François-Vincent Raspail (1794–1878) and Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) postulated—in 1827 and 1838, respectively—that plants and animals consist of, and originate from, cells. Whereas Raspail is mainly remembered for his involvement in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, little is known about his scientific work. Schwann, by contrast, is regarded as one of the founders of cell theory, but historians of biology have hardly taken his philosophical, religious, and political ideas into account. Paying particular attention to Schwann’s unpublished writings, this paper reconstructs the research agendas of Raspail and Schwann, and contrasts the philosophical and political beliefs and incentives behind them. Whereas Raspail was a proponent of republicanism and materialism, Schwann opposed the modernist agenda of explaining nature and humankind without God, as well a democratic reshaping of society. Contrary to the prevailing historical narrative, this paper argues that cell theory did not emerge exclusively in conjunction with the rise of liberalism and materialism. Rather, the idea of a unifying principle of organic development encompassed different and even antagonistic visions of nature, humankind, society, and the role of religion in science.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled REVOLUTIONARY POLITICS AND BIOLOGICAL ORGANIZATION IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRANCE AND GERMANY edited by Lynn K. Nyhart and Florence Vienne.