Putting physiology into the Nobel Prize: 2004 marks 100th anniversary of Pavlov's award

10/05/04

First physiologist to win the Nobel is still the world’s most famous

Bethesda, MD (Oct. 6, 2004) – Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck's receiving the Nobel Prize highlights the fact that the health sciences award is for physiology OR medicine. That is, either for a medical breakthrough per se, or like Axel and Buck's work, research in the broad context of the health sciences, of which physiology is arguably the most inclusive.

[A comprehensive review article on smell, "Olfaction: From odorant molecules to the olfactory cortex," appeared News in Physiological Science (NIPS, see below), June 2004, by Anna Menini et al. Citing Buck and Axel's 1991 article in Cell, the authors note: "It was only after the discovery in 1991 of a large multigene family of odorant receptors that several specific questions (about the nature of smell) could be answered."]

Three years after the inception of the Nobel Prizes in 1901, Ivan Pavlov – still the world's most famous physiologist – won the award "for physiology," making the 2004 award the 100th anniversary of Pavlov's receiving the first "physiology" Nobel.

In fact, Pavlov was nominated for the first Prize in 1901, and even received a five-day visit from Nobel Prize representatives at his St. Petersburg, Russia laboratory, which was partly financed by Alfred Nobel, an early fan of Pavlov's.

But it wasn't until 1904 that Pavlov won the award, to quote the citation: "in recognition of his works on the physiology of digestion with which works he transformed and broadened substantially the knowledge in this field."

Pavlov made many contributions to physiology and medicine – and was key in recognizing the important link between the two. According to Gerard P. Smith in his article "Pavlov and integrative physiology," (American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, September 2000), Pavlov's "unexpected" discovery was that "psychic events" affected "physiological function. From this time on it was clear that if integrative physiology was to be comprehensive, it had to deal with aspects of central neural integration that in this century have been claimed by psychology," Smith wrote.

"That problem is still with us and is likely to remain for some time because it is one of the ways in which the tangled relationship between the brain and the control of visceral function presents itself," Smith added.

Some of Pavlov's other major accomplishments still seen today:

  • Humane treatment of animals. When he got his own laboratory, Pavlov designed and built animal housing and surgical areas incorporating the latest aseptic and recovery techniques used for humans.

  • "Chronic experiment" technique. Pavlov realized that performing long-term experiments on healthy, alert animals yielded better results than "acute" experiments on anesthetized animals. This required continuous good housing and husbandry.

  • Use of the "Pavlov sling" to reduce discomfort in experimental animals.

    In his breakthrough experiments on salivation and digestion, Pavlov emphasized the neural control of the salivary glands as the "prototype of a general scheme of an innervation mechanism." According to Smith: "The insight was that the psychological and the physiolo-gical intermingled in the function of the central gastric secretory neural center, and, therefore, their combined effects were expressed in vagal efferent output and glandular secretion."

    In the eighth and last in a series of lectures that overcame the Nobel committee's objection to his lack of publication, Pavlov was "primarily concerned with the relationship between physiology and clinical medicine," Smith noted. "Despite Pavlov's lack of clinical medical experience, he had great respect for the difficulties of clinical work and saw physiology as a body of knowledge and a way of thinking that would diminish these difficulties."

    Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Pavlov's career and approach to science, Smith believes, was that shortly after receiving his Nobel Prize in 1904, Pavlov would change his research program at the age of 55 and…go on to invent a new field research, e.g., the investigation of conditional reflexes that he actively pursued for 30 more years….This work was the basis for his (unsuccessful) nominations for the Nobel Prize again in 1925 and 1927."

    When he was informed of winning the Nobel Prize in 1904, he reportedly told his wife: "There is nothing exceptional in my work; it is all based on facts from which logical conclusions were drawn. That's all." (B.P. Babkin, Pavlov, A Biography, 1949)

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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