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Pierre Lecomte du Nouy

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Title: Pierre Lecomte du Nouy  
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Subject: Relativism, Tensiometer (surface tension)
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Pierre Lecomte du Nouy

Pierre Lecomte du Noüy (French pronunciation: ​[ləkɔ̃t dy nwi];[1] 20 December 1883, Paris - 22 September 1947, New York City) was a French biophysicist and philosopher. He probably is best-remembered by scientists for his work on the surface tension, and other properties, of liquids.

Life and work

Du Noüy was a descendant of the French dramatist Pierre Corneille. His mother wrote many novels, one of which, Amitié Amoureuse, was translated into sixteen languages and ran for six hundred editions in France. Born and educated in France, du Noüy obtained the degrees of LL.B., Ph.B., Sc.B., Ph.D., and Sc.D. He was an associate member of the Rockefeller Institute, Head for ten years of the biophysics division of the Pasteur Institute, and the author of some 200 published papers.[2]

Du Noüy believed that mankind should have confidence in science, but be aware that we know less about the material world than is commonly believed.

The following information is taken from one of his books:

"Dr. Lecomte du Nouy is an internationally known French scientist. He was born in Paris in 1883, was educated at the Sorbonne and the faculty of Law. He now holds the degrees of LL.B., Ph.B., Sc.B., Ph.D., and Sc.D. In 1915, Dr. du Nouy, then an officer in the French Army, met Dr. Alexis Carrel, and through him became interested in certain problems that appeared to have no solution. His work in developing a mathematical expression of the process of healing of wounds brought him to the attention of the Rockefeller Institute. From 1920 to 1927, as an associate member of that Institute, Dr. du Nouy carried on his research into the properties of the blood. An instrument that he invented brought him an award from the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. In 1927 he returned to Paris. Until 1937 he acted as head of the important Bio-Physics division of the Pasteur Institute. In that year he was named a director of the `Ecole de Hautes Etudes' at the Sorbonne. He and his American wife, the former Mary Bishop Harriman, lived in Paris under Nazi domination in the early days of the war, but escaped to the United States in August, 1942, to carry on his work. In the course of his full life, Dr. du Nouy has studied with Sir William Ramsay, and with Pierre and Mme. Curie. He has published some two hundred papers, mostly technical, and seven books on his researches and his philosophy of science. One of these, L'Avenir de L'Esprit, ran to twenty-two editions in France in 1942 and was awarded a prize by the French Academy. Today Dr. du Nouy is known and respected by scientists of every land. In 1944 this respect was signalized by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, when he was awarded the Arnold Reymond Prize, for his three books Le Temps et la Vie, L'Homme devant la Science, and L'Avenir de L'Esprit, as the most important contribution to scientific philosophy in the past ten years."[3]


Du Noüy converted from agnosticism to Christianity.[4] He supported a theistic and teleological interpretation of evolution.[5] In his book Human Destiny he wrote that biological evolution continues to a spiritual and moral plane.[6] Du Noüy met Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who shared similar interests in evolution and spirituality.[7]

Du Noüy developed his own hypothesis of orthogenesis known as "telefinalism".[8] According to Du Noüy evolution could not occur by chance alone and that on an average since "the beginning of the world it has followed an ascending path, always oriented in the same direction." He accepted naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms such as mutation and natural selection but believed science could not explain all evolutionary phenomena or the origin of life.[9] According to his telefinalist hypothesis a transcendent cause which he equated with God is directing the evolutionary process.[10]

His "telefinalist" hypothesis was criticized by George Gaylord Simpson as nonscientific.[11]


  • Between Knowing and Believing (1967)
  • The Road to Reason (1948)
  • Human Destiny (1947)
  • Biological Time (1937)
  • An Interfacial Tensiometer for Universal Use (1925). The Journal of General Physiology. Volume 7, issue 5. pp. 625-633


If telefinalism, by postulating the intervention of an Idea, a Will, a supreme Intelligence, throws a little light on the combined transformations leading through an uninterrupted line to Man, it seems impossible not to see in the particular transformations limited to the species something more than the simple play of physico-chemical forces and chance. Human Destiny p. 97

See also


Further reading

  • George Nauman Shuster, Ralph E. Thorson. (1970). Evolution in perspective: commentaries in honor of Pierre Lecomte du Noüy. University of Notre Dame Press.

External links

  • Papers of Pierre Lecomte du Noüy (Pasteur Institute)

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