Claude Bernard

Claude Bernard was born on July 12, 1813 in St Julien, Beaujolais, France, the son of a wine grower who was down on his luck. Unable to finish his schooling for lack of funds, he began training as a pharmacist, but did not want to spend the rest of his life folding little squares of paper. He set out to become a playwright, writing two plays—The Rose of the Rhone and Arthur of Brittany—at the age of 19. In 1834 he showed his romantic drama to Girardin, Professor of Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris. Girardin's terse comment: 'You have done some pharmacy, study medicine.' This is just what he did, attending Magendie's course in experimental physiology at the Collège de France, which was a landmark in his career.

Claude Bernard
Claude Bernard
Bernard later worked as a laboratory assistant to Magendie, initially unpaid, and in 1841 served as his intern at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris. His first paper on the Chorda tympani was published in 1843, the year he received his M.D. degree. His most productive years were between 1848 and 1865, when he published studies on the pancreas, the mode of action of curare, the development of hyperglycaemia following puncture of the fourth ventricle, the role of the liver in carbohydrate metabolism, the discovery of the vasomotor nervous system, and the discovery of the storage form of sugar in the liver, which Bernard named “glycogen” (Fig. 1).

His masterpiece 'Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale' was published in 1865. He was awarded numerous honours, including the Chair of Physiology at the University of Paris (1854), election to the Academy of Medicine (1861) and the Académie Française (1868), a Chair at the Museum of Natural History (1868), and appointment to the Senate upon the personal request of Napoléon III (1869).

His personal life was the reverse of his phenomenal scientific career, and his marriage to Françoise Martin in 1845 was a failure. At this stage physiology barely existed as a discipline, and animal experiments were a new and unpopular idea. 'As soon as an experimental physiologist was discovered,' commented Bernard in 1867, 'he was denounced, became the abomination of the neighbours, and was handed over to the police for prosecution.' His wife, a fervent opponent of vivisection, did just that, denouncing him for this 'crime', and turning their two daughters against him. The couple separated in 1869.

In his latter years, Bernard divided his time between the Laboratory, the College de France, the Academies, the Senate and his vineyard in Beaujolais, where he produced a wine that visitors to his house—now a remarkable museum—can still drink today. In the last ten years of his life he enjoyed a platonic friendship with the young and beautiful Madame Raffalovich. Their correspondence was published in a delightful volume entitled “Lettres à Madame R.”[1].Claude Bernard died in Paris on February 10, 1878, aged 65.

Claude Bernard's seminal publication
Claude Bernard's seminal publication
The extraordinary scientific contribution of Claude Bernard cannot be summarised in a few lines, and we recommend the book commemorating the centenary of his death[2]. Edited by E. D. Robin, it contains a superb contribution by Roger Unger entitled 'Concepts of Glucoregulation: from 1878 through 1978'. Claude Bernard laid the basis for the scientific understanding of diabetes. He showed, for example, that the liver produces glucose without any requirement for alimentary ingestion, doing so by the action of a 'matière diastasique' —or as we would say, an enzyme—on glycogen, the 'glucose maker'. He also showed that the liver continues to produce glucose even after complete glycogen depletion due to prolonged fasting or severe diabetes: the first suggestion of an alternative pathway of gluconeogenesis[3]. 'The scientific medicine which it is my duty to teach you does not exist', he told his students in 1847. 'The only thing to do is to lay the foundation upon which future generations may build, to create the physiology upon which this science may later be established.' This was Bernard's achievement.


  1. ^ Bernard C (1974) Lettres à Madame R. J. Sonolet et Fondation Mérieux (eds) St Julien en Beaujolais

  2. ^ Robin ED ( 1979 ) Claude Bernard and the Internal Milieu. A Memorial Symposium. Marcel Dekker, New York

  3. ^ Lefèbvre P, Paquot N, Scheen (1996 ) Rôle du foie dans l’homéostasie glucidique. Une relecture des travaux de Claude Bernard. Journées de Diabétologie 1996, Flammarion Médecine-Sciences, Paris


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