Bernard , Claude

Bernard , Claude
(1813–1878) French physiologist
Bernard, the son of a poor wine grower from St. Julien, began writing plays to earn money but turned to medicine on the advice of a literary critic. His first experiences of medicine were discouraging but, following his appointment as assistant to François Magendie at the Collège de France, he began a period of extremely productive research. He drew attention to the importance of the pancreas in producing secretions for breaking down fat molecules into fatty acid and glycerine and showed that the main processes of digestion occur in the small intestine and not, as was previously thought, in the stomach. In 1856 he discovered glycogen, the starchlike substance in the liver, whose role is to build up a reserve of carbohydrate, which can be broken down to sugars as required; normally the sugar content of the blood remains steady as a result of this interaction. The digestive system, he found, is not just catabolic (breaking down complex molecules into simple ones), but anabolic, producing complex molecules (such as glycogen) from simple ones (such as sugars).
Bernard also did valuable work on the vasomotor system, demonstrating that certain nerves control the dilation and constriction of blood vessels; in hot weather blood vessels of the skin expand, releasing surplus heat, contracting during cold to conserve heat. The body is thus able to maintain a constant environment separate from outside influences. Apart from elucidating the role of the red blood corpuscles in transporting oxygen, Bernard's investigation of the action of carbon monoxide on the blood proved that the gas combines with hemoglobin, the effect being to cause oxygen starvation. He also carried out important work on the actions of drugs, such as the opium alkaloids and curare (curarine), on the sympathetic nerves.
Bernard's health deteriorated from 1860 and he spent less time in the laboratory. He thus turned to the philosophy of science and in 1865 published the famous Introduction à la médecine expérimentale (An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927). The book discusses the importance of the constancy of the internal environment, refutes the notion of the ‘vital force’ to explain life, and emphasizes the need in planning experiments for a clear hypothesis to be stated, which may then be either proved or disproved. On the strength of this work he was elected to the French Academy in 1869.

Scientists. . 2011.

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