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Geographical Pioneers in Lyon, 1874-1927; a biobibliographical essay

Les pionniers de la Géographie à Lyon (1874-1927 ; essai bio-bibliographique
Hugh Clout
p. 189-199


La Faculté des Lettres de Lyon est une des premières institutions universitaires où la géographie fut enseignée après Paris. Peu après la création d’une Société de Géographie dans cette ville (1873), E-F. Berlioux y est nommé professeur, poste qu’il occupera de 1874 à 1889. S’intéressant essentiellement à la description des reliefs et des paysages, cet enseignant fort populaire et qui se forma lui-même à la géographie est maintenant oublié. Lui succèdent de jeunes géographes dont quatre d’entre eux quitteront Lyon pour la Sorbonne, un seulement y effectuant toute sa carrière. Ces universitaires publient principalement dans les Annales de Géographie, mais aussi dans le Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Lyon. La creation de l’Institut des Etudes rhodaniennes en 1923 et l’arrivée d’A. Allix dans la faculté clot le demi-siècle de ces géographes pionniers.

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Notes de l’auteur


I am most grateful to Professors Jacques Bethemont, Jacques Bonnet and Michel Laferrère and Dr. Nicole Commerçon for their willingness to discuss the early days of geography in Lyon with me, when I was based at the ENS-LSH in 2008. Thanks are due to Dr. Hugh Prince and to the anonymous referees for valuable comments.   

Texte intégral

Pioneering Geography beyond the capital

1During the 19th century Paris was the essential focus of geographical endeavour in France, with a chair of history and modern geography established at the Sorbonne in 1809 and the Société de Géographie de Paris dating from 1821 (Lejeune 1993; Claval 1998, p. 46). In 1812 the Sorbonne post was transformed into a chair of geography and was filled by a succession of scholars who privileged historical geography and the history of geographical knowledge (Drapeyron 1877, p. 339; Broc 1974). In the 1860s, geography was also being taught at Saint-Cyr, the Collège de France and the École Normale Supérieure but not in the facultés of provincial cities. Following French defeat during 1870-1871, it was widely recognised that Prussian officers had superior knowledge of the terrain as a result of geographical instruction at military academy (Claval 1998, p. 51). In the wake of this national disaster, minister of public instruction Jules Simon launched an enquiry into the teaching of history and geography (Berdoulay 1981, p. 30; Lefort 1992). The task of investigating and making recommendations was entrusted to Émile Levasseur, lecturer in history, geography and economic statistics at the Collège de France, and to Louis-Auguste Himly at the Sorbonne, the only occupant of a designated chair of geography in the French université. Following their report, teachers in facultés were encouraged to initiate courses in geography and to begin research and publication (Levasseur & Himly 1871; Levasseur 1872).

2Within a short time, several factors converged to encourage popular and scholarly curiosity in geography. Merchants favoured commercial expansion overseas, looked to the nascent discipline as a source of world knowledge, and gave their support to the idea of creating geographical societies (McKay 1946; Lejeune 1993). In La Terre (1868-69) Élisée Reclus summarized human life across the globe and later described these phenomena in detail in the 19 volumes of his Nouvelle Géographie Universelle (1876-94). Members of the bourgeoisie purchased regional novels and travel guides, and schoolchildren learned from Le Tour de France de deux enfants that first appeared in 1877. Four historians rose to the challenge to teach geography in provincial faculties, turning for their inspiration to works published in Germany. These pioneers were Théophile Desdevises du Dézert who delivered a geography course at the faculté des lettres in Clermont-Ferrand in 1872 (subsequently at Caen from 1873), Paul Vidal de la Blache at Nancy in 1873, Étienne-Félix Berlioux at Lyon in 1874, and Pierre Foncin at Bordeaux in 1876 (Broc 1974; Lefort 1992, p. 44).

