Russian physiologist and Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov is most famous for his development of the concept of the conditional reflex and the classic experiment in which he trained a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. In Pavlov's Physiology Factory: Experiment, Interpretation, Laboratory Enterprise, Daniel P. Todes explores Pavlov's early work in digestive physiology through the structures and practices of his landmark laboratory―the physiology department of the Imperial Institute for Experimental Medicine.
In Lectures on the Work of the Main Digestive Glands, for which Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in 1904, the scientist frequently referred to the experiments of his coworkers and stated that his conclusions reflected "the deed of the entire laboratory." This novel claim caused the prize committee some consternation. Was he alone deserving of the prize? Examining the fascinating content of Pavlov's scientific notes and correspondence, unpublished memoirs, and laboratory publications, Pavlov's Physiology Factory explores the importance of Pavlov's directorship of what the author calls a "physiology factory" and illuminates its relationship to Pavlov's Nobel Prize-winning work and the research on conditional reflexes that followed it.
Todes looks at Pavlov's performance in his various roles as laboratory manager, experimentalist, entrepreneur, and scientific visionary. He discusses changes wrought by government and commercial interests in science and sheds light on the pathways of scientific development in Russia―making clear Pavlov's personal achievements while also examining his style of laboratory management. Pavlov's Physiology Factory thus addresses issues of importance to historians of science and scientists today: "big" versus "small" science, the dynamics of experiment and interpretation, and the development of research cultures.
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Daniel P. Todes is an associate professor of the history of science, medicine, and technology at the Johns Hopkins University.From The New England Journal of Medicine:
Between 1901 and 1904, Ivan Pavlov (Figure) was nominated on four successive occasions for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1904, his candidacy was at last successful: Pavlov was awarded the prize in recognition of his research on the physiology of digestion. In making this award, the prize committee was forced to wrestle with the difficult question of to what extent the research results that emanated from Pavlov's laboratory were to be credited to him rather than to his fellow investigators. The issue arose because after 1891, Pavlov ceased to be a lone researcher and became director of the physiology division at the newly established Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg, Russia. Originally intended as a bacteriologic center emulating those of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in western Europe, the Institute mutated into a more wide-ranging establishment, with divisions devoted to chemistry, pathology, and syphilology, as well as microbiology. M.V. Nencki, who had been recruited from the University of Bern to run the chemistry division, was used to operating in a large establishment capable of supporting a number of collaborators. He insisted that a similar laboratory "designed for large cadres" be provided at the new institute. This initiative was to have a decisive effect on the forms of investigation that were to be undertaken there. Pavlov and the other division chiefs were in effect put in charge of sizable laboratories capable of supporting the research of several investigators simultaneously. His was thus as much a managerial as a scientific role. There was no lack of willing workers for this physiology "factory." Developments in Russian medicine in the aftermath of the Crimean War supplied a steady stream of praktikanty -- young physicians who were anxious to acquire scientific credentials in order to advance their careers. They would come to the institute for a year or so to undertake research in one of the laboratories with a view to obtaining a doctorate. Few of the praktikanty who flocked to Pavlov's division had had any previous training in physiology. Most, moreover, returned to clinical medicine after their stay at the institute, rather than pursuing careers as experimenters. It might seem that these characteristics would limit their value as collaborators. But it was precisely these qualities that made most praktikanty so serviceable for the kind of research program that Pavlov was to create. He was able to steer inexperienced workers toward particular projects that contributed to his own grand project of elucidating the workings of the organs of the digestive system. He was, moreover, in a position to exercise a decisive influence over the way in which the results of these investigations were interpreted and presented. In short, Pavlov was able to adopt an authoritarian managerial style that ensured that his collaborators served as little more than additional hands and senses under his constant supervision. The governing intellect behind all the investigations taking place in the physiology division remained that of its director. This centralized form of management resulted in a homogeneity and consistency in the products of the physiology factory. Pavlov revised the reports and dissertations of his coworkers to ensure a uniform style of presentation. He also insisted that all the products of his laboratory conform to his distinctive view of the organism in general and of the digestive system in particular. Central to this vision was the belief that physiological processes were regular (pravil'nye) and purposive. They represented adaptations by the organism to external and internal stimuli of various kinds. He saw the digestive system, for instance, as a "factory" in which specific types and quantities of secretions were generated in response to particular foodstuffs. Pavlov was also unswervingly committed to the doctrine of "nervism" -- the view that all physiological operations and adaptations were regulated by the nervous system. These principles were elevated almost to the status of a laboratory dogma. Among the most fascinating parts of this book are the sections in which Todes outlines the various forms of negotiation and interpretation that permitted the scatter of raw data gathered by Pavlov's collaborators in experiments on canine digestion to be fitted to characteristic secretory curves. These curves served a crucial rhetorical function within Pavlovian physiology: they were graphic demonstrations of the lawful response of the digestive glands to various kinds of nutrients. Such regularity was, however, attained only after much selection and sifting of the various results obtained in the laboratory. One of the most useful resources that was available to Pavlov and his collaborators as they sought to account for seemingly deviant data was an appeal to the idiosyncrasies of particular experimental subjects. The canine psyche played a productively ambiguous part in the work of the Pavlov laboratory. On the one hand, quirks of personality were a potential source of error. On the other hand, the peculiarities of individual dogs could be invoked to account for experimental results that conflicted with laboratory doctrine. Pavlov was a pioneer of long-term experimentation involving surgically altered animals; he maintained that brief experiments involving severely traumatized subjects could not yield reliable results. In contrast, dogs that recovered from surgery and survived for a substantial length of time were, in Pavlov's view, sufficiently "normal" to provide trustworthy evidence of the physiological workings of the digestive system. Todes devotes considerable attention to these often-overlooked martyrs to medical science. He quotes a remarkable statement from Pavlov that such a dog was "almost a participant in the experiments conducted upon it, greatly facilitating the success of the research by its understanding and compliance." Todes's account of Pavlov's physiology factory is a fascinating study of social and political, as well as intellectual, aspects of the creation and maintenance of a successful research school. My only regret is that the book ends with Pavlov's launching of his later research on the workings of the higher nervous system. Todes has presumably reserved this topic for his forthcoming biography of Pavlov. Stephen Jacyna, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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