History of French Neuroscience


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Louis Ranvier

Obituary of Louis Ranvier in Nature (1922)
The contribution of microscopy to physiology and the renewal of French Anatomie Générale

Jean Gaël Barbara
Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS NPA UMR7102, Paris, France

The following article is based on a paper published by the author in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences ( 2008). I thank Stanley Finger for permission to reprint a short version of the article and the Collège de France (Evelyne Maury) for kindly providing photographs from original documents.

Figure 1 : Louis Ranvier (1835-1922)
(Courtesy of Collège de France)

Louis Antoine Ranvier was born in Lyons (1835), in a family devoted to politics and public affairs, including hospital administration. He naturally took up medical studies at the Ecole Préparatoire de Médecine et de Pharmacie in Lyons, which soon led him to Paris (1860), after he succeeded in the highly competitive examination for the internship of Parisian hospitals. During his medical training, Ranvier became acquainted with normal and pathological anatomy, and soon turned to microscopy as a means for further studies on tissues. This attitude was not popular among French scholars, after Bichat had inspired Henri Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in their attacks over microscopy (see Canguilhem, 1952, pp. 63-64; Bichat, 1799, p. 35).

However, the French context of medical microscopy was changing. Since the early 1830s, physicians trained in Paris, including Alfred Donné (1801-1878), Hermann Lebert (1813-1878), David Gruby (1810-1898), Louis Mandl (1812-1881), and later Charles-Philippe Robin (1821-1885), Paul Broca (1824-1880), Eugène-François Follin (1823-1867) and Aristide Verneuil (1823-1895) devoted some of their research and teaching to microscopical studies (La Berge, 2004). Donné and Robin had published memoirs and microscopy manuals, some of them addressed to students, which may have influenced Ranvier (Foucault & Donné, 1844-1845; Robin, 1849, 1854, 1856). Nevertheless, Ranvier was probably more influenced by German studies, including the French translations he would later quote (Kölliker, 1856; Virchow, 1858; see Jolly, 1922, p. 10, Jolly, 1932, p. 213).

Between 1860 and 1865, Cornil and Ranvier devoted part of their time to microscopy. Besides observing tumors and other pathological tissues, Ranvier focused on bone preparations, which led him to study cartilage and bone lesions for his medical thesis (Ranvier, 1865). By 1865, they had started collaborating on epithelial tumors. They developed a small private laboratory in rue Christine in Paris, which soon attracted young interns, among whom were Malassez, Joseph-Louis Renaut, Georges Maurice Debove (1845-1920), and Jacques-Joseph Grancher (1843-1907). From 1866 to 1867, Cornil and Ranvier’s one-semester course in microscopy had no equivalent in France (Jolly, 1922). It ended when Ranvier agreed to join Claude Bernard at the Collège de France. This course was published in three parts, as an authoritative manual, two years later (Cornil & Ranvier, 1869). It was translated into English, with notes and additions both in England and the United-States (Cornil & Ranvier, 1880; 1882). It represented a well-written and useful modern textbook for medical students interested in normal and pathological histology. In the early 1870s, microscopical studies had gained academic recognition at the Faculté de Médecine de Paris. A chair of histology had been created in 1862 for Robin. However, according to Broca, the vast majority of French medical micrographers remained opposed to cell theory. They did not accept the concept of the cell, but rather recognized the "specificity of diverse cells", meaning that different histological entities should replace the German unitary concept (La Berge, 2004, p. 438; Canguilhem, 1952, pp. 66-67).

Ranvier was influenced by Virchow’s extension of cellular theory to pathology. In Ranvier's introductions to studies on cartilage and bone, Virchow's observations are emphasized (Cornil & Ranvier, 1869, pp. 19-29; Ranvier, 1863). While Cornil further investigated pathological tissues, Ranvier focused on normal histology. He was not only concerned with cell theory, but also, as a student of Bernard, with development, nutrition and functions of normal tissues.

Ranvier learnt from Bernard how histology could serve physiology. He followed Bernard's lessons at the Collège de France: Leçons sur les propriétés physiologiques et les altérations pathologiques des liquides de l'organisme (Bernard, 1859), and Leçons sur les propriétés des tissus vivants (Bernard, 1866), both being relevant to microscopy. In the 1860s, French experimental physiology encouraged histologists to localize the function of organs at the level of tissues and cells. This physiological approach contrasted with the static descriptive histology of Robin, which refused generalization and theorizing, as practiced in German schools (see Jolly, 1922, p. 12). Ranvier was to fill in this gap between Bichat and Bernard, by adopting what Bernard would later call experimental histology.

The Collège de France and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes were necessary institutions for the development of such original programs. Both French institutions functioned as a balance to the Faculties by favouring marginal researchers such as Ranvier. They played a dominant role in France in accepting cell theory, and fulfilled their mission in teaching new scientific ideas, while Faculties tended to teach established facts (see Bernard, 1877, pp. 23-26, p. 215). Thanks to Bernard, Ranvier settled into a small histological laboratory, founded in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and later established in Ranvier’s lodgings at the Collège de France (1867), where many of his colleagues followed his research.

Ranvier’s first studies are often regarded as a synthesis between histology and physiology, since both were relevant to defining functions of organs (see Jolly, 1922; Jolly, 1932; Appel, 1978). However, Bernard’s and Ranvier’s conceptions of function differed on the role of generalized anatomical observations used as norms in the determination of function.

The French epistemologist Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) has analyzed some of the reasons why Bernard accepted cell theory. He emphasized how it justified experimental physiology, providing Bernard with a new organization of living organisms and escaping both materialism and vitalism (Canguilhem, 1994a). Bernard's theory defined parts both as independent units and by their relations to the organism, with function localized into histological elements (Bernard, 1877, p. 135). For Bernard, function could be revealed by experimental physiology, whereas histology was only concerned with localization. He discounted anatomical deductions of function, believing that cells of similar appearance could have radically different functions. Conversely, cells with different morphologies and sizes might have similar functions, a view supported by Ranvier, in his work on small and large spinal cord neurons (Ranvier, 1875a, p. 1061).

Nevertheless, Ranvier developed an apparently opposed and radical view based on his faith in assigning functions to particular cell types by histological criteria. In Bernard’s view (1872), such criteria were to be established by physiology, since anatomy alone could not directly derive function. Nevertheless, Ranvier was to prove functions could be proposed by experimental histology.

Ranvier further extended this conception to tissues and cellular elements (Ranvier, 1872a, p. 443). For him, experimental histology was a way to study cellular physiology. Ranvier's studies on nerves showed he was able to follow this path and accordingly his biographer Justin Jolly (1870-1953) later defined Ranvier as a physiologist (Jolly, 1922; Jolly, 1932).