3The circumstances of these appointments varied; for example, the chair at Caen became possible through liberation of funds from the university at Strasbourg. Its occupant, Desdevises du Dézert, never failed to demonstrate his preference for historical geography (Clout 2008, p. 41-42). Vidal’s post at Nancy in history and geography, had been repatriated from Strasbourg and soon was designated as being in geography alone (Sanguin 1993, p. 109-111). Berlioux’s appointment at the faculté des lettres was preceded by his evening lectures funded by the Ville de Lyon and followed rapidly on the establishment of the Société de Géographie de Lyon in 1873 by merchants, bankers, industrialists and other members of the chambre de commerce, together with schoolteachers, military men and missionaries (Vasquez 2004; Klein 2008; Clout 2009a).1 The presence of many members of the priesthood differentiated the Société de Géographie de Lyon from counterparts in other towns (Latreille 1975, p. 357-361). At Bordeaux, schoolteacher Foncin started to deliver public lectures on commercial geography in the faculté des sciences in 1873 (Ozouf-Marignier, 2001, p. 109). In the following year, he and a group of merchants and ship owners founded the Société de Géographie Commerciale de Bordeaux (Pehaut, 1994). He completed his doctoral thesis in 1876 and was appointed to a chair of geography in the faculté des lettres. During the following quarter century, Vidal fashioned a new conception of geography that was adopted in schools and universities throughout France and influenced the development of the discipline worldwide (Lefort 1992, p. 34). The present article discusses the first half century of geographical teaching at the faculté des lettres in Lyon, which began with Berlioux and then involved various scholars who stayed for only a few years.

Étienne-Félix Berlioux (1874-1889)

4Born at Bourg-d’Oisans (Isère) in 1828, Berlioux was educated at the seminary of Le Rondeau in Grenoble (Chappet 1911, p. 173). Indeed, he considered entering holy orders, but instead taught history at lycées in Gap and Bourg-en-Bresse, moving to the Lycée Ampère in Lyon in 1865 (Ibid., p. 189). Five years later, he published La traite orientale, which was translated into English (Berlioux 1872a, b). He belonged to several abolitionist societies in Britain and was a member of the Société de Géographie de Paris. In 1871, he had been hired by the municipal authorities of Lyon to deliver an evening course on geography to the general public. This proved highly successful and attracted large audiences. In 1874, he defended his doctoral work in history, with a major thesis entitled André Brue et l’origine de la colonie française du Sénégal, and a minor thesis on the geography of Ptolemy (Berlioux 1874a, b). Brue had been director of the Compagnie du Sénégal under Louis XIV and advocated French penetration into the interior of West Africa. By tracing the travels of this pioneer, Berlioux’s thesis was militant in its colonialist objectives and encouraged French occupation of other areas of West Africa (Broc 1975, 167).

5With his doctorate completed, Berlioux was appointed professor of geography in November 1874 and served as founding vice-président of the Société de Géographie de Lyon (Vasquez 2004, p. 53). He determined that his public courses would not involve tedious lists of geographical features but would focus on natural landscapes. His audience followed lectures on France with the help of sheets of the recently completed Carte d’État-Major. In this way, Berlioux presented “the living physiognomy of regions” by examining the facts, establishing causes behind them, and tracing subsequent consequences (Broc 1967, p. 168). He characterized the ‘geographer’ as “putting material to work: he compares the information brought by each traveller on each country in order to find laws; geological laws explaining landforms, meteorological laws explaining climate, economic laws explaining wealth or poverty, and laws of history explaining the political or moral situation of peoples. It is discussion of these laws, and linking of facts, causes and consequences that constitutes geography” (Berlioux 1885, p. 199).

6After his appointment at the faculté, Berlioux continued with his public lectures and delivered special classes for his own students. His teaching methods were “partly drawn from Germany but included his own original ideas; his delivery, a little fragmented [at the start] became very animated and conveyed to his audience the convictions that inflamed the professor’s spirit” (Chappet 1911, p. 175). Map interpretation was an essential part of his public course, and his university students were required to construct maps, diagrams and cross sections, and to produce commentaries on topographic maps. All this was in the spirit of the Société de Topographie that was inaugurated in Paris in 1876 (Drapeyron 1877, p. 331). Looking back at Berlioux’s teaching, Maurice Zimmermann recalled how he insisted that “the map must be read with scrupulous care, interrogated and commented upon as one would treat a good classical text, to determine reasons for the position of towns, trade routes, ways of life of the people, and the military history of countries” (Zimmermann 1910a, p. 104). Berlioux went on to publish a book on the Jura, which used map interpretation as an entrée to regional study (Berlioux 1880).

7His public lectures at the Palais Saint-Pierre “exercised such an attraction that the lecture room of the faculté des lettres was soon too small to contain the audience. The course was transferred to the larger hall of the faculté des sciences that could contain over 600 people” (Chappet 1911, p. 177). Berlioux discussed geology, meteorology and climate, the distribution of human groups, natural history, agriculture, industry and trade, indeed “no branch of human knowledge is outside his field of study” (Ibid., p. 175). Across the years, he lectured on France, Europe, North Africa and regions of central Africa. This passionately Christian lecturer “arrived at a consideration of Islam and its present influence”, insisting that French obsession with the “yellow peril” of the Far East overlooked “the peril of Islam” (Ibid., p. 176). In the eyes of Dr. Chappet, honorary président of the Société de Géographie, “Berlioux… presented reality. He penetrated the action of sects and Muslim secret societies; he regarded a great uprising of the disciples of Mahomet against those of Christ as probable, and even inevitable, [speaking of] the day when the standard of the prophet would be raised if there were no intervention by the commander of the believers” (Ibid., p. 176).

