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Claude Bernard (Saint-Julien Rhone, July 12, 1813 – Paris, February 10, 1878) was a French theoretical biologist, physician and physiologist. Founder of experimental medicine, among his contributions to medicine, his study of the Claude Bernard-Horner syndrome stands out. He was elected to the French Academy in 1868 and awarded the Copley Medal in 1876.
Son of a modest family of wine growers, Bernard left his native village at the age of 19 to move to the city of Lyon, where he worked as an assistant in a pharmacy. At this time, the young Bernard wrote a play (Rose du Rhône) that had some public success. However, a friend of the family (professor of literature at the Sorbonne) recommended him to put aside these literary inclinations, after a critical reading of his second manuscript, a drama in five acts entitled Arthur de Bretagne, which would be published by his friend G. Barral nine years after his death, in 1887. Whether or not successful, this advice made Claude Bernard turn his life around and move to Paris to begin a career in medicine.
In 1839 Bernard obtained an internship, occupying the position 26 of a total of 29 opponents, and came into contact with François Magendie, whose controversial classes awoke in him an unexpected passion for the discovery of physiological laws. Magendie subjected the hypothesis to experimental testing before his audience, laughing openly when an experiment did not happen as announced by the theory he had just explained in the classroom the day before. Magendie defined himself as a ragpicker who travels the terrain of science collecting facts from here and there, with no other pretension than “throwing them on his back”. The elaboration of some elegant and “pretentious” (predictive) theory from such facts had no place in Magendie’s skepticism. However, Bernard, never found comfortable with the epistemological assumptions of his teacher, which determined that their interests took a new turn, passing this time from the purely scientific to the philosophical. Hence, Claude Bernard has gone into the history of thought not only for his contributions to physiology, but also for his attempt to ground the very possibility of a medicine – and by extension, of a scientific biology. Although it is a fact little known by the students of epistemology, Claude Bernard advanced the main theses of Karl Popper in this field.
Bernard graduated in 1843. In 1847 he founded the French Society of Biology (Société Française de Biologie). In 1853 he obtained his doctorate in natural sciences before a tribunal formed by Milne-Edwards, Alexandre Dumas and Jussieu. He entered the Académie des Sciences in 1854, obtaining in that same year the Chair of General Physiology of the Faculty of Sciences of Paris. In 1855 he succeeded Magendie in the College of France.
In 1860 Claude Bernard had already written the essentials of his work. This year he began to have serious health problems that forced him to retire periodically to his native Saint-Julien. There he devoted himself to reflect on the method he himself had used to achieve his scientific discoveries. From this time his most famous work is the “Introduction to the study of experimental medicine” (1865).
In 1868 he entered the French Academy. That same year he resigned his chair at the Sorbonne, and was appointed professor of physiology at the National Museum of Natural History in France.
In 1869 he was appointed senator. Even so, the republican mayor of Villefranche refused to erect a statue by popular subscription after his death, claiming that it was a former senator of the Empire, and a separate man.
Neither Claude Bernard’s professional life nor his family life were simple. In what affects to his personal life, Bernard separated of his wife in 1869, after long years of mutual incomprehension in which his wife got to found, next to his two daughters, an asylum for dogs and cats with which he expressed his opposition to animal experimentation. In addition, the marriage had to face the premature death of one of their children. From a professional point of view, the work of Claude Bernard was only recognized by the academic community over the last twenty years of his life.
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