Dog-days at the data factory

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Pavlov's Physiology Factory: Experiment, Interpretation, Laboratory Enterprise

Johns Hopkins University Press: 2002. 512 pp. $58

Ivan Pavlov is remembered chiefly for his work on the conditioned reflex, one of the fundamental concepts of modern physiological psychology. But when in 1904 he became the first physiologist to receive a Nobel prize, he had barely started to investigate conditioning. Rather, the prize was awarded in recognition of his ground-breaking research into the nervous integration and control of digestive secretion. It is this earlier work that Daniel Todes examines in Pavlov's Physiology Factory.

Pavlov's rise to international eminence effectively began in 1891, when he was appointed head of the physiology division of the sumptuous new Institute of Experimental Medicine in St Petersburg, Russia. Physiology at that time was in transition from being a field of largely individual endeavour to one of increasingly collaborative effort. Pavlov stands out for the sheer degree of managerial control that he exerted over the work conducted in his laboratory. In part this was due to the nature of his workforce. Most of his co-workers were medical students spending a brief sojourn in the laboratory en route to a career in medical practice. By specifying the topics they addressed and the precise methods they used, Pavlov ensured that their efforts were channelled to produce meaningful data for his own research programme.

But Pavlov's organizational innovations were also inspired by developments elsewhere in Russian society. His enthusiasm for laboratory science was part of a more general commitment to social modernization, which idealized the factory system as the most effective means of harnessing the productive capacity of workers. The managerial regime that he imposed on his laboratory was a self-conscious adaptation of this ideal for the purpose of producing scientific knowledge. And as in the factory, technology played an important role in determining the activities of semi-skilled workers.

Pavlov's investigations revolved around several surgically modified but otherwise healthy dogs — 'chronic' as opposed to 'acute' vivisections — in which a succession of researchers could observe the passage of food and the flow of secretions through the digestive tract. It was the development of these “dog technologies”, as Todes calls them, as much as Pavlov's intellectual supervision, that made possible the continuous production not just of physiological facts and theories, but also of such commercially successful therapeutic commodities as natural gastric juice.

Literary products such as theses and publications also issued from Pavlov's lab, and he maintained strict control over all of them. Final responsibility for the theoretical elaboration of experimental data remained firmly in Pavlov's hands. Here, too, he found inspiration in the ideal of the factory, although this time of a metaphorical kind. He saw the alimentary system as a complex chemical factory in which the work of the various digestive organs was regulated by nervous reflexes to ensure the most efficient digestion of different foodstuffs.

Todes makes clear how Pavlov's scientific conclusions were shaped by such presuppositions. Pavlov was acutely aware that his results often varied widely, not just from one animal to another but within the space of a single experiment, in response to a host of often unidentifiable disturbances in the experimental system. Indeed, his later work on conditioned reflexes grew out of his efforts to characterize the role of “psychic” phenomena in producing such perturbations. But it was precisely this variability that enabled Pavlov to select those data that best confirmed his supposition that digestive processes were purposively and selectively regulated, and to explain away any results that contravened the supposition. Pavlov's wishful thinking eventually became apparent, however, particularly when the demonstration by W. M. Bayliss and E. H. Starling of the humoral control of pancreatic secretion raised doubts about his claim to have identified more selective forms of nervous regulation.

Such revelations did not deter the Nobel committee, however, who by that time were considering Pavlov for the prize in physiology or medicine. Initially, his supporters on the committee had cited the theoretical significance of his conclusions as sufficient grounds for awarding him the prize. But as the validity of those conclusions began to be challenged, they instead invoked Pavlov's methodological innovations and his demonstration of the promise of concerted laboratory research for the pursuit of medical knowledge. Pavlov's elevation to the pantheon of Nobel laureates thus rested, in the final analysis, as much on the way that he made manifest the new values and aspirations of collective scientific endeavour as on any specific contribution to scientific knowledge.

Pavlov's achievements are in no way diminished by such scrutiny. On the contrary, by revealing the technical, intellectual, managerial and literary skills that led to the success of Pavlov's endeavour, Todes broadens our appreciation of the far-reaching contribution that Pavlov made to the development of modern science. Todes has achieved an impressive feat of scholarship, combining meticulous research with analytical clarity, which does full justice to his compelling subject.

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Sturdy, S. Dog-days at the data factory. Nature 419, 252–253 (2002) doi:10.1038/419252b

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