The Experiment Method in Medicine.
Claude Bernard was a scientist who introduced the experimental method into the sciences of physiology and medicine. In doing so, he helped in making these studies exact sciences like physics or chemistry.
He was born on July 12, 1813, at St. Julien, a village in the Rhone Valley of France. The family were vine growers for generations.
He was educated at church schools till he turned eighteen when his parents could no longer afford his education. But he had to be trained for a profession and the parents placed him with a pharmacist as an apprentice. The pharmacist’s shop was in a small town near the city of Lyons. In those days the small-town pharmacist had the aura of a doctor, so his shop served as clinic as well. Claude’s parents might have hoped that the training would be a foothold to his becoming a physician.
But Claude didn’t learn much about medicines there. His duties included sweeping the shop and pavements, rinsing and washing bottles and running errands. He was also sometimes allowed to prepare pills and powders, the pharmacists watching to make sure that nothing was wasted.
The apprentice boys were not allowed much free time, but perhaps as an exception, Claude was permitted to go to Lyons one night in a month. As an errand boy, he regularly visited a veterinary school nearby, to deliver drugs for sick animals. This institution was the first of its kind in Europe, and the work of the doctors there impressed young Claude.
Lyons had fashionable shops, cafés, neat avenues, sidewalks and paths where people could stroll. But for Claude, most attractive of all, were two theaters. One theater showed musical comedies and the other, the romantic dramas of the period. Spending his free night in a theater became a habit with Claude. He was so taken up with dramas that he wrote and staged a play himself.
The play was a success and this encouraged him to write more plays. The pharmacist noticed this and wrote to his father requesting him to take Claude back as the boy had lost interest in pharmacy. Claude himself wrote home that he was unable to make up his mind which career to choose. At nineteen, he was back home.
Claude spent nearly two years at home in St. Julien and set out for Paris in November 1834 seeking prospects as a dramatist. A kind lady had provided him with a letter of introduction to the librarian of Louis Phillipe, the king of France. He had also with him a certificate of good character from his old pharmacist, and a historical drama script which he had written during the months spent at home.
Arriving in Paris, Claude met the royal librarian, who sent him to M. Saint-Marc Girardine, Professor of French poetry at the famous Sorbonne University. The professor read his drama, but his verdict was that Bernard lacked the temperature of a dramatist. The professor was a kind man. In order to soften the blow he talked at length with Bernard and found out that he had been training to be pharmacist. He advised him to take up the medical profession as it would help him to make a living and thereby enable him to devote his free time to writing dramas or whatever interested him. Bernard took the advice and joined the medical school.
He worked as a part-time teacher in a girls’ school to support himself and pay his fees at the medical school. His mother helped him as best as she could; baskets of fruits and provision used to be sent to him from his home in the village. This saved him from the bitter poverty endured by many of his fellow students.
The first two years he did his pre-clinical studies at the end of which ‘externship’ started. Externship which covered two years was spent between the dissection room and hospitals.
It was during this time that he met Francois Magendie, the great scientist who established physiology as an experimental science in France. This meeting changed the direction of his life.
Prof. Magendie had already made important discoveries on the spinal of lectures at the college of France. It was a long series of lectures which started in December 1838 and ended in June 1839. The lectures interested Bernard greatly and he left that his skill in dissection would be very valuable in experimental physiology.
Bernard completed his externship and commenced the internship in December 1839. In the second year of internship he came under Prof. Magendie. The scientist noticed that skill with which the young intern under him prepared anatomical specimens. “You are a better man than i am,” he remarked publicly.
Claude Bernard took his medical degree when he was twenty-nine. In the summer of the following year he married Marie Francoise Martin, daughter of a Paris physician.
Soon after, he started his research on the pancreas and its secretion. His findings were published in his Memoir of the Pancreas in 1856. His research was about the role of pancreatic secretion in the digestion of fats, starches and proteins. He corroborated the work of Valentin, another scientist, that pancreatic secretion is the fluid most active in turning starch into sugar.
His work on the pancreas was immediately recognized in Paris. It brought him a prize from the Academy of Sciences. He had already been elected to the Philomathic Society of which most of the distinguished scientists of Paris were members. He was also among the Younger scientist who founded the Society of Biology in 1848. The Legion of Honour, France’s recognition of merit was awarded to him in 1849.
In those days, Lavoisier’s theory that an animal body by itself cannot process nutrients like starch and sugar was accepted as true by scientist it meant that one’s diet held as true was that the presence of sugar in the blood was found only in diabetes patients and not in a normal healthy body.
Bernard disproved both these theories. He found from experiments that the body can process starch and sugar and the presence of sugar was normal in the blood of a healthy body.
His research led him to the conclusion that the most likely source of sugar in the blood would be one of the glandular organs of the abdomen. From further experiments he showed the liver as the source or storage point of sugar in the organism.
In 1854, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences. The same year he was appointed to the newly created Chair of General Physiology at the Sorbonne University.
Prof. Magendie died on October 7, 1855, and as the professor himself had desired, Claude Bernard succeeded him to the Chair of Medicine.
He had already presented his papers on the liver and the pancreas. He now wanted to work in carbon monoxide and other toxic substances. He showed that carbon replaces the oxygen of the blood and makes the normal exchange between blood and tissues impossible. The result in asphyxiation (blocking of breath) causing death.
In 1857, Bernard succeeded in isolating glycogen from the liver tissues and preparing it in pure form. His career reached its apex when the presented his book, introduction of the Study of Experimental Medicine, along with 7 volumes of his lectures to the Academy of Sciences on August 21, 1865.
But all was not well with Bernard’s family life. Madame Bernard was not an intellectual who shared her husband’s zeal for science and research. To her he seemed to be living in a separate world of his own. It was a world she couldn’t share with him and she felt that she was deprived of life. On his part also, probably there was neither time nor inclination, to share her world of Parisian social life. Gradually she developed a feeling of hostility towards her husbands. This hostility took the form of attacking him for cruelty to animals-she meant the experiments he conducted on animals. At times the reproaches developed into a warfare. Finally, they began to live apart and a decree of separation was granted to them in April 1870.
Claude Bernard passed away in February 1878, He was given a state funeral by the Government of France in recognition of his contributions to science.