8Berlioux was certainly charismatic and his “ideas, pronounced with profound conviction, left a lasting impression” (Zimmermann 1910a, p. 104). His dogmatic statements were open to criticism, since he “wanted to explain everything visible … and was too affirmative on certain points, such as his theory of the ‘great normal lines deforming the globe’ by which he tried to explain the alignment of ridges and valleys in the Jura, not being aware of phenomena of capital importance such as glacial action and the role of denudation in shaping terrain” (Ibid.). As a schoolteacher, Berlioux had enjoyed great freedom of expression and “at the faculté nothing changed. Without playing politics, he was not a man to hide his thoughts … He remained, as he always had been, a Christian and a convinced Catholic who was well armed to defend his ideas. He knew this freedom of allure could cause displeasure” (Chappet 1911, p. 177). At this time when city politics were deeply imbued with the clash between clerical and anti-clerical positions, the views of Berlioux certainly alienated some listeners but the support of others shielded him. However, in 1888 the ‘radical republican’ municipal council devised a way of deposing him by cancelling the evening lectures that it financed and then reinstating all of them except those in geography (Latreille 1975, p. 353). Deprived of his public audiences, Berlioux remained a professor at the faculté but he resigned in the following year.

9His “immense knowledge and exemplary life as a practising Catholic” made him an obvious candidate for a chair at the Facultés Catholiques de Lyon (Chappet 1911, p. 177; Latreille 1975, p. 381). A professorial post was indeed offered but he declined it fearing that freedom of expression might be constrained. He used his membership of the Académie des Sciences, Belles Lettres et Arts de Lyon (1881-1910) to convey his views and, whilst not an active mountaineer, devoted time to the Lyon section of the Club Alpin Français (founded in 1874) being branch president in 1887-88. His book on Les Atlantes appeared in 1883 and was followed by an article entitled ‘A la recherche de la nation et de la cité des Hyperboréens ou des Norskes’ (Berlioux 1883, 1890). Berlioux’s ambitions to become president of the Société de Géographie de Lyon were frustrated, its members preferring the silk merchant Louis Desgrand and then, after 1891, the banker Jules Cambefort (Pellissier 1996, p. 52). In his final years, Berlioux became increasingly interested in Asian history and mysticism (Berlioux 1898, 1905). He died at Lyon in 1910 and was buried in Bourg-d’Oisans.

10 Having earned his living as a schoolmaster, Berlioux was a self-made geographer who was influenced by the Société de Topographie. He fascinated large audiences with his cohesive vision of the nascent discipline of geography and his proclamation of the virtues of physiography, map work and regional study. These essential elements also underpinned the ‘new geography’ being fashioned by Vidal de la Blache and his disciples, but Berlioux’s interpretation was independent, idiosyncratic and at variance with what became mainstream. In 1885, he published his ideas on the subject in the Revue de Géographie, edited by Ludovic Drapeyron, but never contributed to the Vidalian Annales de Géographie (Soubeyran 1997).  

Lucien Gallois (1889-1893)

11Following the resignation of Berlioux, a geographer only half his age was appointed to the faculté. Son of the manager of a textile mill, Gallois had been born in 1857 at Metz where he began his secondary schooling (Blanchard 1941, p. 505). Following the loss of northern Lorraine to Prussia in 1870-71, he continued his education at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. In 1881 he gained a place at the ENS where he was taught by Vidal de la Blache and under whose guidance he passed the agrégation three years later (Meynier 1975, p. 25). For one year he taught at the lycée in Nice before returning to the ENS as surveillantwhere he received a grant to undertake research in Germany. At the Sorbonne, Himly acted as patron for his main doctoral work on German geographers of the Renaissance, and for his Latin thesis on a 16th-century cartographer (Gallois 1890a,b; Clout 2005).

