Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Claude Bernard

French Physiologist

"Great men are never the promoters of absolute and immutable truths. Each great man belongs to his time and can come only at his proper moment, in the sense that there is a necessary and ordered sequence in the appearance of scientific discoveries."

"A living organism is nothing but a wonderful machine endowed with the most marvelous properties and set going by means of the most complex and delicate mechanism. There are no forces opposed and struggling one with another; in nature there can be only order and disorder, harmony or discord... Sickness and death are merely a dissolution or disturbance of the mechanism which regulates the contact of vital stimulants with organic units."

"The nature or very essence of phenomena, whether vital or mineral, will always remain unknown... Absolute knowledge could, therefore, leave nothing outside itself; and only on condition of knowing everything could man be granted its attainment. Man behaves as if he were destined to reach this absolute knowledge; and the incessant why which he puts to nature proves it. Indeed, this hope, constantly disappointed, constantly reborn, sustains and always will sustain successive generation sin the passionate search for truth."

"I have the conviction that when physiology will be far enough advanced, the poet, the philosopher and the physiologist will all understand each other."

"Art is I; Science is We."

"Mediocre men often have the most acquired knowledge."

"It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning."

"Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown."

"A contemporary poet has characterized this sense of the personality of art and of the impersonality of science in these words,??Art is myself; science is ourselves.?"

"A discovery is generally an unforeseen relation not included in theory."

"A fact in itself is nothing. It is valuable only for the idea attached to it, or for the proof which it furnishes."

"A great discovery is a fact whose appearance in science gives rise to shining ideas, whose light dispels many obscurities and shows us new paths."

"A great surgeon performs operations for stone by a single method; later he makes a statistical summary of deaths and recoveries, and he concludes from these statistics that the mortality law for this operation is two out of five. Well, I say that this ratio means literally nothing scientifically and gives us no certainty in performing the next operation; for we do not know whether the next case will be among the recoveries or the deaths. What really should be done, instead of gathering facts empirically, is to study them more accurately, each in its special determinism. We must study cases of death with great care and try to discover in them the cause of mortal accidents so as to master the cause and avoid the accidents."

"A hypothesis is ? the obligatory starting point of all experimental reasoning. Without it no investigation would be possible, and one would learn nothing: one could only pile up barren observations. To experiment without a preconceived idea is to wander aimlessly."

"A litterateur is a man who speaks agreeably about nothing. A scientist who writes well can never be a litterateur because he does not write in order to write, but to say something. The litterateur is a man, who by his specialty sacrifices fundamentals for form."

"A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I: Science is We."

"A man of science rises ever, in seeking truth; and if he never finds it in its wholeness, he discovers nevertheless very significant fragments; and these fragments of universal truth are precisely what constitutes science."

"A physician?s subject of study is necessarily the patient, and his first field for observation is the hospital. But if clinical observation teaches him to know the form and course of diseases, it cannot suffice to make him understand their nature; to this end he must penetrate into the body to find which of the internal parts are injured in their functions. That is why dissection of cadavers and microscopic study of diseases were soon added to clinical observation. But to-day these various methods no longer suffice; we must push investigation further and, in analyzing the elementary phenomena of organic bodies, must compare normal with abnormal states. We showed elsewhere how incapable is anatomy alone to take account of vital phenenoma, and we saw that we must add study of all physico-chemical conditions which contribute necessary elements to normal or pathological manifestations of life. This simple suggestion already makes us feel that the laboratory of a physiologist-physician must be the most complicated of all laboratories, because he has to experiment with phenomena of life which are the most complex of all natural phenomena."

"A theory is a verified hypothesis, after it has been submitted to the control of reason and experimental criticism. The soundest theory is one that has been verified by the greatest number of facts. But to remain valid, a theory must be continually altered to keep pace with the progress of science and must be constantly resubmitted to verification and criticism as new facts appear."

"A theory is merely a scientific idea controlled by experiment."

"All the vital mechanisms, varied as they are, have only one object, that of preserving constant the conditions of life in the internal environment."

"All those who restrict themselves to speaking of experimentation from the fireside do nothing for science; rather they harm it."

"An anticipative idea or an hypothesis is, then, the necessary starting point for all experimental reasoning. Without it, we could not make any investigation at all nor learn anything; we could only pile up sterile observations. If we experimented without a preconceived idea, we should move at random."

"Among the experiments that may be tried on man, those that can only harm are forbidden, those that are innocent are permissible, and those that may do good are obligatory. It is immoral then, to make an experiment on man when it is dangerous to him, even though the result may be useful to others. It is essentially moral to make experiments on an animal, even though painful and dangerous, if they may be useful to man."

"Ardent desire for knowledge, in fact, is the one motive attracting and supporting investigators in their efforts; and just this knowledge, really grasped and yet always flying before them, becomes at once their sole torment and their sole happiness. Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery which is certainly the liveliest that the mind of man can ever feel."

"Art vanishes because it is that mysterious something which moves you without your knowing too much why. There is a certain pleasure in not knowing, because the imagination can go to work."

"Constant, or free, life is the third form of life; it belongs to the most highly organized animals. In it, life is not suspended in any circumstance, it unrolls along a constant course, apparently indifferent to the variations in the cosmic environment, or to the changes in the material conditions that surround the animal. Organs, apparatus, and tissues function in an apparently uniform manner, without their activity undergoing those considerable variations exhibited by animals with an oscillating life. This because in reality the internal environment that envelops the organs, the tissues, and the elements of the tissues does not change; the variations in the atmosphere stop there, so that it is true to say that physical conditions of the environment are constant in the higher animals; it is enveloped in an invariable medium, which acts as an atmosphere of its own in the constantly changing cosmic environment. It is an organism that has placed itself in a hot-house. Thus the perpetual changes in the cosmic environment do not touch it; it is not chained to them, it is free and independent."

