Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/October 1878/Sketch of Claude Bernard

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CLAUDE BERNARD died at Paris, in February, 1878, in the sixty-fifth year of his age. The nineteenth century produced Magendie, Flourens, Johannes Müller, Charles Bell, Marshall Hall, and others, who made great discoveries in human physiology; but none of these great men did more for the advancement of knowledge in this direction than the subject of our sketch. Bernard was a pure physiologist; and, in his day, he was recognized as the great exponent of the experimental school. His name is connected with important discoveries in nearly every department of human physiology, and the influence of his method has borne fruit wherever this science is studied.

The career of Claude Bernard is a most interesting and instructive chapter in the history of the progress of physiology for the past thirty-five years. The accounts of his life which have appeared in the French journals give little information with regard to his early life. It is simply stated that he was born in the village of Saint-Julien, near Villefranche (Rhône), on the 12th of July, 1813, where he studied pharmacy. When about twenty-one years of age, he went to Paris with the manuscript of a tragedy. He had written a vaudeville, which had been represented at Lyons; it is not said with what success, but probably he had been encouraged sufficiently to lead him to seek for fame as a playwright. Upon his arrival at Paris, he formed the acquaintance of Prof. Saint-Marc Girardin, who induced him to give up his purely literary aspirations, and to enter upon the study of medicine. In 1839 he became an interne in the Paris hospitals, where his remarkable talents were soon recognized. Very early in his career he published a large and superbly illustrated work upon "Operative Surgery," in connection with M. Huette. This work was translated into many foreign languages, and met with great success; but his distinguished reputation as a physiologist, which dates from about 1848, afterward became so extended that his writings upon surgery have almost been forgotten.

In 1843 he discovered the nerve which gives the sense of taste to the anterior portion of the tongue.

In 1844 he made important advances in the knowledge of digestion by the stomach, following the discovery of the properties of the gastric juice in 1833, by Dr. Beaumont, an American physician.

In 1848 he discovered the production of sugar by the liver, which had not before been even suspected. At about the same time he discovered the digestion of fats by the pancreas, a fact of great physiological importance.

In 1844 he discovered the nerve which presides exclusively over the voice.

In 1847 he fully described, for the first time, the digestive properties of the secretions of the different salivary glands.

About 1853 he devised an accurate method of estimating the gases of the blood, and he did more than any of his predecessors to advance our positive knowledge of the process of interchange of gases in respiration.

His researches in the physiology of the nervous system were most extensive. He did more than any one before to illustrate the mechanism of secretion and excretion, and the influence of the nervous system over the action of glands. He was the first to fully and accurately describe the properties of the woorara poison, which is now so largely used in physiological research. It would be impossible, within the limits of this sketch, to give a comprehensive and intelligent account of Bernard's original investigations. Within the last twenty-three years he has published fifteen volumes upon subjects connected with physiology, embodying the results of his original work. He constantly and powerfully advocated the experimental method, and his dexterity in vivisection was truly marvelous. While he was at the zenith of his fame, nearly all physicians who visited Paris attended his lectures or witnessed the experiments in his laboratory. To all he was uniformly courteous and communicative; and the success of the demonstrations with which his lectures were profusely illustrated created the greatest enthusiasm. Between the years 1859 and 1865 he published very little, being in feeble health. During this time his thoughts must have been directed more toward general physiology than before; and the first volume of lectures, published after his health had become partially restored, was more philosophical in its scope than his earlier writings. Still, his tendency was always toward original investigation, and, in his reasoning, he closely followed the deductive method.

It is difficult for one who has not followed closely the progress of physiology for the past quarter of a century to appreciate the full merit of the original work accomplished by Bernard, and the immense influence which he and his followers have exerted by the impulse they have given to the experimental and deductive method. His studies in the nervous system resulted not only in a number of important discoveries, but in the adoption of many entirely novel methods of experimentation. His discovery of the production of sugar by the liver gave the first definite idea of the possible function of a ductless gland. The discovery of the digestion of fats by the pancreas gave to physiologists the first positive fact with regard to intestinal digestion. The discovery of the influence of the sympathetic system of nerves over animal heat, made in 1851, opened the subject of the relations of the nervous system to nutrition and the action of the vaso-motor nerves; and examples of this kind might be largely extended in number.

The importance of the labors of Bernard was fully recognized in France, where he long held the highest professorial positions, and was the recipient of many honors from his government. He was assistant and prosector to Magendie from 1841 to the time of the death of Magendie in 1855, and acted as his substitute at the College of France from 1847 to 1855. In 1843 he took his medical degree. In 1853 he took the degree of Doctor of Sciences, and was appointed to the chair of General Physiology which was created for him at the Faculty of Sciences. In 1855 he succeeded Magendie as Professor of Medicine at the College of France. In 1868 he was appointed professor at the Museum of Natural History. He was elected a member of the Academy of Medicine in 1861, perpetual President of the Society of Biology in 1867, and a member of the Institute of France in 1869. In 1867 he was appointed commander in the Legion of Honor, and Senator of France in 1869. At the time of his death he was a member of most of the learned societies of Europe, and of several in America. In the French Chamber of Deputies, when his death was announced, his memory received the unusual honor of a unanimous vote decreeing that his funeral be conducted at the expense of the state.

Such, in brief, was the career of one who was the greatest physiologist of the nineteenth century. His labors extended over a period of thirty-five years. They were untiring and most fruitful in practical results. It may be truly said that he ended his work only with his life, and he corrected the last proofs of a series of lectures, published after his death, upon the bed of sickness from which he never arose.