12In 1889, Gallois was appointed chargé de cours at the faculté des lettres in Lyon and joined the organizing committee of the geographical society, whose Bulletin reviewed his theses enthusiastically (Anon. 1890, p. 736-37). Subsequently, he was elevated to the grade of professor. Undoubtedly his teaching methods and conception of geography reflected advances being made by Vidal. As well as performing his pedagogic duties, Gallois researched several pays surrounding Lyon, which gave rise to articles in the Annales de Géographie. Each of these embraced the importance of geology as the starting point for understanding physical landscapes. The first study dealt with La Dombes, with a summary also appearing in the local Bulletin to which Gallois contributed work on historical maps, the Sahara, and the role of Lyonnais travellers in discovering America (Gallois 1890, 1891a,b, 1892, 1891-92). Between 1893 and 1895, three of his articles in the Annales de Géographie examined the Mâconnais, Charolais, Beaujolais and Lyonnais, with another essay on the Lyon region appearing in 1894 (Gallois 1893-94, 1894, 1894-95). He also contributed the geographical introduction to a special volume about the city published by the Société de Géographie on the occasion of the XVth congress of French geographical societies that met in Lyon in 1894 (Gallois 1894). In that year, he joined the editorial board of the Annales de Géographie, a responsibility he would shoulder alongside editing the Géographie Universelle until his death in 1941. In 1898 he succeeded Vidal at the ENS, but returned to the Sorbonne in 1904 as professeur adjoint, and then as full professor until retirement in 1927. Gallois presented his students at Lyon with a Vidalian version of the ‘new geography’ that differed substantially from the idiosyncratic approach of Berlioux. Three decades after leaving, Gallois would write again about the city, drawing inspiration from Lyon des origines à nos jours edited by the historian Arthur Kleinclausz (Gallois 1925; Kleinclausz 1925).

Henri Schirmer (1893-1899)

13In 1893, Gallois was followed by Schirmer, another young geographer born in north-eastern France (Strasbourg) and trained at the Sorbonne. However, Schirmer was not a direct disciple of Vidal, but was rather a protégé of Marcel Dubois, professor of colonial geography at the Sorbonne and founding co-editor of the Annales de Géographie whose views on geography highlighted applications to contemporary challenges, especially colonization (Soubeyran 1997). Despite poor eyesight, Schirmer was fascinated by the prospect of foreign travel and duly visited Algeria (Gallois 1931, p. 678). Following advice from Dubois, he wrote his doctoral thesis about the Sahara desert, which Vidal assessed as displaying a “frank and impartial approach” (Schirmer 1893a; Vidal de la Blache 1893-94, p. 100). In addition, Schirmer published articles on African topics for the Annales de Géographie (Schirmer 1891a, b, 1892). During his time as professor of geography in Lyon, he delivered two further articles to the Annales de Géographie on Africa (Schirmer 1895-96, 1898).

14As a member of the organizing committee, he supported the Société de Géographie de Lyon and contributed articles to its Bulletin on exploration in the Sahara and the Soudan, and on the slave trade (Schirmer 1893b, 1895). Its pages reviewed his thesis, as well as the doctoral work of another of Dubois’s disciples, Augustin Bernard (Thalamas 1893, p. 393-96). In a review of the Précis de géographie économique by Dubois and J-G. Kergomard, Dubois was fêted as “one of our most eminent masters”, however this appraisal was not shared by Vidal or his closest disciples (Groffier 1896, p. 658). During Schirmer’s tenure, the faculties in Lyon were assembled to create the new Université housed in splendid buildings on the eastern bank of the Rhône, which Président Félix Faure opened on 1 May 1896 (Latreille 1975, p. 353). Schirmer was confronted with the challenge of equipping a suite of rooms on the second floor at the south-eastern corner of the complex allocated to the facultés des lettres et de droit (Lespagnol 1902, p. 655-56). Funds from the Ministry of Public Instruction and the Council of the Université de Lyon enabled him to assemble maps, atlases, books, periodicals, equipment and geological specimens. Despite the attraction of the premises allocated to his ‘Institut de Géographie’, Schirmer returned to Paris after six years in Lyon. Thereafter he lectured on African geography at the Sorbonne until failing eyesight forced him to resign in 1913, a move that opened the way for Albert Demangeon to be appointed to a teaching post and eventually to a professorial chair (Clout 2003, p. 344).  

