Eugène Lafont

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A photograph of Father Lafont, date unknown Father Eugene Lafont, S.J., (1830-1908) missionary to India and scientist.gif
A photograph of Father Lafont, date unknown

Eugène Lafont, S.J. (26 March 1837 in Mons, Hainaut, Belgium 10 May 1908 in Darjeeling, British India), was a Belgian Jesuit priest, who became a missionary in India, where he became a noted scientist and the founder of the first Scientific Society in India. [1]

Society of Jesus male religious congregation of the Catholic Church

The Society of Jesus is a scholarly religious congregation of the Catholic Church for men founded by Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III. The members are called Jesuits. The society is engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry in 112 nations. Jesuits work in education, intellectual research, and cultural pursuits. Jesuits also give retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes, sponsor direct social ministries, and promote ecumenical dialogue.

Mons Municipality in French Community, Belgium

Mons is a Walloon city and municipality, and the capital of the Belgian province of Hainaut. The Mons municipality includes the former communes of Cuesmes, Flénu, Ghlin, Hyon, Nimy, Obourg, Jemappes, Ciply, Harmignies, Harveng, Havré, Maisières, Mesvin, Nouvelles, Saint-Denis, Saint-Symphorien, Spiennes and Villers-Saint-Ghislain.

Belgium Federal constitutional monarchy in Western Europe

Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a country in Western Europe. It is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast, France to the southwest, and the North Sea to the northwest. It covers an area of 30,688 km2 (11,849 sq mi) and has a population of more than 11.4 million. The capital and largest city is Brussels; other major cities are Antwerp, Ghent, Charleroi and Liège.


Formation and early years

A drawing of Father Lafont as a young man Eugene Lafont (1837-1908).jpg
A drawing of Father Lafont as a young man

He was born in Mons, where his father, Pierre Lafont, a military officer, was stationed. [2] After secondary studies in the Jesuit Collège de Sainte-Barbe in his town, in 1854 Lafont was received into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, located in the former Norbertine Abbey of Tronchiennes in Ghent. He then went through the usual Jesuit formation, spending his period of Regency teaching in Jesuit schools in Ghent (1857–59) and Liège (1862–63), followed by his studying to obtain degrees in both philosophy in Tournai and the natural sciences in Namur (1863–65). In Namur he showed a particular aptitude for physical experimentation.


The novitiate, also called the noviciate, is the period of training and preparation that a Christian novice monastic, apostolic, or member of a religious order undergoes prior to taking vows in order to discern whether he or she is called to vowed religious life. It often includes times of intense study, prayer, living in community, studying the vowed life, deepening one's relationship with God, and deepening one's self-awareness. It is a time of creating a new way of being in the world. The novitiate stage in most communities is a two-year period of formation. These years are "Sabbath time" to deepen one's relationship with God, to intensify the living out of the community's mission and charism, and to foster human growth. The novitiate experience for many communities includes a concentrated program of prayer, study, reflection and limited ministerial engagement.

Ghent Municipality in Flemish Community, Belgium

Ghent is a city and a municipality in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province, and the second largest municipality in Belgium, after Antwerp. The city originally started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie and in the Late Middle Ages became one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe, with some 50,000 people in 1300. It is a port and university city.

The regency is a period lasting two to three years during the formation of a candidate to the Society of Jesus following his initial admission to the Society during the two years of novitiate. During this time, the men are expected to be fully involved in the apostolic work and community life of the Society.

Service in India

St. Xavier's College

In 1859 the Superior General of the Society of Jesus entrusted the opening of a college for the native Catholics of West Bengal to the Jesuit Province of Belgium. The superior of the Jesuit community at Namur, Henri Depelchin, S.J., was sent to India by as the head of a group of Jesuits who were charged with this task. St. Xavier's College, Calcutta, was opened for classes in January 1860. Aware of Lafont's talent in the field of science, Delpelchin requested that he be assigned to the mission. In 1865 Lafont left for India where he arrived, in Calcutta on 4 December of that year.

