A Brief Biography of Leonce Manouvrier

Léonce Pierre Manouvrier


Léonce Pierre Manouvrier was born in Guéret, Creuse, France on January 18, 1850 In the tradition of his family, Manouvrier would study medicine and receive his M.D., with the distinction of lauréat du prix de thèse, from the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1881 He would go on to work with noted anthropologist and anatomist Paul Broca in the Broca Laboratory. Manouvrier eventually succeeded Broca as director of the laboratory, albeit unnoficially. Under his guidance, Broca’s Laboratory would become a part of the Ecole de Haute Etudes and continued to draw students from across the globe. Additionally, Manouvrier held positions as the director of the physiological laboratory of the Collège de France, professor in the École d’Anthropologie de Paris and general secretary of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris. He received numerous awards for his scientific contributions and commitment to his work, which included receiving the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and being named an honorary member of Anthropological Societies of Berlin, Bologna, Coimbra, Florence, London, Moscow, Rome, St. Petersburgh, Stockholm, Vienna and Washington. Manouvrier also has the distinction of being the only foreigner chosen to represent anthropology on the lecture platform at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis in 1904.  Léonce Pierre Manouvrier passed away in his home in Paris on January 28, 1927 at the age of 77. He was survived by his widow and one son.


General Scientific Contributions

Throughout the course of his career, Manouvrier wrote approximately 150 original memoirs and papers on anthropology and related subjects. These included publications on such varied topics as anatomy and physiology; morphological variations of the human brain, of the skull and of the skeleton; abnormal variations of the human body; relation of the volume and form of the brain to intelligence; proportions of the human body; anthropometry; anthropological technique; psychological concepts; will; temperament; and aptitudes.


Methodological and Theoretical Contributions to Physical Anthropolgy

The 19th Century French Intellectual Paradigm

19th Century French anthropology was heavily influenced by Lamarckian evolutionary theory and the idea that future generations might be improved by enacting changes in their respective environments. Unfortunately, this optimism extended only to future generations and consequently allowed contemporary individuals and groups to be classified as innately inferior. To make matters worse, anthropometrics and quantitative analyses were considered objective and, therefore, infallible evidence for the qualitative ranking and treatment of defined “races.” Any measurements that contradicted previous findings were generally rejected or hypotheses were changed in order to alter the meaning of the offending data.

Setting the Stage for Manouvrier’s Dissent

Following Broca’s death, the Société d’Anthropologie underwent a significant internal transformation. It transitioned from a positivist, apolitical organization into one characterized by atheism, violent anti-religious sentiment and egalitarian political ideology. The biological determinism, which characterized French anthropology, was largely ignored by the new academic regime and provided a suitable environment for Manouvrier to conduct his own socially progressive research free from the bonds of biological determinists and their preoccupation with numerology. Manouvrier sought to challenge many of the closely held beliefs of the time, even those championed by his mentor, Paul Broca.

Manouvrier and Underrepresented Groups

One of his most important contributions to both science and politics concerns the relationship between intelligence and brain size, specifically as it applies to differences in the sexes and ethnic groups. As previously alluded, groups were often ranked based upon craniometric measurements that were used to justify assertions of intellectual superiority. For example, Broca concluded that women had lighter brains than men and were therefore less intelligent. Although, Broca cautioned that this might be due in part to the lower average mass of women, his conclusions contributed to the perpetuation of an androcentric worldview.

Manouvrier published his first challenge to this line of reasoning in 1881. Using the methodology that he had learned from Broca, Manouvrier collected anthropometric data, which led to the conclusion that the brains of women were proportionately heavier than those of their male counterparts. In 1889, he presented a speech before the audience of the Conference on the Rights of Women challenging sexist notions common throughout the scientific community. He stated that the there is no reason to believe that women were less intelligent than men or that there work was less intellectually rigorous, acknowledging that it was defined culturally not intellectually. Furthermore, he called the idea that acquired intelligence would be inherited in a sexually specific way absurd. According to Manouvrier, the only measurable differences in men and women were to found in the musculature of the sexes and in their abilities to nurture young. Neither of these, he said, was worthy of pride or supported the superiority of one sex over another.

Manouvrier’s rejection of the notion of character determination based upon anatomical signs extends to criminal behavior as well. He openly attacked the widely lauded social theory of Cesare Lombroso, which correlated criminal behavior with he presence of atavistic characteristics, at the Congress of Criminal Anthropology in 1889. In a scathing critique, Manouvrier compared Lombroso’s sociology to a revived phrenology whose only claim to validity was due to the introduction of novel numerical measurements and the scientific language of evolution. He concluded that criminality was affected by social factors and had no predetermine biological base.

Manouvrier’s New Anthropology

Although many accepted his new approach, some, such as Paul Topinard, accused Manouvrier of overstepping his bounds as a European anthropologist. Topinard echoed Broca’s belief that the anthropologist is akin to a naturalist and should concern himself only with recording objective truths. He expressed a view that ethnography, sociology, psychology and their practical applications had no place within anthropology Manouvrier took exception to Topinard’s assertiion and responded that anthropology was the study of humanity in all its forms and should not be limited to Broca’s interpretation.

In doing so, Manouvrier exemplified his belief that neither biology nor sociology alone was sufficient to describe human existence. He championed a holistic, modern, anthropological approach, which thoroughly described all facets of life and provided tangible benefits to humanity as a whole. However, Manouvrier recognized the need for moderation and the potential pitfalls of this new definition. He would fight against the idea that anthropology could be used to revolutionize the modification of human biology and behavior, but should instead play an advisory role in society.


Noteworthy Students 

Manouvrier’s most famous student was Aleš Hrdlička. Like his teacher, Hrdlička is known for largely eschewing the racist tendencies of many of his contemporaries. He is best known for his research regarding the origin and antiquity of Native Americans, his view of the continuity between Neanderthals and modern humans, the substantial development of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian during his tenure and the founding of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.


Works Cited


  1. MacCurdy, G. G. (1927). Leonce Pierre Manouvrier. Science, 65(1678).


  1. Hecht, J. M. (1997). A vigilant anthropology: Léonce Manouvrier and the disappearing numbers. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 33(3), 221-240.


  1. Giles, Eugene. (2010). Principle Figures in Physical Anthropology Before and During World War II. In Michael A. Little & Kenneth A. R. Kennedy (Eds.), Histories of American Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century. (141-139). Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.