For Bernard, nutrition was a general cellular function to be studied by the methods of experimental physiology (Bernard, 1877, p. 85). The concept of nutrition was adopted in Ranvier's work after 1869 (Ranvier, 1869a; 1969b). His description of nerve fibre nodes was made in a search for how nutrients were continuously exchanged with the blood for nerve cell function (Ranvier, 1871a, p. 1168). Physiology had demonstrated a loss of motor nerve function by interruption of blood flow and a return to function by perfusion of oxygenated blood. An acidic reaction and a rise in temperature, noticed by Ugo Schiff (1834-1915), suggested nerve fibres might be a locus for oxygen consumption (Ranvier, 1871a, pp. 1168-1169). The question was then clear to Ranvier: what is the path for oxygen between oxygenated blood and nerve fibres? For Ranvier, the continuous and impermeable myelin sheath of nerve fibres prevented exchange of fluids and thereby nutrition. He demonstrated the point histologically showing that soluble carmine could not penetrate isolated myelinated nerve fibres (Ranvier, 1871b, p. 131). However, Ranvier showed picrocarminate could penetrate fibres, at localized sites identified as interruptions of the myelin sheath, and later marked with silver nitrate (Ranvier, 1871a, pp. 1169-1170; Ranvier, 1871b, p. 133). Ranvier had discovered what was soon called the "nœuds de Ranvier". Nodes discovered in the context of Bernard's ideas on nutrition were localized subcellular elements, Ranvier suggested they were involved in the physiological exchange of nutrients between fibres and blood. Although the function of nodes remained an open question for decades, Ranvier demonstrated experimental histology could propose hypothetical physiological functions at the level of cells and cell parts.

With the aim of correlating histological observations to physiology, Ranvier favoured studies examining the loss of nervous function induced by nerve lesions (Ranvier, 1872a). According to Ranvier, nerves were surrounded by perifascicular conjunctive tissue and contained intrafascicular conjunctive tissue. For both, function was defined in the context of nutrition. While the first supported blood and lymphatic vessels delivering nutrients, the second was an elastic protection against mechanical forces and a chemical barrier permitting access to nutrients by a colloid path (Ranvier, 1871a, p. 1171; Ranvier, 1872a, p. 443). When this latter was destroyed by lesion, Ranvier observed the effect of introducing water in the wound of a living animal. Nodes disappeared and the myelin sheath was swollen at their former sites (Ranvier, 1872a, p. 444). The effect of water therefore paralleled the loss of nerve function, and later paralysis of the nerve itself. Ranvier inferred nodes of nerve fibres were necessary for nervous conduction.

This approach was replicated in studies on nerve degeneration, where Ranvier precisely defined histological norms for nerve fibre nodes (Ranvier, 1872b). Ranvier observed a single Schwann cell with a single nucleus was located between each two successive nodes. Thus, he recognized as a norm the cellular nature of interannular segments. This led him to the first precise account of nerve degeneration, where morphological changes were noticed in Schwann cells of injured fibres, while newly formed fibres were normal (Tello, 1877-1887, Part I, p. 102). The disappearance of nodes in pathological conditions or the multiplication of nuclei in Schwann cells were deviations from a norm, which caused nerve fibre malfunction. Hence, Ranvier's work showed how histological norms, derived from minute anatomical details, could help understand loss of function in response to pathological lesions.

Ranvier’s research on nerve degeneration was made in the Bernardian perspective of nervous elements, seen as regulators of the activity of tissues. Sectioning nerves was believed to relieve negative nervous regulations of all sorts, including regulation of growth and development, thereby inducing morphological changes in surrounding tissues. Multiplication of nuclei in Schwann cells of injured fibres was interpreted in this way, as a loss of control in cell division. Cell theory was also important in recognizing newly formed fibres originating from cellular and central parts of cut fibres. Thus, Ranvier's new histological techniques allowed observations in agreement with his heuristic theoretical background.

As a general goal, as seen in his studies on the effect of water on nerve sections, Ranvier searched for histological explanations of physiological observations. In this perspective, he adopted a mechanistic approach to explain the loss of function of degenerated fibres. Three days after section of a nerve, loss of function was correlated with multiplication of nuclei and swelling of Schwann cells. Ranvier concluded that swelling of protoplasm exerted pressure on nerve fibres, thereby preventing conduction. Nevertheless, Ranvier's approach and interpretations were sometimes contradicted. Joseph Jules Déjerine (1849-1917), and later Ramón y Cajal contradicted Ranvier, demonstrating protoplasm invaded gaps initially formed by myelin sheath fragmentation prior to any mechanical constraint (Barbara, 2005; Ramón y Cajal, 1913, p. 70). Furthermore, his mechanical theory of nerve fibre growth along a line of lesser resistance was similarly refuted in 1900 (See Ramón y Cajal, 1913, p. 70). However, both Ramón y Cajal and his pupil Jorge Francisco Tello Muñoz (1880-1958) were indebted to Ranvier for his remarkably precise observations. Ranvier was first to recognize fatty accumulations along Schwann cells as migrating leucocytes, which he had observed in experimental lesions of conjunctive tissue (Ranvier, 1971c, p. 124). Ranvier gave the first account of the exaggeration of node striation in living central fibres (Ramón y Cajal, 1913, p. 138). Spiral structures were described as aberrant new structures (Ramón y Cajal, 1913, p. 159).

The successes of Ranvier were intimately linked to the perfection of his techniques, including precise manipulations, careful dissociations by hand, and special uses of acids and stains (see Ranvier, 1872b, for technical details). Ranvier's use of silver nitrate reduction by light to observe nodes revealed new details of nerve fibres and surrounding cells (Ranvier, 1871a, p. 1169). According to DeFelipe and Jones, the improvement of that same technique by Ramón y Cajal in 1903 was crucial in his last confrontation with reticularism (DeFelipe & Jones, 1991, p. 6). Although Ranvier did not become involved in the controversy over neurone doctrine, Ramón y Cajal considered him an early monogenist, together with His and Forel.

Ranvier's general aim was to recognize the cellular nature of specialized histological elements. In this perspective, he studied both bone corpuscles and cellular elements of conjunctive tissues (1869), where "plasmatic channels" for nutrition were described (Ranvier, 1869a). This study was published as a full article in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, the first journal entirely devoted to microscopy (Ranvier, 1869b; Ranvier, 1870).

During the early 1870s, Ranvier had the opportunity to work on ray and torpedo in the marine laboratory of Victor Coste (1807-1873) in Concarneau. In a note of anatomie comparée, he described nodes and sheaths in the motor nerve of the torpedo’s electric organ (Ranvier, 1872c). In 1875, observations on torpedo motor nerve endings were communicated by Bernard to the Académie des Sciences as being relevant to anatomie générale. This shift from comparative to general anatomy occurred in parallel with Ranvier’s appointment by Bernard in 1875 to a chair of anatomie générale at the Collège de France (Figure 2).

Figure 2 : Decree of Ranvier’s Chair of general anatomy (1876) (Courtesy of Collège de France)

Although Ranvier wrote further notes on histology and physiology, most of his subsequent papers concerned anatomie générale, previously illustrated by authors such as Robin and Virchow in the Comtes Rendus Hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences. This turn to general anatomy was based on elegant and refined studies on the anatomical independence of nerve fibre terminals as a general refutation of fibre nets. In the notes he added to his translation of the Handbuch der Histologie und Histochemie des Menschen by Heinrich Frey (1822-1890), Ranvier described his first studies on nerve endings in salivary gland, cornea and skin (Frey 1859; Frey 1871). Together with most histologists, he had been impressed by the gold chloride staining technique of Julius Cohnheim (1839-1884), which allowed unequivocal demonstrations of free nerve endings in cornea and skin (Frey, 1871, pp. 717, 735). However, Ranvier first preferred his chromic acid technique (Frey, 1871, p. 711). Only, when he succeeded in Concarneau to combine Cohnheim's technique with chromic acid, was he able to refute fibre nets in the electric organ of torpedo, previously described by Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (1817-1905), Max Schultze (1825-1874) and Franz Christian Boll (1849-1879) (Ranvier, 1875b). Ranvier's success in this field was based not only on his use of refined staining procedures, but also on new immersion objectives, such as number 12 of Hartnack and Prazmowski, which allowed a magnification of x1000 (see Ranvier, 1875a, p. 789). Furthermore, the technique of Joseph von Gerlach (1820-1896) enabled Ranvier to visualize branching fibres, prior to endings, similar to a chiasma.

