Dr Pavlov in the Operating Theatre (Ilya Repin, 1888)
The prominent Russian scholar and physiologist Ivan Pavlov was born on 26 September 1848 into the family of a village priest. Pavlov attended theological seminary, and planned to assume his father’s role. However, a book on cerebrum reflexes that he read quite by chance radically changed his life. Ivan Pavlov abandoned his religious career and enrolled in the physics and mathematics faculty of St Petersburg University. He became a brilliant physiologist and devoted his life to science.
As he carried out research on the physiology of digestion, he conducted experiments on dogs that led him to conclude that the nervous system governs the digestive system. Experiments in the field brought Pavlov world acclaim and the Nobel Prize. At the height of his success, all of a sudden, Pavlov made a sharp turn from the research on digestion to studies of the psychic activity of animals. He had long been wondering, why dogs secrete saliva as soon as they hear their food bowl clink, and what organ is responsible. Based on his experiments, Pavlov differentiated between the existence of conditioned, or acquired, and unconditioned, innate, reflexes.
In further experiments, he discovered that the cortex of the great hemispheres is the receptacle of conditioned reflexes and the sub-cortex area of unconditioned ones. Similarly, human beings harbour two sources that can be either in harmony or in conflict. The upper part of the cerebrum, the home of our life experience, hinders the activity of the lower part, a source of hereditary properties. Temporary ties dominate the inborn ones. It does happen sometimes that we have to exert so much effort to stifle excessive discretion or unrestrained passion that it can lead to a tragic ending. The discovery of reflexes had a great importance for studies of the higher nervous activity of animals and human beings, and this theory was used widely in psychiatry, biology, psychology, and pedagogy.
Pavlov was an indefatigable researcher. His mind was occupied with work all the time. When Newton was asked how he discovered the laws governing the movement of heavenly bodies, the scientist replied that it was all very simple; he just never stopped thinking about them. Neither did Pavlov. All his conversation boiled down to scientific ideas. He was also an outstandingly talented lecturer. One of his foreign colleagues said he might have made an excellent actor. Indeed, his speech and manners were highly emotional and saturated with humour. Speaking at congresses in Europe and America Pavlov voiced strikingly daring ideas, which he insisted upon, and he compelled the scientific community to accept them.
Pavlov often received criticism for slaughtering hundreds of dogs in the course of his experiments. To this, he replied that when he started an experiment that will end with the death of the animal, he felt sorry about that, being a slaughterer cutting short a life in its prime. However, he had to step over it, he said, in the interests of truth and for the good of mankind. Pavlov liked his laboratory dogs, and he granted a “pension” to the most distinguished ones, as he put it, feeding them until they died. In appreciation for the contribution the dogs made to science, Pavlov built a memorial in front of his clinic.
Ivan Pavlov continued his scientific work regardless of the events occurring in the country. The First World War and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which changed Russia beyond recognition, had no influence on his studies. He did not accept the Soviets, and was about to leave the country. Nevertheless, Lenin’s government desired that the world-renowned scientist stay in the new USSR. Therefore, they granted him the best possible conditions for his work.
Scientific experiments required tremendous effort, and to keep up with his schedule Pavlov divided the year into ten months of brainwork and two months of rest, which he spent working at his dacha. He carefully planned his time and saved his energy and health. He was lively and energetic at 60, 70, and 80, loved open-air outings, gorodki, a game similar to skittles, which he called “a joy for the muscles”, and growing flowers. He died in 1934 at 86, leaving a legacy that sustains humanity to this day.
Aren’t you glad that surgical technique has advanced a bit since the time of Dr Pavlov? Or has it?… they DO knock you out prior to commencement…. hmm… (will you still love me, Dr Matt?)
28 September 2005
Russia in Personalities
Voice of Russia World Service