Georges Lespagnol (1899-1905) and Maurice Zimmermann (1899-1934)

15In 1899, two lecturers arrived to teach geography in Lyon. Lespagnol was Schirmer’s immediate successor, but as chargé de cours since he did not have a doctorate, and Zimmermann was appointed as an auxiliary teacher with a second position as lecturer in colonial history and geography in the evening programme funded by the chambre de commerce and delivered in the Palais du Commerce (Gibert 1951, p. 37; Klein 2006, p. 148, p. 169).2 Zimmermann was born in 1869 at Marangé-Zondrange in the Moselle that passed into German hands (Anon. 1949, p. vii). His father, who worked for the postal service, moved the family to Paris, and later to Normandy. Between 1880 and 1885, Zimmermann studied alongside Demangeon at the lycée in Evreux, and then until 1889 at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne and entered the ENS in 1891 where Vidal awakened his interest in the ‘new geography’ to complement his fascination for history, art and modern languages. In 1894 this brilliant young man with a formidable memory came first in the agrégation for intending teachers of history and geography. Between 1895 and 1899, he was Vidal’s editorial assistant on the Annales de Géographie and was responsible for its chronique. Zimmermann would continue to write short notes for this section until 1922. He also contributed substantial articles to the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Lyon on gold production, the writings of Ardouin-Dumazet, and exploration (Zimmermann 1899, 1905, 1909a, b, 1910b). Unlike Vidal’s other chosen disciples, he did not write a doctorate and this prevented his promotion, however he may have entertained the idea of researching the silk industry of Lyon (pers. comm. Jacques Bethemont, May 2008). He was a very active member of the Société de Géographie de Lyon and in December 1902 assumed the responsibility of secrétaire-général, which included editing the Bulletin.

16Like Schirmer, Lespagnol remained in post at Lyon for only six years and also experienced serious health problems. He had entered the Sorbonne in 1892 and three years later came first in the agrégation for history and geography. His library research on arid Australia was published in the Annales de Géographie (Lespagnol 1898). According to Zimmermann, this work “placed him without equal in the group of very young geographers” in France (Zimmermann, 1906a, p. 167). Lespagnol rapidly acquired “an eminent place in the esteem of pupils in the history section at Lyon, by the vigorous authority of his words, by his ardour and conscientious work, and by the severity of his scientific ideals. The action of his teaching was powerful for all who followed his lessons; they could not hide the profound impression of the new world he revealed to them, and which so little resembled the conception of geography current in secondary schools” (Ibid.) Lespagnol lectured for three hours a week, with Zimmermann teaching for one hour on colonial geography, and the professor of geology, Charles Depéret, giving a class on physical geography (Lespagnol, 1902, p. 694).

17Despite failing health, Lespagnol assumed responsibility for a textbook in the ‘Nouveau cours de géographie’ series, which was prepared following the reform of 1902 that established Vidalian conceptions in the secondary school syllabus (Lefort, 1992, p. 33, p. 60). His copiously illustrated, 700-page book drew on his lectures (Lespagnol, 1905; Zimmermann, 1906b, p. 389). Structured according to the four main components of the 1902 reform, it examined the science of geography, discovering the Earth; mathematical and physical geography; human geography; and major aspects of economic geography. It would prove a considerable success and went into many editions, being revised by Maurice Fallex. Lespagnol also began work on a doctoral thesis on the fluvial regime of the Rhône, a topic that would be taken up by Maurice Pardé. He continued to build up the resources of the “admirably equipped” Institut de Géographie and published a long inventory (De Martonne, 1924, p. 39; Lespagnol, 1902). The exhibition room of the Institut was opened to the public half of each Sunday, the same time as the adjacent room that displayed ancient Egyptian artefacts. However, the first signs of what would prove to be a fatal illness became evident in 1903, and two years later Lespagnol had to give up teaching. He died in 1905 at the age of 41, depriving “geographical science of one of its most passionate champions” (Zimmermann 1906a, 168). Until a new appointment was made, responsibility for teaching geography fell on the shoulders of Zimmermann.

Emmanuel De Martonne (1905-1909)

18Unlike Lespagnol, De Martonne enjoyed a long life, was a prolific writer, and rose to influential positions in France and internationally (Dresch, 1975). Born at Chabris (Indre) in 1873 to an archivist father, he was trained by Vidal at the ENS, passed the agrégation in 1895 and was employed as maître-surveillant at the ENS for two years. As well as his qualification in history and geography he acquired a degree in natural sciences and undertook doctoral research on Wallachia (in Romania) under the patronage of Vidal, who moved to the Sorbonne in 1898. The following year, De Martonne began lecturing at Rennes and completed his first doctorate in 1902 (De Martonne, 1902). Faced with the dual challenge of finding more space and securing funds for equipment, he established a ‘laboratoire de géographie’ after the example of Edouard Ardaillon at the faculté de lettres in Lille (De Martonne, 1905; Anon., 1952; Baudelle, 2001; Condette, 2001). In so doing, De Martonne manifested the Vidalian conception of geography as a science as well as an art, and one that required special facilities, similarly by using the term ‘laboratoire’, he proclaimed the independence of geography from its ancestral home in academic history.3