West Bengal State in Eastern India

West Bengal is an Indian state located in the eastern region of the country along the Bay of Bengal. With over 91 million inhabitants, it is India's fourth-most populous state. West Bengal is the fourteenth-largest Indian state, with an area of 88,752 km2 (34,267 sq mi). A part of the ethno-linguistic Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, it borders Bangladesh in the east, and Nepal and Bhutan in the north. It also borders the Indian states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Sikkim, and Assam. The state capital is Kolkata (Calcutta), the seventh-largest city in India, and center of the third-largest metropolitan area in the country. As for geography, West Bengal includes the Darjeeling Himalayan hill region, the Ganges delta, the Rarh region, and the coastal Sundarbans. The main ethnic group are the Bengalis, with Bengali Hindus forming the demographic majority.

An ecclesiastical province is one of the basic forms of jurisdiction in Christian Churches with traditional hierarchical structure, including Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity. In general, an ecclesiastical province consists of several dioceses, one of them being the archdiocese, headed by metropolitan bishop or archbishop who has ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all other bishops of the province.

Henri Depelchin Jesuit missionary

Henri Joseph Depelchin, SJ, was a Belgian Jesuit priest and missionary in India and Africa. As a missionary, he was the first superior of the failed Zambesi Mission in Africa and the founder and first superior of the West Bengal Mission in India. As an educator, he was the founder and first director of three major colleges in India.

Soon after arriving in the capital city of British India, Lafont was appointed to teach science. The school was barely 5 years old and everything had to be done. Since he could not teach science without practical experiments, however, he promptly installed a laboratory in the college—the first such science laboratory of modern India. In November 1867, he made headlines in the local press thanks to a makeshift observatory set on the roof of the college. He recorded daily meteorological observations which allowed him to anticipate with much accuracy the arrival of a devastating cyclone. The government authorities were informed and took immediate measures that prevented the loss of many lives. From that day forward, meteorological forecasts by Lafont were regularly published in the major weekly newspaper of Calcutta, the Indo-European Correspondence.

Scientific lectures

By 1870 Lafont was at ease in the English language and began to give scientific lectures for the general public, in which he demonstrated that he had a particular gift in popularizing scientific knowledge. All the new scientific discoveries and inventions of the second half of the 19th century were thus made known, always with empirical evidence. So was it of the magic lantern, the telephone, phonograph, X-rays, photography, etc. Through contacts the science enthusiast had brought from Europe the most modern scientific tools, such as the meteograph of Angelo Secchi (meteorology remained his favourite field of activity). The lectures had a huge success and came to an end only with Lafont's retiring to Darjeeling, a few months before his death in 1908. [3]

Magic lantern

The magic lantern, also known by its Latin name lanterna magica, is an early type of image projector employing pictures painted, printed or produced photographically on transparent plates, one or more lenses, and a light source. It was mostly developed in the 17th century and commonly used for entertainment purposes. It was increasingly applied to educational purposes during the 19th century. Since the late 19th century smaller versions were also mass-produced as a toy for children. The magic lantern was in wide use from the 18th century until the mid-20th century, when it was superseded by a compact version that could hold many 35 mm photographic slides: the slide projector.

Angelo Secchi Italian astronomer

Fr. Angelo Secchi SJ was an Italian astronomer. He was Director of the Observatory at the Pontifical Gregorian University for 28 years. He was a pioneer in astronomical spectroscopy, and was one of the first scientists to state authoritatively that the Sun is a star.

Meteorology Interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere focusing on weather forecasting

Meteorology is a branch of the atmospheric sciences which includes atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric physics, with a major focus on weather forecasting. The study of meteorology dates back millennia, though significant progress in meteorology did not occur until the 18th century. The 19th century saw modest progress in the field after weather observation networks were formed across broad regions. Prior attempts at prediction of weather depended on historical data. It was not until after the elucidation of the laws of physics and more particularly, the development of the computer, allowing for the automated solution of a great many equations that model the weather, in the latter half of the 20th century that significant breakthroughs in weather forecasting were achieved. An important domain of weather forecasting is marine weather forecasting as it relates to maritime and coastal safety, in which weather effects also include atmospheric interactions with large bodies of water.

In 1873 Lafont was named the Rector of St. Xavier's College. The next year, a high level international scientific expedition visited Calcutta on its way to the nearby town of Midnapore in order to observe a very rare astronomical phenomenon: the passage of planet Venus before the sun. Lafont joined the group. His observations made him known internationally and the following year he easily obtained the financial help needed in order to build an astronomical observatory on the school grounds, equipped with the most modern telescope.