"As soon as the circumstances of an experiment are well known, we stop gathering statistics. ... The effect will occur always without exception, because the cause of the phenomena is accurately defined. Only when a phenomenon includes conditions as yet undefined,Only when a phenomenon includes conditions as yet undefined, can we compile statistics. ... we must learn therefore that we compile statistics only when we cannot possibly help it; for in my opinion, statistics can never yield scientific truth."

"By destroying the biological character of phenomena, the use of averages in physiology and medicine usually gives only apparent accuracy to the results. From our point of view, we may distinguish between several kinds of averages: physical averages, chemical averages and physiological and pathological averages. If, for instance, we observe the number of pulsations and the degree of blood pressure by means of the oscillations of a manometer throughout one day, and if we take the average of all our figures to get the true or average blood pressure and to learn the true or average number of pulsations, we shall simply have wrong numbers. In fact, the pulse decreases in number and intensity when we are fasting and increases during digestion or under different influences of movement and rest; all the biological characteristics of the phenomenon disappear in the average. Chemical averages are also often used. If we collect a man's urine during twenty-four hours and mix all this urine to analyze the average, we get an analysis of a urine which simply does not exist; for urine, when fasting, is different from urine during digestion. A startling instance of this kind was invented by a physiologist who took urine from a railroad station urinal where people of all nations passed, and who believed he could thus present an analysis of average European urine! Aside from physical and chemical, there are physiological averages, or what we might call average descriptions of phenomena, which are even more false. Let me assume that a physician collects a great many individual observations of a disease and that he makes an average description of symptoms observed in the individual cases; he will thus have a description that will never be matched in nature. So in physiology, we must never make average descriptions of experiments, because the true relations of phenomena disappear in the average; when dealing with complex and variable experiments, we must study their various circumstances, and then present our most perfect experiment as a type, which, however, still stands for true facts. In the cases just considered, averages must therefore be rejected, because they confuse, while aiming to unify, and distort while aiming to simplify. Averages are applicable only to reducing very slightly varying numerical data about clearly defined and absolutely simple cases."

"But while I accept specialization in the practice, I reject it utterly in the theory of science."

"Everything is drawn through the same die today. It is a way to kill originality. Men need to make themselves by their own efforts."

"Effects vary with the conditions which bring them to pass, but laws do not vary. Physiological and pathological states are ruled by the same forces; they differ only because of the special conditions under which the vital laws manifest themselves."

"Everything is poisonous, nothing is poisonous, it is all a matter of dose."

"Experiment is fundamentally only induced observation."

"Descriptive anatomy is to physiology what geography is to history, and just as it is not enough to know the typography of a country to understand its history, so also it is not enough to know the anatomy of organs to understand their functions."

"Even mistaken hypotheses and theories are of use in leading to discoveries. This remark is true in all the sciences. The alchemists founded chemistry by pursuing chimerical problems and theories which are false. In physical science, which is more advanced than biology, we might still cite men of science who make great discoveries by relying on false theories. It seems, indeed, a necessary weakness of our mind to be able to reach truth only across a multitude of errors and obstacles."

"Experimentation is an active science."

"False scientists have a great thirst to explain everything, but are not very ardent for proof. They explain everything but never prove anything. They hasten to explain, but not to prove."

"Experimental medicine is not a new system of medicine, but on the contrary, is the negation of all systems. A science that halted in a system would remain stationary and would be isolated, because systematization is really scientific encysting, and every encysted part of an organism ceases to take part in that organism's general life."

"Feeling alone guides the mind and constitutes the primum movens of science. Genius is revealed in a delicate feeling which correctly foresees the laws of natural phenomena. But this we must never forget: the correctness of feeling and the fertility of an idea can be established and proved only by experiment."

"Great men have been compared to giants, upon whose shoulders climb the pygmies - who nevertheless see further than they do."

"I am convinced that I have also served science in this way: I have stimulated work"

"First causes are outside the realm of science."

"I am the leader of the current physiological movement."

"I do not ... reject the use of statistics in medicine, but I condemn not trying to get beyond them and believing in statistics as the foundation of medical science. ... Statistics ... apply only to cases in which the cause of the facts observed is still [uncertain or] indeterminate. ... There will always be some indeterminism ... in all the sciences, and more in medicine than in any other. But man's intellectual conquest consists in lessening and driving back indeterminism in proportion as he gains ground for determinism by the help of the experimental method.."

"Hatred is the most clear- sighted, next to genius"

"If I had to define life in a single phrase, I should clearly express my thought of throwing into relief one characteristic which, in my opinion, sharply differentiates biological science. I should say: life is creation."

"I have been told that I find what I am not looking for, while Helmholtz finds only what he looks for. It is true, but the second direction is bad if it is exclusive."

"If I had to define life in a word, it would be: Life is creation."

"Ideas develop spontaneously in the mind. and when one yields to his thoughts, he is like a man at the window watching the passers by....this requires no effort, and it even has great charm. Where the work is, and the fatigue, is to collar the idea, like one stops the passerby, despite his desire to flee; to retain it, to fix it and give it its character."