Ranvier's move to general anatomy was possible after he could reproduce his general observations on nerve fibre terminals in various structures. Following Franz von Leydig (1821-1908) and Friedrich Sigmund Merkel (1845-1919), he made a precise study of Grandy's tactile end organs of the papillæ of the beak and tongue of the duck (Ranvier, 1877). Ranvier described a disk-like nerve ending similar to Merkel’s tactile disk, occurring in the epidermis of the pig’s snout. The generalization of these finding to tactile end organs of skin, cornea and smooth muscle, was published as Leçons d'Anatomie Générale (Ranvier, 1878a; Ranvier, 1880a; Ranvier, 1881). Similarly, Ranvier demonstrated free nerve endings in his studies on smooth muscle. However, Ranvier's conception of nerve plexi was far more complex. The existence of free endings was not for Ranvier a radical argument against fibre nets, which according to him did occur in some preparations before nerve fibres ended. Ranvier's careful examination of plexi required an improvement of Cohnheim's and Löwit's techniques, replacing formic acid with lemon juice. Ranvier's method was published as a novel contribution to the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (Ranvier, 1880b). Plexi were demonstrated as small peripheral nerve centers in particular tissues. They were suggested to mediate non-voluntary movements, as in the mammalian esophagus and arthropod's digestive tract (Ranvier, 1878a, p1144; Ranvier, 1879, p. 1088). Thus, Ranvier was also concerned with the functional significance of plexi, which he felt represented terminal arborizations of single fibres.

Using this approach, Ranvier came to a major discovery, while examining another minute nervous structure. Observations made from 1870 to 1875 in studies of different ganglia, with the aim to find a common internal structure, led to the discovery of the T structure of nerve fibres from sensory ganglion cells (Ranvier, 1875c). He concluded that nervous conduction in sensory and motor neurons should not be seen as linear chains. Although Ranvier could not ascribe a direction to the circulation of nervous impulses in T structures, he suspected complex fibre branching might occur in nerve centers and modify current views on their physiology.

These studies portray Ranvier as a rather pragmatic scientist, more concerned with facts and precise descriptions of histological elements with refined techniques, than with new ideas on the nervous system. While some of his observations were relevant to the polemic on the neurone doctrine, Ranvier did not participate in the polemic, but rather founded French general anatomy as a joint anatomical and histological discipline.

While he gained limited international recognition, Ranvier should be remembered for three major achievements. Certainly, he lives on as the discoverer of the "nœuds de Ranvier". His and Arthur Van Gehuchten (1861-1914) paid tribute to Ranvier's first observation of T structures of fibres from dorsal root ganglion cells (see Shephered, 1991, p. 108; Van Gehuchten, 1897, p. 210). Ranvier was honored by Ramón y Cajal for his precise description of nerve fibre degeneration and regeneration (see Ramón y Cajal, 1913). Besides, he was also respected for his talented teaching on histological techniques (see Fernandez and Breathnach, 2001; Ranvier, 1875a). In particular, Ramón y Cajal paid tribute to Ranvier’s manual, referred to as his "technical bible of those days [1887]" (Ramón y Cajal, 1917, p. 307). When speaking of the preparation for his competitive exams in 1879 he wrote: "Conscious of my defects, I had endeavoured to overcome them so far as possible. I perfected myself in histological technique, using as a guide the admirable book entitled Manuel technique d’histologie, written by Ranvier, the illustrious professor at the Collège de France […]" (Ramón y Cajal, 1917, p. 255).

In contrast to his teaching manuals, which were widely translated, Ranvier’s research was little known and quoted in the specialized international literature. Ranvier’s nodes and T structures were generally described as anatomical details, without mention of his observations. Similarly, his studies on nerve fibre degeneration and regeneration were only properly recognized many years later (Ramón y Cajal, 1913). The functional significance of both observations was not fully appreciated at the time of Ranvier's work. Today, Ranvier's nodes and the study of axon regeneration are two fascinating and active fields of enquiry (Ishibashi et al., 2003; Sherman & Brophy, 2005; Clark et al., 2005).

Another reason for the relative obscurity of Ranvier’s research was that it was published in French journals, and never as translated treatises. His published lessons, primarily devoted to students, were also little read and quoted by experts. Although, Ranvier was known as an eminent professor in histological techniques, his rough personality and the tedious nature of his lectures did not encourage foreign medical students. However, Luis Simaro Lacabra (1851-1921) attended Ranvier's lessons, where he learnt Golgi's method, which he later demonstrated to Ramón y Cajal in Madrid (Fernandez and Breathnach, 2001). Thus, Ranvier's influence was rather limited to a small circle of French histologists, to colleagues at the Salpêtrière hospital (Barbara, 2005), and to foreign students and colleagues praising his techniques, on which Ramón y Cajal commented:
"In my systematic explorations through the realms of microscopic anatomy […] I examined [the Nervous System] eagerly in various animals, guided by the books of Meynert, Huguenin, Luys, Schwalbe, and above all the incomparable works of Ranvier, of whose ingenious technique I made use with conscientious determination" (Ramón y Cajal, 1917, p. 304).

Ranvier's approach has often been neglected by some neuroscience historians, perhaps due to his physiological research style he followed in the 1870s and the 1880s. Ranvier was scarcely involved in the history of the neurone doctrine, since he simply defined a nerve cell as a cell body with continuous contacts with nerve fibres and neglected Golgi's method for its unreliability (Ranvier, 1875a, p. 1062). While he certainly recognized the beauty of silver chromate deposits, he felt the technique could not reliably demonstrate relations between nerve cell processes and nerve fibres (Ranvier, 1875a, p. 1097). In retrospect, a convincing demonstration of contiguity between neurons did not emerge before the advent of electron microscopy. In these respects, Ranvier was a typical French figure, in the line of Magendie and Bernard, more concerned to rectify outdated theories and ideas and to construct histology as a new discipline on a solid base of unquestionable facts, derived by a rigorous experimental approach.

Jean Gaël Barbara
Laboratoire de Neurobiologie des Processus Adaptatifs
Univ. P. & M. Curie, Case 14, 7 quai Saint Bernard
Bât. B, 4e étage, porte 405C
75005, Paris

Laboratoire de recherches historiques et épistémologiques sur les sciences exactes et les institutions scientifiques
Société des Neurosciences/Histoire des Neurosciences


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Ranvier L (1875b) : Sur les terminaisons dans les lames électriques de la Torpille. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 81: 1276-1278.

