A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter V
Anatomy and physiology in the nineteenth century
Bichat and the bodily tissues
Much the same thing may be said of another generalization regarding the animal body, which the brilliant young French physician Marie Francois Bichat made in calling attention to the fact that each vertebrate organism, including man, has really two quite different sets of organs - one set under volitional control, and serving the end of locomotion, the other removed from volitional control, and serving the ends of the "vital processes" of digestion, assimilation, and the like. He called these sets of organs the animal system and the organic system, respectively. The division thus pointed out was not quite new, for Grimaud, professor of physiology in the University of Montpellier, had earlier made what was substantially the same classification of the functions into "internal or digestive and external or locomotive"; but it was Bichat's exposition that gave currency to the idea.

Far more important, however, was another classification which Bichat put forward in his work on anatomy, published just at the beginning of the last century. This was the division of all animal structures into what Bichat called tissues, and the pointing out that there are really only a few kinds of these in the body, making up all the diverse organs. Thus muscular organs form one system; membranous organs another; glandular organs a third; the vascular mechanism a fourth, and so on. The distinction is so obvious that it seems rather difficult to conceive that it could have been overlooked by the earliest anatomists; but, in point of fact, it is only obvious because now it has been familiarly taught for almost a century. It had never been given explicit expression before the time of Bichat, though it is said that Bichat himself was somewhat indebted for it to his master, Desault, and to the famous alienist Pinel.

However that may be, it is certain that all subsequent anatomists have found Bichat's classification of the tissues of the utmost value in their studies of the animal functions. Subsequent advances were to show that the distinction between the various tissues is not really so fundamental as Bichat supposed, but that takes nothing from the practical value of the famous classification.

It was but a step from this scientific classification of tissues to a similar classification of the diseases affecting them, and this was one of the greatest steps towards placing medicine on the plane of an exact science. This subject of these branches completely fascinated Bichat, and he exclaimed, enthusiastically: "Take away some fevers and nervous trouble, and all else belongs to the kingdom of pathological anatomy." But out of this enthusiasm came great results. Bichat practised as he preached, and, believing that it was only possible to understand disease by observing the symptoms carefully at the bedside, and, if the disease terminated fatally, by post-mortem examination, he was so arduous in his pursuit of knowledge that within a period of less than six months he had made over six hundred autopsies - a record that has seldom, if ever, been equalled. Nor were his efforts fruitless, as a single example will suffice to show. By his examinations he was able to prove that diseases of the chest, which had formerly been classed under the indefinite name "peripneumonia," might involve three different structures, the pleural sac covering the lungs, the lung itself, and the bronchial tubes, the diseases affecting these organs being known respectively as pleuritis, pneumonia, and bronchitis, each one differing from the others as to prognosis and treatment. The advantage of such an exact classification needs no demonstration.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.