The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

III
BICHAT: TISSUES

THE LEARNED and skilled surgeons of the last quarter of the eighteenth century argued that the heart, the stomach, and the other organs were the all-important "machines" of the human body.

Each had its own "vital properties," sacred properties that were inborn and a part of the life that was beyond man's understanding or inquiry. Doctors and anatomists might minutely and skillfully describe the heart and the characteristics that distinguished its vital properties from the vital properties of other organs. But, with a few exceptions, no one attempted to ask of what the heart and the other organs were constituted, or what made them function, or why they did not function when there was death. In a sense, such questions were unthinkable, for the presence or absence of life was itself the whole explanation.

Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood and Lavoisier's proof that breathing and the vital warmth of the body are an operation of physical principles did not quickly shake this faith in life as a mystic whole.

In view of this dogma and the detailed knowledge of the appearance of the organs, young Marie François Bichat felt hesitant about suggesting that science would have to look deeper for the causes of death, illness, and health, and that it would have to study the tissues of which the organs were formed.

In the preface of his book that forced--or, rather, persuaded --science to a new view, Bichat pleaded with the savants to excuse him for undertaking a treatise in a field where what had

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