Ranvier L (1875c) : Des tubes nerveux en T et de leurs relations avec les cellules ganglionnaires. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 81: 1274-1276.

Ranvier L (1877) : De la terminaison des nerfs dans les corpuscules du tact. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 85: 1020-1023.

Ranvier L (1878a) : De la méthode de l'or et de la terminaison des nerfs dans le muscle lisse. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 86: 1142-1144.

Ranvier L (1878b) : Leçons sur l'histologie du système nerveux. Paris, Savy.

Ranvier L (1879) : Recherches expérimentales sur la signification physiologique du plexus nerveux terminal de la cornée. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 88: 1087-1089.

Ranvier L (1880a) : Nouvelles recherches sur les organes du tact. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 91: 1087-1089.

Ranvier L (1880b) : On the terminations of nerves in the epidermis. Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science 20: 456-459.

Ranvier L (1881) : Terminaisons nerveuses sensitives ; cornée. In: Leçons d'anatomie générale faites au Collège de France. Paris, Baillière.

Robin, CP (1849) : Du Microscope et des injections dans leurs applications à l'anatomie et à la pathologie. Paris, Baillière.

Robin, CP (1854) : Sur un nouveau microscope approprié aux besoins des démonstrations anatomiques et permettant à plusieurs personnes d'observer ensemble. Paris, Thunot.

Robin, CP (1856) : Mémoire sur les objets qui peuvent être conservés en préparations microscopiques transparentes et opaques, classés d'après les divisions naturelles des trois règnes de la nature. Paris, Baillière.

Shepherd GM (1991) : Foundation of the neurone doctrine. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sherman DL, Brophy PJ (2005) : Mechanisms of axon ensheathment and myelin growth. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6: 683-690.

Tello JF (1877-1887) : Cajal y su labor histológica. In: DeFelipe J & Jones EG (1991), eds., Cajal's Degeneration and regeneration of the Nervous System. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Van Gehuchten A (1897) : Anatomie du système nerveux de l'homme: leçons professées à l'université de Louvain. Louvain, Uystpruyst-Dieudonné.

Virchow R (1858) : Die Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begründung auf physiologische und pathologische Gewebelehre. Berlin, Hirschwald.

Alfred Fessard (1900-1982)

Alfred Fessard et Denise Albe-Fessard

Alfred Fessard in his office at the Institut Marey

In the first decades of the XXth century, French neurophysiology is lagging behind British advances, in particular in Paris, where Louis Lapicque (1866-1952) from the Sorbonne is imposing his personal views. In Great Britain, neurophysiology is flourishing with John Newport Langley (1852-1925), Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) et Edgar Douglas Adrian (1889-1977). Alfred Fessard was able to change this trend, from the period of Louis Lapicque, Paul Portier (1866-1962) (physiology) and Henri Piéron (1881-1964) (psychology), to the post-war period where he created hi own school at the Marey Institute, and which became a large CNRS Centre for the study of nervous physiology and electrophysiology in an international context. The training years of Fessard were remarkable and they explain how he aimed to bring together the physiological and integrated aspects of the nervous system and its elementary aspects.

After the First World War, Fessard undertook studies during his military service. He prepared a bachelor in Physics at the Sorbonne. He also followed the advice of Lahy and attended the lectures of Lapicque and Portier (physiology) and those of Piéron (psychology). He was also introduced by Lahy to the physiological laboratory applied to prophylaxis and mental health at the EPHE and directed by Edouard Toulouse in Villejuif. In 1926, The department of Toulouse at Sainte-Anne becomes the Henri-Rousselle hospital, in which Fessard become an assistant in the laboratory of ergonomics of Lahy. He worked there under the guidance of Henri Laugier (1888-1973) to the statistical analysis of professional orientation psychological tests, but also in electrophysiology, especially electromyography. Fessard later acknowledged the great influence of this environment, dominated by experimental psychology, and an integrated understanding of the nervous system and brain mechanisms. In 1927, Fessard became assistant of the laboratory of Piéron at EPHE and he was able to work with Daniel Auger, in particular at the Tamaris biological station (Var) and in the laboratory of the chair of Piéron at the Collège de France (1923). Daniel Auger was a pupil of Lapicque who worked in the line of the American cellular biophysical research on giant algae. With electrophysiological and microcinematographical techniques of Lucienne François-Franck, the wife of Nicolas François- Franck (1849-1921), professor at the Collège de France. This line of research was developed in the circle of Lapicque with other pupils such as Paul Chauchard (1912-2003), and directed to the study of the laws of the excitability of nervous and muscular tissues. Auger and Fessard studied the psychophysiology of invertebrates and electrophysiological recordings of elementary activities together. They were the first in frame to record nervous action potentials in 1926, and they contributed to the electrophysiological study of the electric organ of the Torpedo.

From his very first studies, Fessard was acquainted with elementary physiological studies and became an admirer of the British leader of the field, Edgar Adrian.

British influence and the new nervous physiology at the Collège de France

Since the early 1930s, Piéron could obtain financial support from the Singer-Polignac foundation and the Rockefeller foundation to buy equipment such as oscillographs for the “iron house”, the so-called small Faraday-boxed laboratory, which permitted electrophysiological recordings in an environment isolated from 50 Hz waves. In France, Fessard introduced the moving frame oscillograph in the field of physiology. The instrument was used as a galvanometer. In 1932, Fessard recorded the potentiels of the electric organ of the Torpedo with a Dufour oscillograph. Further studies on isolated nerves were performed which led to his PhD dissertation of 1936 devoted to the rhythmic properties of the living matter of myelinated and unmyelinated nerve fibers. The previous year, Auger has presented his PhD dissertation on the comparison between the rhythmic properties of plant and animal action potentials. During those years, Fessard also worked with Angélique Arvanitaki (1901-1983), a brilliant pupil of the physiologist Henri Cardot (1886-1942), professor of physiology in Lyons. They worked on the synchronisation of rhythmic activities of isolated nerves. They were both attracted to these topics in the line of the famous studies by Adrian, which can be read in the discussions of their results on the value of the models of autorhythmic nervous activities.

EEG was another topic Fessard was interested in, after the work of Hans Berger (1873-1941) came to be discussed and reproduced in the early 1930s. Fessard was among the first scientists in France, together with Alphonse Baudouin at the Sainte-Anne hospital to make EEG recordings. The contribution of Fessard is interesting and it shows the relation he wished to maintain between elementary activities and psychology : “With EEG, Fessard says, with its multiple rhythms of unknown origin and their variations, with correlative changes determined by the mental state of the subject, I was again facing a global and complex phenomenon. I studied some of those correlations and I was able to discover in 1935 that the variations of alpha rhythm could be conditioned […]”.

Fessard pursued his work in the context of British physiology still greatly advanced compared to France. When Fessard was replacing his Lippmann electrometer with Dubois's and Dufour's oscillographs, Brian Matthews was making a new recording apparatus in Adrian’s laboratory, based on a small moving iron frame oscillograph and a camera. This setup was excellent and gave new results until new instruments replaced it after the Second World War. In 1937, Fessard studied skin and muscle receptors as did Adrian. In the 1960s Fessard remembered “I made a microphysiological investigation in the spirit of the Cambridge school on sensitive messages from muscle receptors.” Fessard could get a fellowship from the Rockefeller foundation to spend six months in Plymouth, in the Marine Biological Association laboratory, to work with zoologist Sand on the reponses of the receptors from the pelvian fin of the ray with Matthews’ oscillograph. Back to France, Fessard continued similar studies with a Dubois's oscillograph, adopting an experimental set-up similar to that of Matthews. The British lesson was put in practice in France. Fessard collaborated with Captain Francis Echlin from the medical corps of the United States Army, on the high frequency stimulation of muscles which could synchronise the muscular discharge.

