Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (1861-1916) is that rare, if not to say unique, scientist whose contributions to the philosophy of science, the historiography of science, and science itself–in thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, elasticity, and physical chemistry–were all of profound importance on a fully professional level. His contributions are legendary and fully justify the honor he is currently being given throughout the world this year on the 100th anniversary of his death. Duhem Centenaries are planned or have already taken place in the United States, Paris, Brazil, Tunisia, and Austria.
Turning the clock back by five decades, we read the following encomium from a fellow scientist, Donald G. Miller on the pages of Physics Today (December 1966): “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Pierre Duhem, one of France’s greatest intellects. . . In his 32 years of scientific activity, he published without collaborators more than 350 papers and 21 books for which a nearly complete bibliography exists. . . Duhem was absolutely honest and had firmly held opinions. He prided himself on his independence, as evidenced by the publication of his refused thesis. He always protested vigorously things he believed unjust. He never feared a polemic, was a savage critic, and chose his adversaries without regard to rank or reputation.”
Duhem was a staunch Catholic, was interested in the Catholic students’ association, and was active in a widow’s’ and orphans’ aid society. He was a likeable man, possessing courtesy and charm. He had many close friends and his students had the highest regard for him. Naturally, as a Catholic, he deplored the anticlerical nature of the Third Republic. He produced massive groundbreaking work in medieval science and ably defended the continuity between medieval and early modern science. He offers a fascinating example of a brilliant scientist who fearlessly adhered to his views, while entangled in historical and personal circumstances that prevented his career from being all that it could have been and partially suppressed his contribution to science and history.