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

Book 4, chapter IV
Anatomy and physiology in the eighteenth century
The chemical theory of digestion
Among the most interesting researches of Spallanzani were his experiments to prove that digestion, as carried on in the stomach, is a chemical process. In this he demonstrated, as Rene Reaumur had attempted to demonstrate, that digestion could be carried on outside the walls of the stomach as an ordinary chemical reaction, using the gastric juice as the reagent for performing the experiment. The question as to whether the stomach acted as a grinding or triturating organ, rather than as a receptacle for chemical action, had been settled by Reaumur and was no longer a question of general dispute. Reaumur had demonstrated conclusively that digestion would take place in the stomach in the same manner and the same time if the substance to be digested was protected from the peristalic movements of the stomach and subjected to the action of the gastric juice only. He did this by introducing the substances to be digested into the stomach in tubes, and thus protected so that while the juices of the stomach could act upon them freely they would not be affected by any movements of the organ.

Following up these experiments, he attempted to show that digestion could take place outside the body as well as in it, as it certainly should if it were a purely chemical process. He collected quantities of gastric juice, and placing it in suitable vessels containing crushed grain or flesh, kept the mixture at about the temperature of the body for several hours. After repeated experiments of this kind, apparently conducted with great care, Reaumur reached the conclusion that "the gastric juice has no more effect out of the living body in dissolving or digesting the food than water, mucilage, milk, or any other bland fluid."[3] Just why all of these experiments failed to demonstrate a fact so simple does not appear; but to Spallanzani, at least, they were by no means conclusive, and he proceeded to elaborate upon the experiments of Reaumur. He made his experiments in scaled tubes exposed to a certain degree of heat, and showed conclusively that the chemical process does go on, even when the food and gastric juice are removed from their natural environment in the stomach. In this he was opposed by many physiologists, among them John Hunter, but the truth of his demonstrations could not be shaken, and in later years we find Hunter himself completing Spallanzani's experiments by his studies of the post-mortem action of the gastric juice upon the stomach walls.

That Spallanzani's and Hunter's theories of the action of the gastric juice were not at once universally accepted is shown by an essay written by a learned physician in 1834. In speaking of some of Spallanzani's demonstrations, he writes: "In some of the experiments, in order to give the flesh or grains steeped in the gastric juice the same temperature with the body, the phials were introduced under the armpits. But this is not a fair mode of ascertaining the effects of the gastric juice out of the body; for the influence which life may be supposed to have on the solution of the food would be secured in this case. The affinities connected with life would extend to substances in contact with any part of the system: substances placed under the armpits are not placed at least in the same circumstances with those unconnected with a living animal." But just how this writer reaches the conclusion that "the experiments of Reaumur and Spallanzani give no evidence that the gastric juice has any peculiar influence more than water or any other bland fluid in digesting the food"[4] is difficult to understand.

The concluding touches were given to the new theory of digestion by John Hunter, who, as we have seen, at first opposed Spallanzani, but who finally became an ardent champion of the chemical theory. Hunter now carried Spallanzani's experiments further and proved the action of the digestive fluids after death. For many years anatomists had been puzzled by pathological lesion of the stomach, found post mortem, when no symptoms of any disorder of the stomach had been evinced during life. Hunter rightly conceived that these lesions were caused by the action of the gastric juice, which, while unable to act upon the living tissue, continued its action chemically after death, thus digesting the walls of the stomach in which it had been formed. And, as usual with his observations, be turned this discovery to practical use in accounting for certain phenomena of digestion. The following account of the stomach being digested after death was written by Hunter at the desire of Sir John Pringle, when he was president of the Royal Society, and the circumstance which led to this is as follows: "I was opening, in his presence, the body of a patient of his own, where the stomach was in part dissolved, which appeared to him very unaccountable, as there had been no previous symptom that could have led him to suspect any disease in the stomach. I took that opportunity of giving him my ideas respecting it, and told him that I had long been making experiments on digestion, and considered this as one of the facts which proved a converting power in the gastric juice. . . . There are a great many powers in nature which the living principle does not enable the animal matter, with which it is combined, to resist - viz., the mechanical and most of the strongest chemical solvents. It renders it, however, capable of resisting the powers of fermentation, digestion, and perhaps several others, which are well known to act on the same matter when deprived of the living principle and entirely to decompose it. "

Hunter concludes his paper with the following paragraph: "These appearances throw considerable light on the principle of digestion, and show that it is neither a mechanical power, nor contractions of the stomach, nor heat, but something secreted in the coats of the stomach, and thrown into its cavity, which there animalizes the food or assimilates it to the nature of the blood. The power of this juice is confined or limited to certain substances, especially of the vegetable and animal kingdoms; and although this menstruum is capable of acting independently of the stomach, yet it is indebted to that viscus for its continuance.[5]




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.