Fessard was at his ease with this British physiology which he learnt from various preparations and a high quality equipment which ran across national frontiers thanks to the personality and renown of Adrian. In 1939, Fessard obtained another Rockefeller fellowship to work with Matthews in the Department of Adrian. Fessard could record elementary dorsal root potentials which he and Matthews called “synaptic potentials”. On this same year (1939), Fessard organised a collaboration at the Arcachon marine station with two Jewish scientists escaping Germany Wilhelm Siegmund Feldberg (1900-1993) and David Nachmansohn (1899-1983). They all three could demonstrate the cholinergic transmission at the electric organ of torpedo fish, in favour of the chemical nervous transmission. This collaboration is an important sign of the new international standards in science which Fessard adopts in France after his stays in Great Britain.

Just before the burst of the Second World War, Fessard created his laboratory at the Marey Institute with funds from the Rockefeller foundation. The institute was a small cottage built by Étienne Jules Marey (1830-1904) to house an international commission devoted to the control and diffusion of graphic instruments devoted to physiology. Thanks to Piéron and his relations with the Singer-Polignac foundation, Fessard could buy electrophysiological equipment and Pierre Noguès (1878-1961), the former mechanical engineer of Mraey who lends Fessard his precision string electrometers. With start of the War and mobilization, the laboratory of Piéron moves to the Air Force military base at Mérignac, close to Bordeaux, and joins the department for medicophysiological examinations. In 1941, the wife of Fessard, Annette Baron, a psychologist, dies. The following year, Fessard works with Auguste Tournay (1878-1969) on poliomyelitis patients. Tournay helps him to create an electrophysiological laboratory devoted to pathology. Fessard marries Denise Albe (1916-2003) who is recruited at the CNRS as a technician.

The CNRS Centre for the studies of nervous physiology and electrophysiology.

After the War, Adrian invites Fessard to the Physiological Society Meeting in Oxford, where David Whitteridge (1912-1994) provides him with some electronic pieces useful to making stimulators and amplifiers necessary to electrophysiology. Those apparatuses are made by Denise Albe-Fessard, an electronic engineer and Pierre Buser who had a bachelor in physics and who became acquainted with electronics in the army when he was a radio officer.

In 1946, Fessard was sent on an official mission to visit the best American research centres in neurophysiology. Fessard developed many international collaborations, especially with Brasil on the study of electric fish. The CNRS decides that Fessard would direct a large institute, but the building was delayed, and it was temporarily placed in the Marey Institute, with the help of Emile Terroine, professor of physiology in Strasburg and Georges Jamati, deputy director of CNRS. In 1949, Piéron asked the Marey Institute should become again part of the Collège de France, as it was at the time of Marey. This same year, Fessard became professor at the Collège de France and Piéron retired. The Marey Institute was made possible by Piéron, not Lapicque, with the help of Henri Laugier, first director of CNRS.

It may seem surprising to see how fast the laboratory of Fessard developed and the amazing energy of its researchers in a short and difficult period after the war. At the end of the forties, Jacques Paillard (1920-2006), Ladislav Tauc (1926-1999), Jean Scherrer et Thomas Szabo joined the institute and worked in the fields of electromyography, EEG, intracellular recordings with glass pipettes. These successes were made possible by the strong and open-minded personality of Fessard who encouraged young investigators with different backgrounds. The Marey institute quickly became a centre where new techniques were taught according to its status defined by the CNRS. Pierre Buser wrote that “Fessard was able to organise, drive and direct it for 25 years, and to build an attractive centre where many young investigators came from France and abroad.

Fessard was professor at the Collège de France, he became member of the Academy of medicine, and of the Academy of sciences. He was able to build a French neurophysiological school of high and international level. The years 1955-1966 represented the climax of research activities in the institute. The CNRS centre included the laboratory of general physiology of the Collège de France and the physiological laboratory of nervous centres of the Sciences faculty directed by Albe-Fessard. The institute has more than 16 electrophysiological set-ups and includes 6 departments : physiology of nervous centres (D. Albe-Fessard), psychophysiology of behaviour (J. Delacour), psychophysiology of sense organs (Y. Galifret), comparative neurophysiology of sense organs (T. Szabo), cellular neurophysiology (L. Tauc), neuropharmacological biochemistry (J. Glowinski). J. Glowinski, a student of D. Albe-Fessard, was sent abroad to the laboratory of Julius Axelrod. When he was back, Fessard helped him to create a small laboratory at the Collège de France which was part of the Marey Institute. Aside from research fellows, the institute hosts post-docs from France and abroad, among whom Jacques Stinnakre, Henri Korn et Paul Feltz.

The heritage of Fessard

The community of neuroscientists honours Fessard for the foundation of French neuroscience in a few decades. The French Société des Neurosciences awards each year a Alfred Fessard Lecture to a renowned scientist. Fessard must be remembered for his pioneer studies, but also for his theoretical ideas. Before the rise of cybernetics, Fessard was interested in models of the nervous system, the selective distribution of nervous impulses, with a specific focus on coding. Fessard remains distant from cybernetics and modelling, however, he has close and friendly relations with the founders of cybernetics Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), and the neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch (1899- 1969) both invited by Fessard at the Marey institute. Fessard attends the 1951 CNRS meeting on cybernetics and calculating machines and mind organised by Louis Couffignal. Fessard supports the ideas of André Hugelin and the physician Barbizet, bith interested in cybernetics. Fessard also attends the French meeting on medical cybernetics with Michel Meulders in Nice (1966).

In the 50s and 60s, Fessard write his theoretical ideas in the framework of cybernetics. His remarkable contributions deal with the Mechanisms of nervous integration and conscious experience (1953 metting at Sainte Marguerite, Laurentides, Canada). Cybernetics represents for Fessard a way to question the functions of the brain, the mind and consciousness. He regrets, however, that this theoretical interest favours the development of models rather than experimental work. Finally, on the level of international relations of the 60s, Fessard contributes to the creation of IBRO and becomes a member of the executive central committee. He is elected at the Académie des Sciences.

Marey Institute and Physiological station,
Parc des Princes


Photos : E.J. Marey, Chronophotography, Marey Institute.

