Claude Bernard (1813-1878)
Bernard, generally acclaimed as the greatest physiologist of all time, succeeded François Magendie as Professor of Medicine at the Collège de France. Bernard interned in medicine and surgery before serving as laboratory assistant (préparateur) to Magendie in 1839. Three years later, he followed Magendie to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris. For the next 35 years, Bernard discovered fundamental properties about physiology. He participated in the explosion of scientific knowledge in the mid century. Following Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) refuted spontaneous generation between 1860 and 1865 and stimulated the growth of microbiology. In 1865, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) promulgated the laws of heredity. Artists too experimented with technique (Corbet, Courbet, Degas, Daumier, Manet, Millet, Monet, Renoir, and Rodin). Philosophers (de Tocqueville, Comte, Bergson, Proudhon) and writers (Balzac, Baudelaire, Dumas, Hugo, Flaubert, Maupassant, Stendhal) boldly explored new frontiers. Radical individualism that fostered science and art also encouraged social turmoil: coups, two revolutions (1848, 1870), and two wars against Austria and Prussia. Reflecting on this unrest, Marx and Engels drafted the Communist Manifesto in Paris 1848.
Bernard remained oblivious to all except his "physico-chemical science." Mayer (1951) writes about Bernard's approach to science:
Bernard indicated his single-minded devotion to research by producing an M.D. thesis (1843) on gastric juice and its role in nutrition (Du sac gastrique et de son rôle dans la nutrition). Ten years later, he received the Doctorate in Natural Sciences for his study entitled Recherches sur une nouvelle fonction du foie, consideré comme organe producteur de matière sucrée chez l'homme et les animaux (Research on a new function of the liver as a producer of sugar in man and animals). Prior to his seminal research, scientists assumed that only plants could synthesize sugar, and sugar within animals must be derived from ingested plant matter. Bernard disproved this notion by documenting the presence of sugar in the hepatic vein of a dog whose diet lacked carbohydrate.
Bernard's experiments changed medicine (Fruton, 1979):
Despite the importance of Bernard's discoveries, the French government barely supported scientific research. Germany, Russia, and England provided laboratories in universities and hospitals. Bernard's predecessors, Magendie and Bert, worked in small rooms, poorly lit and inadequately ventilated (Guerlac, 1977). Bernard spoke out against his government's neglect of science. Still, he continued to experiment.
Bernard's influential Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale (The Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1865)4 illustrates the self control that enabled him to succeed despite external perturbations. It requires researchers to vigorously observe, hypothesize, and test their hypothesis. In the last third of the book, Bernard shares his strategies for verifying results. His disciplined approach remains valid, and should be required reading for all scientists, regardless of the field.
Bernard's life inspired appreciative works by the Cambridge physiologist
Sir Michael Foster (1899) and historian Grmek (1971). A few days after
his death, Bernard's friend and colleague Paul Bert wrote the following
poignant eulogy (see preface of Bernard, 1927):
Bernard, C. (1927).The introduction to the study of experimental medicine (translated by H. C. Greene). Henry Schuman, New York.
Foster, M. (1899). Claude Bernard. Longmans Green, New York.
Fruton, J. S. (1979). Claude Bernard the scientist. In E. D. Robin (Ed.) Claude Bernard and the internal environment. A memorial symposium. Marcel Dekker, New York.
Grmek, M. D. (1971). Claude Bernard. In Dictionary of scientific biography. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Guerlac, H. G. (1977). Essays and papers in the history of modern science. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Mayer, J. (1951). Claude Bernard. Journal of Nutrition, 45, 3.
© Frank I. Katch,
William D. McArdle, Victor L. Katch. 1997.