Claude Bernard, the first systems biologist, and the future of physiology
12.04.2021 Denis Noble
Claude Bernard

Claude Bernard was Sir William Paton's great physiological hero. When the Physiological Society celebrated its centenary in 1976, Bill contributed a paper to the historical part of the meeting concerning one of Bernard's experiments on curare and drawing attention to the important role his ideas played in the foundation of the Society in 1876 (Paton, 1976). The reasons for his admiration of Claude Bernard are not hard to find. Bernard was a superb experimentalist, as the history of his work on digestion shows (Holmes, 1974). He also displayed his skills in many other areas of physiology and he laid out the principles of his science in his highly influential Introduction à l'étude de la Médecine Expérimentale (Bernard, 1865, 1984), in which he revealed himself to be a great thinker as well as a great experimentalist. The theoretical problem he addressed is one that is very relevant both to my claim that he was the first systems biologist and to the challenge that physiology faces today.

What was Claude Bernard's problem? It was that the chemists had created ‘organic’ molecules. This was a major development, since people had thought since Lémery'sCours de Chymie (published in 1675) that there were three completely separate classes of compounds: mineral, vegetable and animal. The first break in this idea came from the work of Lavoisier (1784), who showed that all compounds from vegetable and animal sources always contained at least carbon and hydrogen, and frequently nitrogen and phosphorus. This work bridged the vegetable–animal chemical boundary, but it left intact the boundary between the living and non‐living. In fact, Berzelius (1815) even proposed that organic compounds were produced by laws different from inorganic compounds; the idea that there was a specific vital force that could not operate outside living systems. In 1828, however, Wöhler succeeded in creating urea from ammonium cyanate. The distinction between organic and non‐organic origins was further weakened by Kolbe who, in 1845, synthesized acetic acid from its elements. Many other discoveries of this kind (Finar, 1964) led to the idea that life itself could be reduced to chemistry and physics.

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