Seminar on Alfred Fessard et l'Institut Marey (1939-1960), Paris, Jussieu, Friday December 2, 2005
Audiorecords of the Conferences
part 1 (1h40mn)
part 2 (43mn)
part 3 (1h50mn)
Marey Institute directed by Alfred Fessard, Parc des Princes
  • The Marey institute Paper given at the European Society for the History of Science, Maastricht, October 2004
  • The Marey institute Paper given at the 22nd International Conference for History of Science, IUHPS/DHS, Beijing, July 24-30 2005

Laboratoire de Neurobiologie Cellulaire
Institut Alfred Fessard de Gif-sur-Yvette

History of the laboratory

Institut Fédératif de Neurobiologie Alfred Fessard

Institut  Alfred Fessard 

(excerpt from the website) The Institute Michel Pacha belongs to the university of Lyon. Since November 2003, terrestrial station Antares is located there. In June 1889, professor Raphaël Dubois, director of the laboratory of the université of Lyon, specialist in marine biology, meets Michel Pacha and ask for the building of a new laboratory. With his legendary generosity, Michel Pacha offers the land and materials required for the building, named after him. Paul Page inaugurates his master piecen the marine biological institute, in 1900. The mauresque façade uses plating with composite material. Polychrome and geometrical faience mosaic, interlacing patterns and palms decoration contrat with the whiteness of the building. The reference to Orientalism is completed by architectural elements such as Moorish arches, Bizantine and Ottoman capitals, moucharabieh, series of step merlons hiding the roof. The institute is a link between its site (Tamaris), Michel Pacha, and his history, the Ottoman Empire.

Michel Pacha Institute
Tamaris marine station

Théodule Ribot (1839-1916)

Théodule Ribot entered École normale supérieure in 1864. He was agrégé in 1866 and he became doctor in 1875. He taught philosophy at the Vesoul high school, and then in Laval. In Paris, he devoted his time to researches in experimental psychology. In 1885, the optional « cours libre officiel » (free official course) of experimental and comparative psychology was made for him at the Humanities Faculty of Paris. A chair of experimental and comparative psychology was created for him at the Collège de France in 1888. Some of his books are La Psychologle anglaise contemporaine (1870), L'Hérédité. Étude psychologique (1873), La Philosophie de Schopenhauer (1874), La Psychologie allemande contemporaine (1879), Les Maladies de la mémoire (1881), Les Maladies de la volonté (1882), Les Maladies de la personnalité (1885), La Psychologie de l'attention (1888), La Psychologie des sentiments (1896), L'Evolution des idées genérales (1897), Essai sur l'imagination créatrice (1900), La Logique des sentiments (1904), Essai sur les passions (1906).


  • Essai sur l'imagination créatrice
  • L'hérédité psychologique
  • La philosophie de Schopenhauer
  • La psychologie anglaise contemporaine (école expérimentale)
  • La psychologie des sentiments
  • La psychologie allemande contemporaine : (école expérimentale)
  • La vie inconsciente et les mouvements
  • Les maladies de la volonté
  • Les maladies de la mémoire
  • Problèmes de psychologie affective Psychologie de l'attention
  • Papers in the Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger

Louis Lapicque (1866-1952)

The current literature occasionally pays tribute to the work of Louis Lapicque, in particular those belonging to the field of the modelling of excitability, to the early French attempts dealing with cybernetics and his famous concept of chronaxie. In 1941, Maurice Caullery wrote, in the Compte rendu des sciences biologiques, that “Louis Lapicque is pursuing his studies on the nerve impulse, where he has established the notion of chronaxie with an unusual and rare dedication.”
Lapicque derives this parameter from stimulus-excitation curves of isolated nerves in 1909. French neurophysiology will be heavily influenced, if not dominated by the hegemony of this unique empirical index of excitability, taken as the foundation of a general theoretical framework over three decades and curiously adapting to the different debates on the modes of neurotransmission.
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Portrait de Lapicque

But Lapicque is progressively isolated when he rejects the progresses of neurophysiology and the refutations of his work by the Cambridge school. To the point that he lost his credit, abroad as in France, where his dogmatism became a weight and paralysed the beginnings of talented young physiologists, like Alfred Fessard, concerned to take part to the recent progresses in neurophysiology across the Channel and the Atlantic.

The figure of Louis Lapicque is one of the most criticized in the first half of the 20th C. Historians have condemned his theories refuted in the 1930s, without being always able to unravel all opposed claims. When Lapicque died in 1952, there is no doubt that a page turned in France, with the young school of Alfred Fessard. However, past colleagues and friends of Lapicque from all over the world paid tribute to the great physiologist, mentioning what particular pieces of work may have positively marked the progress of science.

Historical enquiry must evaluate this dark age of French neurophysiology. Lapicque gained recognition with his elaboration of a closed theoretical system, “a logical system almost complete”, in parallel to the dominant ideas of Sherrington and Pavlov. In the same time he was asking his students to remain silent, and so he put French neurophysiology in a dead-end track and discredited his Paris school. Once again, the Collège de France was imperiously called for rescue in the 1930s (as it had been for Magendie, or Claude Bernard and Louis Ranvier) to overtake the overpowering dogmatism of Lapicque and help his pupil Alfred Fessard.

As Ivan P. Pavlov (1849-1936) and Charles Sherrington (1857-1952), Lapicque trained as a physician interested in the physiology of the nervous system. Contrary to both of them however, he had a personal taste for the physico-chemical study of the living matter, for example in his studies on the pathological accumulation of blood iron, the bioenergetics of food intake or the temporal aspects of nerve excitability. Lapicque follows a French line of thought which can be traced back from Lavoisier, Dutrochet to Claude Bernard and his master Albert Dastre. French physiology, which became autonomous at the turn of the 20th C., was heavily relying on the physico-chemical analysis of life, while rejecting the old dogmatism and hegemony of anatomy, a discipline considered as secondary in the Bernardian hierarchy of disciplines.

The role of German scientific literature in the scientific fields of Lapicque is evident and he mastered it with success in the study of nervous excitability, a field a research he got involved in, following the works of Hoorweg and French Georges Weiss. The algebraic formulation of the laws of excitability enabled him to recapitulate experimental measures, with the establishment of strict correlations between experimental factors, justified a priori by elementary laws, in a similar way than that of the research style of bioenergetics.

Lapicque rapidly took over this field of study of nervous excitability, summarizing the data of his predecessors, Hoorweg and Weiss, with his expert acquaintance in mathematics. He corrected an excitability algebraic formula by taking into account slow invertebrate muscles, which contraction by small currents does not require the brief currents pulses required in the study of faster muscles.

In 1906, Weiss quitted the field (although he maintained a short polemic with Lapicque on the physiological significance of his algebraic formula), and Lapicque had free hands to develop his research program on the Parisian scientific scene concerning the comparisons of nervous and muscular excitabilities of various biological preparations. During these studies, Lapicque derived the chronaxie parameter in order to rapidly compare the excitability curves of his preparations. Chronaxie is the minimal time interval for an efficient stimulation current which intensity is double that of the lower efficient intensity current of prolonged duration (rheobase) [or in others words, the rheobase is the lowest intensity with indefinite pulse duration which just stimulates muscles or nerves and chronaxie is the minimum time required for an electric current double the strength of the rheobase to stimulate a muscle or a nerve]. The advantage of chronaxie is that it discriminates well between different types of excitable tissues by taking into consideration a single point in the middle of the exponential stimulus-response curve.

However, Lapicque has made chronaxie a general and principal ingredient of all his experimental work and theoretical reasoning in a self-sufficient manner. The two key concepts Lapicque built from chronaxie were isochronism and subordination of chronaxie. In nerve-muscle coupling, isochronism refers to the similarity in the chronaxies of muscles and nerves as a necessary condition for the nerve to stimulate the muscle. This reasoning is reminiscent of others – some of them more recent – giving a great epistemic value to the match between temporal parameters.