19After a trip to Romania, Transylvania and Serbia, in 1905 De Martonne moved to the chair of geography in Lyon with a determination to instil Vidal’s new geography at the university and in the Société de Géographie whose members appreciated lectures from explorers (Delfosse, 2001, p. 190). As vice-président, he proposed that regular excursions be introduced and small seminar discussions held, somewhat on the German model, to complement public lectures and cours magistraux (De Martonne, 1907a). He outlined his goal “to spread modern geographical knowledge and a taste [for the subject] among the citizens of Lyon” (De Martonne, 1908a, p. 1). He duly invited members of the Society to view maps, relief models, photographs and publications in the Institut de Géographie on Sunday 16 February 1908 (De Martonne, 1908b). He took advantage to declare his shortage of space and personnel, and to outline the cartographic and research services that the Institut could offer to other parts of the University, the municipality, and the trading community and publishing houses of Lyon, if his conditions were improved. Often participating in local excursions, he led a fieldtrip for members of the geographical society to the Dauphiné Alps in July (De Martonne & Cholley, 1908). This was in the company of André Cholley who was “studying the source region of the Saône, called the Faucilles and the Vôge” (Letter sent to Demangeon from De Martonne, 24/2/1908).4 De Martonne remarked tantalizingly: “By a coincidence, in Grenoble … we met Professor Davis, the eminent geographer from Harvard, accompanied by several American geologists, M. Kilian, the distinguished geology professor at Grenoble, and M. Jean Brunhes, professor of physical geography in Fribourg” (De Martonne & Cholley, 1908, p. 218-19). This chance encounter would not have impressed Raoul Blanchard who had moved to the faculté in Grenoble in 1906 and who differed from De Martonne scientifically and in personality (Blanchard 1963, 156-57; Broc 2001).

20During his time at Lyon, De Martonne wrote frequently to his friend Demangeon. Letters reported the progress he was making on his second doctorate (in science) on the Transylvanian Alps (3/7/1906; 3/10/1906). Having completed his thesis, he was “still full of the Karpates” in October 1907, but he was working on another major project (14/10/1907). He told Demangeon, “My Traité de géographie physique has 23 of its 32 chapters ready, that is more than three-quarters. I think that printing might begin during January [1908]” (14/10/1907). However, permission for that printing was not given until the autumn (15/10/1908). When the Traité appeared in 1909, the preface acknowledged his students in Rennes and Lyon. The book would go through numerous revisions, grew from a single volume into three, and served generations of scholars in France and abroad.

21Amidst all this productivity, De Martonne devised ambitious plans. He confided to Demangeon, “If the projects work out as I hope, Lyon will have the finest Institut de Géographie in France, including Paris and Lille, and teaching geography here will become very interesting” (10/1/1909).5 Yet, by June 1909, everything appeared to have gone wrong and De Martonne declared: “I am completely resigned to leaving Lyon, and I shall be happy to do so. The project for a great Institute of Geography and Natural Sciences discussed [?] all this year, admirably studied by our sector, has failed completely, following the systematic hostility of a certain number of imbeciles in the university” (24/06/1909).6 He recommended his friend to stay in Lille, continuing: “I do not advise anyone to come to Lyon. That is a pity since the student milieu is excellent ... What a fine centre for studies one could have made here” (24/06/1909). In July 1909, De Martonne left for the Sorbonne, and in 1919 occupied the established chair of geography vacated on the retirement of Vidal, his father in law, in July 1914 (Allix, 1956, p. 75; Dresch, 1975, p. 35). He would stay there until his own retirement in 1944, taking every opportunity to promote the discipline nationally and internationally. He played an important role in helping to devise the new political map of Europe after World War I, and greatly developed the Institut de Géographie in the faculté des lettres that had been pioneered by Dubois and possibly by Himly (Robic, 2001, p. 83). In 1925, the Institut moved into a completely new building, where it shared premises with the Institut de physique du Globe, the Institut d’Ethnologie and the Service de géologie appliquée (Ibid., p. 96)7. In 1935, De Martonne became president of the International Geographical Union and honorary life president in 1952, a title that he would hold until his death three years later.

