René Jacques Lévy was born on 7 July 1875 in Nancy to parents from Alsace. The Lévys were forced to leave their home following its annexation by the new German Empire in 1870-1. Lévy was a student in the lycée, then a student in the Faculty of Sciences, becoming a bachelor of physical sciences. He graduated as a chemist from the Chemical Institute of Nancy.
In 1897, Lévy threw himself into a career in industry and moved to Manchester where he worked in the research laboratories of Clayton, managed by Lévy's uncle, Charles Dreyfus. Lévy worked in England for five years. Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, also worked at Clayton joining as a part-time research consultant in 1905 leaving three years later to pursue an academic career.
Lévy's expertise as a chemist were in high demand as the company was busy producing colour-dying materials, which later helped to equip the army and navy with the khaki and blue uniforms that became vital in World War I. Following Lévy's death at sea, Clayton also won lucrative contracts during WWI to produce 1,500 tons of TNT.
Lévy himself returned to Paris and married Jeanne Royer, a teacher, in July 1903 before the family emigrated to Canada. Jeanne lived in Montreal until her death in 1955, aged 73. Two of the Lévy's daughters, Simone and Andrée, also lived in Canada while the third daughter, Yvette, married a Frenchman Andre Ach, and the couple lived together in Paris.