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Special Report on Claude Bernard

Pierre Corvol
p. 56-59

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1To celebrate the bicentenary of Claude Bernard’s birth, the Collège de France Newsletter looks back on an important figure of the institution, and the theoretician behind a vast epistemo­logical tradition ranging from experimental medicine to the philosophy of science. By revolutionizing the approach to life forms, which he took from a blurry vitalism to a rational­ conception of life, Claude Bernard gave both medicine and biology their method, founded on physiological experimentation.

Claude Bernard and Experimental Medicine at the Collège de France

2We are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Claude Bernard, professor of the Collège de France for 23 years.

3Bernard was appointed Chair of Medicine in 1855, a pos­ition he was to hold until the year of his death, in 1878. In fact, his presence at the Collège de France extended over more than three decades. As a young man, disappointed with his aborted career as a playwright, he left his birthplace in the Beaujolais for Paris, and discovered the Collège de France in 1841. As a simple 28-year-old medical student, he worked as the assistant of François Magendie, then Chair of Medicine, from 1841 to 1844. He obtained his PhD in medicine in 1843, and was already working successfully on the nervous control of gastric secretion. Appointed as Magendie’s replacement professor in 1847, he was entrusted with the laboratory and the Chair of Medicine of the Collège de France when Magendie retired in 1852. He became the holder of the Chair in 1855. Later, as a tribute to his contri­­butions and his influence, the name of the Chair was changed to “Experimental Medicine”. Antoine Lacassagne was its first holder, from 1951.

Experimental Medicine at the Collège de France

The Chair of Experimental Medicine provides the unique example, at the Collège de France, of a Chair that is not only directly linked to a personality, but that also has a remarkably permanent title, as it has carried the same name since 1951. In 1951, Antoine Lacassagne turned the Chair of Medicine into the Chair of Experimental Medicine, both in the tradition of Claude Bernard and in keeping with his own teaching, as he was first appointed as Chair of Experimental Radiobiology in 1941 and worked on cancer research. From the beginning of his career, the research he carried out in radiobiology was at the frontier of experimental medicine. Hence, when the Chair of Medicine was freed up upon René Leriche’s retirement, he naturally succeeded to him, bringing in this new title.

Professors who have held the Chair of “Experimental Medicine”
Antoine LACASSAGNE (1951-1954), Charles OBERLING (1955-1960), Bernard HALPERN (1961-1975), Jean DAUSSET (1977-1987), Pierre CORVOL (1989-2012)

4It was to François Magendie (1783-1855) that Bernard owed his orientation towards physiological experimentation, a calling­ to which he dedicated not only his entire career but also his life, as he worked relentlessly. Bernard was responsible for spectacular­ advances in this discipline. His first steps at the Collège de France taught him just how valuable a tool animal vivi­section was to understand life forms. Magendie considered him to be “better than him” at the experimental level, and encouraged him by showing him that experimental facts served to dismantle the false doctrines and empirical minds that Bernard was forever denouncing. This is the Claude Bernard who is of interest to us here at the Collège de France, not the Academician, the Senator or the Sorbonne professor.

Léon Lhermitte, Claude Bernard’s Lesson, 1889, ARR

5A life of discoveries

6From 1843 to 1860, Bernard made multiple disco­veries, essentially about digestion, the glucidic metabolism, the nervous system and circulation. This list is actually far from exhaustive, so great was his scientific curiosity about any new physiological question.

7Some of his most significant original contributions concerned: the role of sugar in the animal and human organism (including­ the famous theory of the liver glycogenetic function in 1848), the control of glycaemia by the central nervous system (1848), the “washed liver” experiment which reveals the post mortem production of sugar in the liver (1855), the discovery of glycogen (1855) and its isolation (1857), the presence of sugar in cerebro­spinal liquid (1855), and the production of heat in animals and its regulation (1859). It is important to remember that the most widely accepted theory at the time was that sugar came from diet and that it was destroyed by combustion phenomena, particularly during breathing. Bernard quickly observed that the blood and liver of animals contained sugar even when their diet did not. Starting from the hypothesis that the liver was the organ that produce sugar in the organism and not the one

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Table des illustrations

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Légende Léon Lhermitte, Claude Bernard’s Lesson, 1889, ARR
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Référence électronique

Pierre Corvol, « Special Report on Claude Bernard », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Pierre Corvol

Emeritus Professor, Experimental Medicine from 1989 to 2012 and Administrateur of the Collège de France from 2006 to 2012

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