Maurice Zimmermann and André Cholley (1923-1927)

22Despite not having a doctorate, Zimmermann was the most appropriate local candidate to fill the vacancy at Lyon in 1909, and his ancillary position was transformed into that of maître de conferences (Letters from Jules Sion, 4/10/1909; Fernand Maurette, 20/11/1909).8 For fourteen years, including the duration of World War I, he delivered the teaching of geography at the university with support from colleagues in other disciplines and from lycée teachers. One of his students at this time was none other than Pierre Gourou, who graduated in 1919. Zimmermann had proved his worth in June 1913 when he led the ninth inter-university excursion in Lyon and its surroundings (Zimmermann, 1913). Gallois was among the participants and was guaranteed to be supportive but Raoul Blanchard and Henri Baulig may have been more challenging members of the excursion. Zimmermann continued to write notes, book reviews and bibliographic items for the Annales de Géographie, whilst contributing review articles on colonial and polar topics to the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Lyon. The Society’s activities stopped during the First World War but once peace was restored, Zimmermann lectured on his travels in Syria, North Africa and Sicily, and wrote about the urban geography of Lyon (Zimmermann, 1922). As well as teaching and reviewing, he amassed material on Scandinavia and the polar regions, which Vidal had entrusted to him in 1908 as part of his grand design for the Géographie Universelle (Gallois, 4/7/1908).

23By 1921, Cholley was teaching at the Lycée Ampère and was offering some support to Zimmermann; indeed, two years later he was appointed to a lectureship in the faculté des lettres. Born in 1886 near Luxeuil-les-Bains in Haute-Saône, he received his secondary education in Lyon where one of his teachers was Edouard Herriot. Thereafter, he was taught by De Martonne, passed the agrégation, and acquired a teaching post at Annecy. He published his first contribution to the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Lyon in 1908 (Cholley, 1908). During the First World War he served in the infantry and devoted spare moments to academic work. The story is told that whilst he was stationed on the Chemin des Dames his rucksack contained drafts of future articles (Gras, 1975, p. 153). After the Armistice, Cholley applied himself to researching his doctoral thesis on Les Préalpes de Savoie that he defended at the Sorbonne in 1925 under the patronage of De Martonne (Cholley, 1925). This qualification enabled him to attain professorial status in Lyon. Based in this great river port, he published articles on the trade of Bordeaux, Marseille, and Rouen, on the urban geography of Lyon, and on economic geography (Cholley, 1922, 1924-25, 1925b, 1927).

24Cholley also played a pivotal role in the creation in 1923 of the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes, which came into being at a time when interest was growing in improved navigation, irrigation and power generation along the Rhône. The initiative originated from the président of the conseil général du Rhône, Émile Bender, from Mayor Edouard Herriot (also député and minister for public instruction), and from Léon Perrier, founder of the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône and then minister for the colonies (Bethemont, 1996, p. 153). Initially, financial support came from the département and the Ville de Lyon, but these funds would be joined soon by resources from additional administrations. Attached to the Institut de Géographie, the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes was an “organ of scientific coordination with the task of stimulating and coordinating research and physical studies concerning the Rhône and its tributaries, publishing them and furnishing technicians and various interested groups with necessary elements for understanding the river, managing it and developing regions linked to it. In short: it is a vast scientific enquiry” (Cholley, 1924-25b, p. 37). Its administrative council comprised local politicians, technicians, scholars and representatives of chambers of commerce, together with university professors and staff of the state’s great engineering services for Ponts et Chaussées and Eaux et Forêts. This multidisciplinary enterprise had geography at its heart and highlighted the potential for applying geographical expertise to challenges of environmental management.

25The Institut des Études Rhodaniennes was committed to producing a regular bulletin containing data on rainfall and river flow in the Rhône valley, and items of economic information (Cholley, 1924-25b, p. 38). In addition, it started publishing scientific studies in its Études et Travaux that welcomed reports on the physical sciences, navigation and economic development in relation to the Rhône, “in short, everything that leads to understanding the physical properties of the river and the economic uses to which it may be put” (Cholley 1924-25b, 38). The first volume appeared in May 1925 and contained the doctoral thesis of Maurice Pardé on the fluvial regime of the Rhône that he defended at the Institut de Géographie Alpine, and which founding members of the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes urged Cholley to place in the public domain (Bethemont 1996, 153). Under the title Études Rhodaniennes this publication became the scientific outlet for geographers based in Lyon and elsewhere in the Rhône valley (Rendu & Rochefort 1988). Despite having set this ambitious enterprise in motion, Cholley was attracted to a vacancy at the Sorbonne when Gallois retired in 1927, and spent the rest of his career at the Institut de Géographie de Paris, succeeding De Martonne as director from 1944 to 1956, a post that he held concurrently with that of dean of the faculté des lettres (1945-53) (Gras, 1975, p. 154).

