Paul Bert

Paul Bert (1833-1886)

Paul Bert (1833 – 1886) was a French physiologist and politician

Bert is most well-known for his extensive research into barometric and altitude physiology. His major work, La Pression barométrique (1878) displays a comprehensive investigation on the physiological effects of air-pressure. As such, Bert is often afforded the title, the ‘Father of Aviation Medicine’.

Bert’s early research led to two theses, the first explored animal grafting and the vitality of animal tissues. The second covered a variety of topics ranging from the physiological action of various poisons; the effect of anaesthetics on respiration and asphyxia; and on the causes of skin colour change in the chameleon

Bert was an advocate of secondary education for women, and taught zoology and biology to girls aged sixteen to eighteen at the Sorbonne


Biography
  • Born 17 October 1833 in Auxurre, France
  • 1863 – Doctor of medicine from École Polytechnique
  • 1865 – Académie des sciences Prize in experimental physiology for his thesis on the grafting of animal tissues [De la graffe animale]
  • 1866 – Doctor of science from Collège de France, Paris. Appointed professor of physiology at Bordeaux University
  • 1869 – Chair of Physiology at the Sorbonne
  • 1874 – Elected to the French National Assembly
  • 1876 – Elected to the French Chamber of Deputies
  • 1881 – French Minister of Education and Worship
  • 1886 – Resident-General in the French-owned provinces of Annam and Tongking, Vietnam
  • Died of dysentery in 11 November 1886 at Hanoi, Vietnam.

Medical Eponyms
Paul Bert Effect (1878)

Exposure to high partial pressures of oxygen (greater than 1.6 bars or 160 kPa in humans) over a variable length of time can cause central nervous system toxicity

Bert first noted the toxic effects of oxygen at high pressures during his experimentation of the influence exerted by different barometric pressures on living organisms, where sparrows would die faster when the oxygen pressure was higher. The findings prompted Bert to then solely examine the action of high oxygen pressures on animals and investigate upon what anatomical element excessive oxygen acted on. It was here he noted that exposure to high oxygen pressures resulted in convulsions, and after more testing concluded that the oxygen was damaging to the spinal cord.

We conclude from all these experiments that oxygen does not kill by acting on the heart, the motor nerves, or the muscles, but the reflex acts of the spinal cord…The poisoning is characterized by convulsions which, according to the intensity of the symptoms, represent the different types of tetanus, strychnine, phenol, epilepsy, etc.; These symptoms, which are quieted by chloroform, are due to an exaggeration of the excito-motor power of the spinal cord

Bert 1878; translated 1943

Major Publications

Controversies

In his 1882 textbook, La deuxième année d’enseignement scientifique, Bert’s description of mankind includes the proclamation that whites are far superior and more intelligent than any other race in the world. This textbook would be widely used for several decades as the basis for scientific education in French schools.

Seulement il faut bien savoir que les blancs, étant plus intelligents, plus travailleurs, plus courageux que les autres, ont envahi le monde entier, et menacent de détruire ou de subjuguer toutes les races inférieures.

It must be known that whites are more intelligent, more industrious, and more courageous than others, have spread over the whole world, so that the inferior races disappear as they are subjugated.

…and more than a little disparaging about Australia…

Et il y a de ces hommes qui sont vraiment bien inférieurs. Ainsi l’Australie est peuplée pardes hommes de petite taille, à peau noirâtre, à cheveux noirs et droits, à tete très petite, qui vivent en petits groupes, n’ont ni culture ni animaux domestiques (sauf une espèce de chien), et sont fort peu intelligents.

Bert P. 1882: 18

References

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Lewis is a fourth-year medical student at UWA. He is currently interested in critical care medicine

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