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Gustave Le Bon : biography

7 May 1841 - 13 December 1931

Gustave Le Bon (7 May 1841 – 13 December 1931) was a French social psychologist, sociologist, Anthropologist, inventor, and amateur physicist. He is best known for his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. His writings incorporate theories of national traits, racial superiority, herd behavior and crowd psychology.

Le Bon began his writing career working in the new field of anthropology. In the 1870's he invented a pocket cephalometer, or as he called it, a "Compass of Coordinates". An instrument which allowed one to quickly measure the head's various angles, diameters, and profiles. In effect, the instrument was able to reproduce the measurements of any 3-D solid figure. Because it was small and portable the device was easily incorporated into the research programs of anthropologists. Le Bon himself, in 1881, used the cephalometer to measure the heads of 50 inhabitants of the remote Tatras Mountains region of southern Poland. His paper, "The Pocket Cephalometer, or Compass of Coordinates" is written in the style of a user's manual, and stands as an important historical document that details how 19th Century anthropologists initially practiced their science.

Le Bon's physical theories generated some mild controversy in the physics community. In 1896 he reported observing a new kind of radiation, which he termed "black light" Nye, Mary Jo., Gustave Le Bon’s Black Light: a study in Physics and Philosophy in France at the turn of the century. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences. Vol. 4., (1974) pp. 163-195. University of California Press.). Not the same as what today people call black light, though it was later discovered not to exist.Helge Kragh, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999): 11–12. His theory of the nature of matter and energy was expanded upon in his book The Evolution of Matter. The book was popular in France, going through 12 editions. The major premise of the book is matter is an inherently unstable substance and slowly transforms into luminiferous ether. One major supporter was Henri Poincaré, however by 1900 physicists had rejected his formulation.


Le Bon was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, France (near Chartres), and died in Marnes-la-Coquette. He studied medicine and toured Europe, Asia, and North Africa during the 1860s to 1880s while writing about archeology and anthropology, making money from the design of scientific apparatus. His first great success was the publication of Les Lois psychologiques de l'évolution des peuples (1894); English edition The Psychology of Peoples). And his best selling work was, La psychologie des foules (1895); English edition The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, (1896).

In 1902, Le Bon began a series of weekly luncheons (les déjeuners du mercredi) to which prominent people of many professions were invited to discuss topical issues. The strength of his personal networks is apparent from the guest list: participants included Henri and Raymond Poincaré (cousins, physicist and President of France respectively), Paul Valéry and Henri Bergson.


Le Bon was not the first sociologist to diagnose his society and discover a new phenomenon: 'THE CROWD'. Other contemporary or ‘first generation’ theorists of crowd behavior included: the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, the Italian lawyer and criminologist Scipio Sighele and the German sociologist Georg Simmel. All three of these writers were familiar with each other's works and drew similar conclusions about mass crowds at a critical time during the formation of new theories of social action. “The first debate in crowd psychology was actually between two criminologists, Scipio Sighele and Gabriel Tarde, concerning how to determine criminal responsibility in the crowd and hence who to arrest (Sighele, 1892; Tarde 1890, 1892, 1901).” Reicher, Stephen. “The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics”, Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes ed. Michael A. Hogg & R. Scott Tindale. Blackwell Publishers Inc. Malden, Mass. p. 185.

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