The close of the pioneering phase

26With the Institut des Études Rhodaniennes established and the arrival in 1925 of André Allix (1895-1966) (who would move into the chair of geography in 1928), the pioneering half-century of academic geography at Lyon was over. Having appointed the first professor of geography in a French provincial faculté, Lyon served subsequently as a training ground for three scholars who moved to the Sorbonne. The contrast between the succession of geographers who passed through Lyon and the stability of Blanchard’s direction of the Institut de Géographie Alpine (1906-1948) could not be greater (Clout, 2009b). But what of Zimmermann, the man who stayed put? He composed the two volumes that Gallois required urgently for the Géographie Universelle, breaking his writer’s block by dictating the chapters to a young woman who would become his wife (Zimmermann, 1930; Zimmermann & Privat-Deschanel, 1934; Allix, 1950, p. 244). He published frequently in a Lyon newspaper, Le Salut, and continued to serve the Société de Géographie de Lyon, becoming its president in 1936 (pers. comm. Michel Laferrère, June 2008). Still lacking a doctorate, he remained a maître de conferences until formal retirement in 1934. Thereafter, he continued to teach at the faculté in an honorary capacity, delivered external classes on colonial geography for the Chamber of Commerce until 1947, coached bright pupils in a local lycée, and wrote many review articles (Gibert, 1951, p. 37; Laffey, 1975). In 1950, his life ended in great sadness since his wife and only daughter had pre-deceased him, and only at the very end would he agree to be admitted to hospital (Allix, 1950, p. 244).9 Among former colleagues and students at his funeral was a fragile old man in a wheelchair whom mourners treated with great respect; this was Mayor Edouard Herriot who had been Zimmermann’s friend at the ENS and now delivered the oration sixty years later (pers. comm. Michel Laferrère, 4 June 2008).

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The letters received by Albert Demangeon are housed in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris as part of the Collection Perpillou-Demangeon. The archives municipales de Lyon hold an item by Dr. E. Chappet on É.-F. Berlioux : document 708073.

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1  The diverse origins of some of these geographical societies, including that at Lyon, are discussed in Clout (2008a, b; 2009a, b). See also Bonnefont (1999) and Saussol (1990) on the activities of geographical societies based in Nancy and Montpellier.

2  Zimmermann taught aspects of colonial geography and history from 1899 to 1947, when the programme in colonial studies was suspended and then terminated for lack of demand. Many details of his teaching and his assessment of students may be found in the Compte-Rendu des Travaux de la Chambre de Commerce de Lyon that was printed annually and may be consulted in the archives of the Chambre de Commerce; see also Laffey (1975).

3  Other early examples of asserting the distinctiveness of geography came with the creation of the Institut de Géographie Alpine in Grenoble by Raoul Blanchard, and the tenure of the chair of geography at Nancy by Bertrand Auerbach, successor to Vidal (Veitl 1996, 2001; Robic 1999).

4  Letters received by Albert Demangeon during the first two decades of the 20th century are housed in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris.

5  Geographers in the faculté des lettres and ‘physical geographers’ belonging to the faculté des sciences occupied separate premises on the second floor of the new Sorbonne building (Robic 2001, 88).

6  Clarification of this alleged “systematic hostility” lies beyond the scope of this essay.

7  In 1925, the Institut moved into a new building on the rue Saint-Jacques where it shared premises with the Institut de physique du Globe, the Institut d’Ethnologie and the Service de géologie appliquée (Robic 2001, 96). An idea of uniting ‘geography’ with ‘physical geography’ had been raised by Louis Liard, recteur of the académie of Paris (Ibid., 92).

8  It was not unusual for university chairs to be left vacant at this period due to academic politics, financial stringencies and the small number of appropriately qualified candidates. For example, despite having been professor of geography at Lille, Demangeon did not acquire that title at the Sorbonne until 1921, ten years after he started to teach in that institution. From 1921 he was professeur sans chaire and in 1925 he became professeur de géographie économique (Wolff 2005).

9  The obituary written by Allix was not full of praise for Zimmermann’s academic work or his bohemian lifestyle (Bethemont 1996, 148).

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Hugh Clout, « Geographical Pioneers in Lyon, 1874-1927; a biobibliographical essay », Géocarrefour, Vol. 86/3-4 | 2011, 189-199.

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Hugh Clout, « Geographical Pioneers in Lyon, 1874-1927; a biobibliographical essay », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Vol. 86/3-4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2012, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/geocarrefour.8390

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Hugh Clout

Department of Geography, University College London

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