Claude Bernard and His Place in the History of Ideas

Claude Bernard and His Place in the History of Ideas

Claude Bernard and His Place in the History of Ideas

Claude Bernard and His Place in the History of Ideas

Excerpt

Claude Bernard's career had little of the drama which the public has found in the life of his younger contemporary, Louis Pasteur. His physiological discoveries, if no less important, had few of the striking, even sensational features that made Pasteur the subject of best-selling books and popular films. There is nothing to match the interest and suspense of Pasteur's work on rabies in Bernard's research on the glycogenic function of the liver. The revelation of the body's internal environment was hardly as dramatic as the unveiling of the microscopic world of bacteriology. But Pasteur's sparkling exploits in applied science are counterbalanced by the contributions of Bernard to the principles of investigation, and in their own way his achievements were quite as significant. It does not detract from the stature of Louis Pasteur to affirm that the older man was a scientist of equal rank. Indeed, Bernard deserves some credit for teaching his junior, and this is a debt which Pasteur gladly recognized. Both men were great experimentalists, consummate laboratory technicians, but one dealt mainly with physiological functions and the other concentrated on the microscopic realm. Usually their work was in separate fields, although in a crucial instance--the question of spontaneous generation--their researches came into conflict.

While a considered judgment accords Bernard a comparably high position in the history of science, his is a figure lacking in lustre for the public eye. On the other hand, Pasteur's name is absent from the annals of literature and philosophy, whereas Bernard's most famous book, the Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, is associated through Émile Zola with the rise of naturalism in the novel, and is compared by Ernest Renan and Henri Bergson with the Discourse on Method of René Descartes. There is, to be sure, one point at which Pasteur touched the current of general ideas, and it is a point that concerns Bernard as well, if only posthumously. When, in 1882, Pasteur was admitted to the French Academy, it devolved upon him to pay his respects to the leading apostle of Auguste Comte, namely Émile Littré, for he was filling the vacancy left by the, latter's death. He seized the opportunity to assail the Positivist . . .

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