A loaf here, a fish there

Roy Porter

  • Science and Medicine in France: The Emergence of Experimental Physiology 1790-1855 by John Lesch
    Harvard, 276 pp, £20.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 674 79400 1
  • Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France by Dorinda Outram
    Manchester, 299 pp, £25.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 7190 1077 2

Not the least of the debts we owe to the late Michel Foucault is that he directed our attention to the revolutions which transformed the life sciences around the dawn of the 19th century. On the one hand, traditional discourse about animals and plants, centred on such criteria as visible character and structure and geared to classification within the Great Chain of Being, was replaced by a science of form and organisation, concentrating on function and the internal subordination of parts, and directed to the problem of life itself. Or, as he put it in Les Mots et les Choses, natural history yielded to biology. The key figure here was that ‘Napoléon de l’intelligence’, Georges Cuvier. On the other hand, Foucault traced in La Naissance de la Clinique the demise of traditional theories of health and disease. These had been centred on holistic notions of the sick person’s constitution, and had been dependent upon the patient’s own expression of his symptoms. Foucault showed how these practices were replaced by a new interventionist medicine, whose entry point was the lesion, whose prize techniques were morbid anatomy and pathological physiology, and whose site was the clinic. In that reorientation, pride of place went to the Paris Hospital and the French school of medical science.

Both these insights have now been taken further by important but sharply contrasting new monographs. Dorinda Outram’s is ostensibly the narrower, grappling with just one scientist, Georges Cuvier, and even then concentrating on only one aspect of his life – the forging of his career. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the outcome is not a volume buckling under the weight of its own minutiae, but one soaring in iconoclastic originality. Some measure of the ambitiousness of Outram’s undertaking can be gained by juxtaposing it with John Lesch’s account of the emergence of French experimental physiology – a first-rate specialist monograph which, while highly rewarding, nevertheless runs on automatic pilot along the well-plotted flight-paths of the ‘internal’ history of scientific research.

Lesch’s concern is to locate the arrival of physiology. Alert to the pitfalls of ‘origin-hunting’, he acknowledges that functional research into living organisms had long been pursued, from Harvey through Haller to the Hunters, in ways we would now term ‘physiological’, though contemporaries rarely used that word. Yet his thesis – and it is a convincing one – is that French developments in this field through the first half of the 19th century, from Xavier Bichat to Claude Bernard, created something significantly new. For the first time, a programme of vivisection experiments upon animals was set in motion, deploying surgical intervention (sectioning, ablation, etc) to explore, under vigorously controlled conditions, problems such as blood circulation, the nervous system, digestion and so forth. The goal was to piece together an understanding of the conditions of life (‘vital properties’) through precise experimental investigation of particular organic, functional dependencies. The ultimate test-case was: will this creature die if this nerve is severed, or that poison absorbed?

This agenda for gaining effective operative control over the phenomena of the living organism broke with older traditions by shunning theory and Lebensphilosophie in favour of experimental empiricism, and in proceeding at the level of gross anatomy, avoiding the dubious aid to vision provided by the microscope. What should give us the confidence to call this moment the ‘emergence’ of experimental physiology, Lesch argues, is precisely that these laboratory procedures were not limited to one or two such geniuses of manual dexterity as François Magendie, but were developed by a continuous tradition of teachers and pupils – by, so to speak, a first-rate Second Eleven including men like Dutrochet, Dupuytren and Flourens. Moreover, he contends that this new physiology had a local habitation as well as a name, for it relied heavily on close involvement with Paris hospital medicine. Here Lesch is arguing something which is genuinely challenging, for an influential tradition, which includes Foucault, has regarded Paris medicine in the era of Laennec, Louis and Broussais as ploughing a narrowly clinical furrow and eschewing interaction with the basic sciences.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in