Dog and Man
How Ivan Pavlov matched Marxism to digestion, excitation to terror
For all its engrossing detail, it is hard not to read Ivan Pavlov: A Russian life in science as a parable of modern Russia. In Ivan Pavlov we have the archetypal collision between religion and secular modernity: a priest’s son and seminary boy from the provinces who made the break to St Petersburg University in 1870 and became a defiant positivist. Conditioned not only by the scientistic turn of the 1860s in Russia, but also by the accelerating industrialization of the later nineteenth century, Pavlov adopted factory methods in his own labs, presiding over an elaborate programme of minutely empirical studies. The scale and integrated character of his research secured him international renown with the award of a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on the digestive system.
By then Pavlov had shown like no one else the benefits of technological innovation and quantitative analysis for overcoming mind– body dualism. Thanks to ingenious surgical methods and hygienic lab conditions, his team was able to conduct precise measurements – above all, of the gastric secretions of dogs – that seemed to provide an objective calibration of nervous and even psychic phenomena. Pavlov’s trademark esophagotomy meant that food swallowed by a dog never reached the digestive tract, thus allowing the researcher to isolate the psychic rather than chemical causes of secretion. His key analytical concept, the conditional reflex, soon entered the scientific lexicon and even journalistic parlance. His international prestige only increased in the second half of his life, building to a climax with his hosting of the International Physiological Congress in Leningrad just months before his death in early 1936. Such was the momentum of Pavlov’s project to fuse body and mind in a single explanatory model that it gathered further steam under Russia’s new masters after the civil war. From the mid1920s, Pavlov had state funding lavished on him. Although he was an outspoken critic of the new regime, his enormous international prestige and the materialistic bent of his research made him effectively a Soviet aristocrat. In 1927, he was assigned a Lincoln and a chauffeur, while in 1935 a bottle of champagne was flown in from Finland to aid his recovery from a dangerous bout of bronchitis. The authorities even paid for delegates to the 1935 congress to be treated to a banquet in a tsarist palace.
Yet, as Daniel P. Todes shows with unremitting perspicacity, Pavlov is too big, complicated and even self-contradictory a figure to be contained by the parable. His aura of exemplar is most obviously tarnished by the messiness of any life as actually lived. His rise to prominence depended as much on chance as on his own irresistible intellectual achievements. In his early career he did not cultivate the most advantageous patrons, and spent a few years training as a physician rather than devoting
Daniel P. Todes
IVAN PAVLOV A Russian life in science 855pp. Oxford University Press. £25 (US $41.95).
978 0 19 992519 3
himself full-time to the research that really interested him. At the age of forty, he faced the prospect of career stagnation, having just failed to land two of the main professorships in his field of physiology. His lucky break came in the early 1890s, when he acquired the lab of his dreams in the newly created Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, combining this with a professorship at the Military-Medical Academy.
Thereafter, the breaks kept on coming until they became the routine dividends of fame and power. Pavlov was not an automatic choice for the Nobel Prize – some of his conclusions had come under fire, he had delivered no knockout single discovery or application, and a sceptic might have said that he had simply got better than anyone else at inserting gastric fistulas in dogs – but by 1904, after a couple of near misses in the preceding years, he had an important advocate on the committee, Johan Erik Johansson, professor of physiology at the Karolinska Institute. During the revolution and civil war, Pavlov experienced acute hardship and uncertainty in hungry, disease-ridden Petrograd, but he soon asserted himself vis-àvis the new regime, flirting with emigration and lobbying effectively for resources. Under the Bolsheviks, he was able to follow his nose without ever being forced to come up with firm conclusions or (still less) to demonstrate their real-world applications. Funding bodies in liberal countries would hardly have been so openended in their commitment. Yet, towards the end of his life, Bolshevik violence was coming very close to home: by the mid-1930s, Pavlov was almost routinely saving his colleagues from imprisonment and likely death. While his personal authority still counted, he found
24.10.2015 London SW1
As part of the events marking the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, Westminster Abbey opened Henry V’s chantry chapel for a single day to visitors whose names came up in a ballot. There they would have seen the fulfilment of the King’s careful instructions for a memorial honouring the Trinity, the Virgin and the two patron saints of the realms he claimed, St George and St Denis. Also on show was the Victorian monument to Henry’s widow Catherine of Valois, whose bones were transferred there after centuries of semi-public display (Pepys kissed them on his birthday). Henry himself was buried in a tomb below the chapel, which he shared with a victim of the Agincourt campaign, Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich (whose feet had to be removed, and tucked under his armpits, to accommodate his royal master).
himself increasingly adopting the tone of petitioner that he had proudly eschewed in his earlier dealings with the Soviet state. His visceral opposition to Bolshevism was further sapped by his enduring patriotism, which was heightened by the threatening international politics of the mid-1930s, and his sense of obligation to a state that had provided him with luxurious research facilities for more than a decade.
The twists and turns of Pavlov’s biography were matched by the tensions in his personality. Although himself a convinced atheist, in 1881 he married a devout fellow provincial who had come to St Petersburg to study on the recently established pedagogical courses for women. In the days of their courtship, he had to reckon with her enthusiasm for the messianic Fyodor Dostoevsky, swapping impressions of The Brothers Karamazov as it first came out. Much later, after more than twenty years of impeccably patriarchal family life, he formed a romantic attachment that would last the rest of his days. Pavlov’s lover and confidante after 1912 was Maria Petrova, by then only nominally the wife of the celebrity priest Grigory Petrov, who had thrown herself into a medical career in her late twenties and became Pavlov’s most devoted lab worker. Although Pavlov adhered to a strict daily routine, professed the value of self-discipline, and envisaged his labs as the domain of dispassionate rationality, he was possessed of a volcanic temper and regularly browbeat assistants who had the temerity to disagree with him or to follow their own hunches. Pavlov’s nearfanatical pursuit of orderliness in his domestic and professional lives was evidently a way of taming his tempestuous nature and of minimizing the effects of the “random events” (sluchainosti) that he identified as the source of much human unhappiness.
More interesting still is the extent to which these tensions were also present in Pavlov’s thinking. Like most other scientists of his generation, he professed the absolute authority of the “fact”. The task of the scientist was to accumulate a large amount of data from rigorously controlled and meticulously conducted experiments. The conclusions would then take care of themselves. Theorizing without data was worthless, and Pavlov was uncompromising in his critique of those he found guilty of this sin – for example, the Gestalt psychologists who ascribed a synthesizing “insight” to the chimpanzees they observed. The great strength of Pavlov’s method had always seemed to be its precision and quantifiability. A Pavlovian could say exactly how many drops of gastric juice were elicited by a metronome beat of 60 per minute that had come to be associated with a particular type of food. Experimental design could be made steadily more elaborate according to a simple binary pattern. According to Pavlov’s “nervist” model, all responses could be explained as a function of “excitation”,
TLS OCTOBER 30 2015