Using the concept of chronaxie, Lapicque explained the blocking effect of curare as a change in muscular chronaxie, which blocked transmission. In addition, Lapicque explained the aiguillage or switch from one nerve track to another by specific blockade of transmission in one path by a chronaxie change.
Subordination of chronaxie refers to the ability of nerve centres to control at distance the chronaxie of nervous effectors. In such a manner that isochronism is controlled at a central level.

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laboratoire de Lapicque aux alentours de 1905

This theory or ideology of Lapicque relies in fact on the radical rejection of any strict anatomical determinism, in a critical manner, common to many physiologists of his time, especially in France. However, Lapicque went too far in such reasoning without being critical enough in his theoretical views. According to Lapicque, the switch of the nerve impulse from one path to another could not depend on the structure of the network. In fact Ramón y Cajal adopted such reasoning when he explained that the nerve impulse would “choose” the path of least electrical resistance. The reasoning of Lapicque remained at the level of the speculative histophysiology of his time, imposing isochronism as a general law, considered as wrong experimentally in the first decades of the 20th C.

In 1913, we have another proof of the kind of horror Lapicque felt concerning anatomical determinism. He had established earlier an inverse relation between chronaxie, the speed of nerve impulse propagation and nerve fibre diameters in different nerves of the dog. This subject was the only one Gasser got interested in and involved while travelling in Europe in the 1920s. This led to a collaborative paper by Lapicque and Gasser. Gasser, Nobel Prize 1944, pursued the work with oscillography. Lapicque often lamented in the 1930s and 1940s about the lack of oscillographs and oscilloscopes in French laboratories. What is striking is that Lapicque finally rejected the correlation established with Gasser since – according to him – the speed of the nerve impulse and chronaxie (both of which are related) could not depend simply on a structural determinant. Rather they represent for him general properties of any excitable tissues, independent on their form, and relying on specific physico-chemical properties of the cellular protoplasm.

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Lapicque juste avant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, 1939

The speculations of Lapicque comforted physiologists and psychologists concerning the nervous mechanisms of the brain by the generalisation of his data from precise experimental measurements.

It is generally unknown that Lapicque checked carefully in 1904, in the laboratory of Albert Dastre, the kinetics of his stimulating currents with a Blondel oscillograph belonging to Georges Weiss, loaned to physicist Edmond Bouty in the Sorbonne.

Yves Galifret told J.G. Barbara that some psychologist friend of his, back from a conference of Lapicque in the 1940s or very early 1950s, told him that Lapicque had solved the problem of switches between nervous paths (aiguillage) in the brain !

Of course, Lapicque overestimated the requirement of the identity of chronaxies during transmission. He thought he could attack the general and dominant neurophysiological problems of his time concerning the neurone or the synapse. For Lapicque, the neurone concept rather was anatomical and of little value for physiology. And the concept of the synapse was for Lapicque the physiological observation of the polarisation of the nervous communication between two nerve cells, while anatomical evidence was lacking.

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 yacht de Lapicque, L’axone

Reactions against Lapicque’s ideas on chronaxie built up across the Channel, in the British schools, where physiology and anatomy had never been as opposed as in France. British physiologist Keith Lucas (1879-1916) was sceptical concerning the action of curare depending on the destruction of isochronism and the appearance of heterochronism. He nevertheless accepted Lapicque’s concepts on the polarisation of synapses. For Edgar Adrian (1889-1977), Lucas’ pupil (Nobel Prize 1932), chronaxie was just one factor among others which determined the adaptive response of a nerve cell to a high frequency afferent discharge.

 In 1936, American physiologists, H. Davies et A. Forbes, wrote a review on Chronaxie where they advertised the critical work of W. Rushton against the experiments of Lapicque on curare. The conclusion of the review was clear: the theories of Lapicque do not conform to the most recent experimental results and are entirely speculative.

 That same year, Lapicque accepted to meet A.V. Hill, (Nobel Prize 1922), at Plymouth, for discussion of the controversy. Lapicque crossed the Channel with his yacht L’Axone, for a last discussion on the subject. When Hill was surprised to see his friend coming on his own boat, Lapicque replied “You never believe me!” Lapicque justified his claims with no change in his positions. The same year he was invited to a Cold Spring Habor Laboratory Symposium but did not come. Instead, his pupil Alexandre Monnier read his paper. Monnier, and his friend H. Jasper who spent a year at Lapicque’s laboratory in the Sorbonne before switching to eeg, replied to the questions of R. Gerard and H. Davis. The conversation was polite but it failed to hide the dead end of Lapicque’s ideas, which were of no more interest to the international community, now more concerned with the slow rhythms of nerve centres and the implication of single neurones.

 There were serious concerns about French neurophysiology before the Second World War. Following British historian J. Harvey, is it fair to condemn Lapicque because he did not admit the limits of his model at the eve of his scientific life? But this may not be the essential question. In 1939, Lapicque summarised his career in a preface to a book of his pupil Paul Chauchard and wrote: “Indeed, chronaxie has met some systematic disagreement in the large audience of the international world of physiologists which honoured me. Six or eight years ago, chronaxie was the subject of vivid discussions on its recording procedure and its functional significance. I thought I had been efficient in refuting all objections with experimental evidence; my opponent himself [Rushton] had abandoned the battle after he wrote a last polemical paper where he put a short supplement recognising the validity of most of my evidence. The question seemed settled to me; yet I note with much regret that important physiological groups consider my theories definitively abandoned without any debate. For them, all this became a dogma not worth discussing anymore.” But Lapicque was condemning in the same way that people condemned Lapicque himself for his ideas with no reaction of his part. Was the entire world guilty of not listening Lapicque anymore or isn’t that Lapicque was himself guilty of not having taken into account the novel concepts which could have reoriented his own in a more modern way? Lapicque wished to know nothing of all this. His pupils remember. Lapicque is not only responsible for his scientific isolation, but also of that of his entire school. As often in scientific polemics, evidence of either parts are so precisely adjusted that the winner and the looser are not determined only by scientific rationality at the exact moment when the polemic is over. Rather, the page turns slowly, when the winner follows his path and the loser’s authority fails. The real scientific reasons appear often later, with successes and errors revealed in both adverse sides. Therefore, the result often belongs to the historian who can better judge with the necessary distance without compromising the incontestable social dimensions of the story.
There is however no doubt in the case of Lapicque. His career began debating justified and attractive hypotheses but soon impeded any progress and evolution of his Parisian school of neurophysiology for years. In particular, the chemical theory of neurotransmission, although Lapicque accepted it in the case of ganglia, became a central epistemological obstacle that Alfred Fessard had to face in France.
It is in this difficult context that began the career of Fessard. The École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) and the Collège de France (Henri Piéron) enabled Fessard to escape Lapicque. As préparateur at EPHE, he trained with plant physiologist Daniel Auger to oscillography and he soon collaborated with him on the study of the excitability of plant cells and their action potentials. Lapicque communicated their Notes to the Académie des Sciences. In 1927, Fessard entered the Collège de France (chair of H. Piéron) and continued these researches with H. Laugier et D. Auger, and also on Torpedo fish at Arcachon with the isolation of small electrical units of the electric organ and the demonstration of isochronism for the electric discharge. Only progressively could Fessard escape Lapicque’s framework in the study of the rhythmic activity of nerves where Fessard followed the ideas of the British and American schools, discussing the results of K. Lucas, E.D. Adrian, H. Gasser, J. Erlanger or G. Bishop. Besides chronaxie and rheobase, Fessard used the concepts of polarisation, refractory period, supracritical potentials. Fessard worked as a postdoctoral fellow first at Plymouth and then in the physiological laboratory of Adrian. In 1939, he collaborated at Arcachon marine station (France) with W. Feldberg and D. Nachmanson and demonstrated the cholinergic nature at the junction of the electric organ of Torpedo fish. Fessard found his own path and could recognise the errors of his master Lapicque. When he gave his first opening lecture course at the Collège de France in 1949, Lapicque was still in the audience! Thus Fessard’s career reminds us of how much time was lost for French neurophysiology due to the dogmatism of a single man.

