the Cleverest and Oddest Women in Europe.” Darwin and Gender: The Blog.

Harvey, Joy Dorothy. Almost a Man of Genius: Clémence Royer, Feminism, and Nineteenth-century Science. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

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