Rector (academia) Academic official

A rector is a senior official in an educational institution, and can refer to an official in either a university or a secondary school. Outside the English-speaking world the rector is often the most senior official in a university, whilst in the United States the most senior official is often referred to as President and in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth of Nations the most senior official is the Chancellor, whose office is primarily ceremonial and titular. The term and office of a rector can be referred to as a rectorate. The title is used widely in universities in Europe. and is very common in Latin American countries. It is also used in Brunei, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel and the Middle East. In the ancient universities of Scotland the office is sometimes referred to as Lord Rector, is the third most senior official, and is usually responsible for chairing the University Court.

Midnapore City in West Bengal, India

Midnapore or Medinipur is a city and a municipality in the Indian state of West Bengal. It is the headquarters of the Paschim Medinipur district. It is situated on the banks of the Kangsabati River.

Venus Second planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. It has the longest rotation period of any planet in the Solar System and rotates in the opposite direction to most other planets. It does not have any natural satellites. It is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. It is the second-brightest natural object in the night sky after the Moon, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6 – bright enough to cast shadows at night and, rarely, visible to the naked eye in broad daylight. Orbiting within Earth's orbit, Venus is an inferior planet and never appears to venture far from the Sun; its maximum angular distance from the Sun (elongation) is 47.8°.

Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science

With the financial support of philanthropist Mahendra Lal Sircar, whose friend he was since 1869, Lafont founded in 1876 the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. The first aim of the association was to disseminate scientific knowledge and keep the general public abreast with the latest scientific progresses. From its early days the Thursday evening lectures given by Lafont were one of the association's main activities. Later it developed into a center of research which supported, among others, the spectrographic investigations of C.V. Raman (1930 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics) and of K.S. Krishnan.

Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858–1937) was another student, and later friend, of Lafont. [4] When Bose discovered the ‘wireless telegraphy’ (at the source of radiophonic inventions) it is Lafont who made in Calcutta (1897) a public demonstration of this discovery. For Lafont there was no doubt that Bose had preceded the Italian Guglielmo Marconi in this discovery. He never failed to give due credit to his former student.

In fact Lafont was more of an educator than a research scholar or inventor. His competence and varied activities gave him a place in the University of Calcutta, of which he was a Senate member for many years. Thanks to him the importance of the study of science in the University was acknowledged: he prepared the science syllabus and in 1903 obtained from the Indian Universities Commission more substantial means for the setting up of laboratories and the improvement of the science courses. In 1908, a few months before his death, he received a Doctorate in Sciences Honoris Causa from the University of Calcutta.


Lafont was an extraordinary science enthusiast. He was also a man of faith. As the Catholic Church at that time had a very negative image in the world of science, Lafont had to give an account of himself before scientists who expressed surprise. Though Catholic and priest, I may well tell you that I receive with profound joy, and even love, every progress made in science. He was not blind to the dangers of the widespread ‘scientism' of his times and what he said when radium was discovered may well be premonitory: These discoveries must make us cautious. We shouldn’t easily believe that we are in possession of a final certainty in what concerns Matter and the forces of nature in general. It is noble and wonderful to say: ‘I do not know’.


See also

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  1. Missions belges de la Compagnie de Jésus 1908 - Page 242 "Le Révérend Père Eugène Lafont, S.J. : Le 10 mai est décédé à Darjeeling, dans la Mission du Bengale, le Père Eugène Lafont. « Cette perte, écrit M. Guillaume Verspeyen, n'afflige pas seulement les parents et amis du regretté défunt et ..."
  2. "Father Eugene Lafont: A Selfless Missionary of Science in India". Vigyan Prasar Science Portal.
  3. Thomas Hockey, Katherine Bracher, Marvin Bolt Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers 2007 - Page 1120 "During the trip to India, needing a low latitude observatory for winter solar observations, Tacchini founded the spectroscopic Calcutta Astronomical Observatory, at Saint Xavier College (directed by Eugène Lafont, S.J.) From 1874 on, Tacchini, ..."
  4. S. J. De Laet — History of Humanity: The twentieth century - 1994 Page 732 "After an initial education at a village school, Jagadis Chunder studied sanskrit, latin and physics with Father Eugène Lafont at st. Xavier's College, Calcutta. upon graduation in 1879, ..."