Bibliography : Works of Lapicque can be found at the BNF website (http://gallica.bnf.fr) : Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l'Académie des sciences. See 124 :1044, 136 :1147 et 1477, 115 :537, 155 :70, 157 :1163, 179 :77, 180 :1056, 193 :1037.

J. Harvey. L’autre côté du miroir : French neurophysiology and English interpretations, in Les sciences biologiques et médicales en France 1920-1950. Cl. Debru, ed. Paris, CNRS Éditions, 1994.

J.C. Dupont.Autour d’une controverse sur l’excitabilité : Louis Lapicque et l’École de Cambridge, in Les sciences biologiques et médicales en France 1920-1950. Cl. Debru, ed. Paris, CNRS Éditions, 1994.

K. Lucas. La conduction de l’influx nerveux, Paris, Gauthier-Villard, 1920, p. 88 et 120.

E. Adrian. The mechanism of nervous action. Philadelphia, Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 1932, p. 59-60.

H. Davies, A. Forbes. Phys Rev, 1936, 16, 407-441.

P. Chauchard. Les facteurs de la transmission ganglionnaire. Paris, Hermann, 1939, p. II-III.

J.G. Barbara. L’Institut Marey (1947-1978), La Lettre des Neurosciences, n°27, p. 3-5.

Henri Piéron

Papers of Henri Piéron. After studies in philosophy, Henri Piéron (1881-1964) was one of the founders of the Société clinique de médecine mentale in 1908. He was educated in experimental research at the physiological psychology laboratory of Alfred Binet at the Sorbonne. In 1901, he was trained in the experimental laboratory of Villejuif. Soonafter Piéron started education in physiology which led him to his doctorate of natural sciences in 1912. The same year, he became director of the laboratory of physiological psychology at the Sorbonne. In 1920, he obtained the creation of the Institute of Psychology, the first university institute in France. In 1923, Piéron became Professor at the Collège de France, with his chair of physiologie des sensations created for him. He set up a laboratory attached to École pratique des hautes études in 1926. In 1937, Piéron became President of the section of Naturel Sciences at EPHE. He was part of the creation of CNRS with Jean Perrin in 1939. He directed the laboratory of human biometry in 1940 in Paris and at the Marey institute. He was also president of the Association française pour l’avancement des sciences. Together with Wallon, he prepared a project of reform of French education in 1944. His two main books La sensation guide de vie and De l’actinie à l’homme appeared in 1945 and 1958 respectively. Selected works: Le cerveau et la pensée (Alcan,1913); La sensation, guide de vie (Gallimard, 1945); De l'actinie à l'Homme (PUF, 1958-1959). Hommage à H. Piéron, Année psychologique, Paris, PUF, 1952. F. Parot, Les archives d'H. Piéron, La Gazette des Archives, 1989, 145, 146-184. Oléron (Geneviève). 1982. Centenaire de la naissance d'Henri Piéron : 1881-1981, Bulletin de psychologie, 354(35) (fasc. 6-7), p. 273-279. Fraisse (Paul). 1982.Henri Piéron : instaurateur de la psychologie scientifique, Bulletin de psychologie, 354(35) (fasc. 6-7), p. 280-284. Galifret (Yves). 1982. La psychophysique et la physiologie sensorielle dans l'œuvre de Piéron, Bulletin de psychologie, 354(35) (fasc. 6-7), p. 291-294.

The laboratory of differential
psychology in Paris

Paper on the origin and development of the laboratory by Maurice REUCHLIN, Emeritus professor at university René Descartes, Paris V

La Société d'Ergonomie
de Langue Française

History of the foundation
SELF website

CNRS Archives

CNRS archives website
Jussieu location before the building of the new university

Colloquium in honour of Sir Edgar Adrian Cambridge, 1964
with Edgar Adrian (first row, center), Alfred Fessard, John Eccles, Yves Laporte, Herbert Jasper, Ragnar Granit, Alan Hodgkin...( Jean Fessard collection)

Joseph Babinski

Three papers by Jacques Poirier :

Jean Nageotte

Jacques Paillard

The personal papers of Jacques Paillard were collected by Denis Paillard, François Clarac and Transferred to Paris by Jean-Gaël Barbara. Sylvie Vanden Abeele, a former PhD of Paillard and Jean-Gaël Barbara, historian of the neurosciences, classified the papers and convinced the Archives Nationales to accept them. They were given by Paillard’s family to the Archives Nationales and public access is now possible. Papers include personal notes from early education to international meetings, agendas, research reports, correspondence, administrative files, documents concerning Hoffmann Club, correspondence with IBHP and UISB, reading notes, talks, preparatory works for papers and drawings sent to him by Jean Perdrizet (*).

(*) Jean Perdrizet Villers-la-Faye, 1907 – Digne, 1975
Jean Perdrizet was an assistant engineer trained at Ponts et Chaussées in Grenoble military engineer service (1934 -1937), and at Électricité de France (1944 à 1949). He settled in Dignes in 1935 and names himself “inventor”. He is locally known for building flying saucers hang on his frontdoor or human helicopters. He later explained how he first made “an horrible artwork, a terrible prototype which hardly works, but works, and then a rather beautiful drawing”. He explained he sent “two tonns [of drawings] in 40 years.” Jean Perdrizet’s work is a mixture of drawings, mathematical formulas, theoretical explanations, with linguistic and metaphysical reflecions. Perdrizet colours printed drawings and technical drawings before sending them to scientific institutions possibly interested such as NASA, CNRS, Nobel comity, with the hope to obtain a Nobel prize. A constant idea of Perdrizet’s inventions is to try to communicate with the immaterial world, phantoms or extra-terrestrial spirits. He creates a universal language, the T language he called “esperanto sidéral”. He writes a manual of “langue T” and makes a typewriter. His drawings are much more than simply technical drawings. Mathematician José Argémi, close to surrealist circles, recognised their graphical and poetic strengths. Les chemins de l’art brut à Saint-Alban (Lozère) : Trait d’union

René Couteaux (1909-1999)

Institut de Neurophysiologie et de Psychophysiologie (INP) Marseille (1963)

L’Institut de Neurophysiologie
et de Psychophysiologie
Laboratory council at the
Institut de Neurophysiologie
et de Psychophysiologie

L’Institut des Neurosciences
(quai Saint Bernard, Jussieu, Paris)


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