Paul Bert

Paul Bert (17 October 1833 – 11 November 1886) was a French zoologist, physiologist and politician. He is sometimes given the sobriquet "Father of Aviation Medicine".

Paul Bert
Born17 October 1833 (1833-10-17)
Died11 November 1886 (1886-11-12) (aged 53)
Alma materÉcole polytechnique
Known foroxygen toxicity
Scientific career
InfluencesLouis Pierre Gratiolet
Claude Bernard


Bert was born at Auxerre (Yonne). He studied law, earning a doctorate in Paris; then, under the influence of the zoologist Louis Pierre Gratiolet (1815–1865), he took up physiology, becoming one of Claude Bernard's most brilliant students. After graduating at Paris as doctor of medicine in 1863, and doctor of science in 1866, he was appointed professor of physiology successively at Bordeaux (1866) and the Sorbonne (1869). [1]

After the "Commune de Paris" (1870) he began to take part in politics as a supporter of Gambetta. In 1874 he was elected to the Assembly, where he sat on the extreme left, and in 1876 to the chamber of deputies. He was one of the most determined enemies of clericalism, and an ardent advocate of "liberating national education from religious sects, while rendering it accessible to every citizen."[1]

From 14 November 1881 to 30 January 1882 he was minister of education and worship in Gambetta's short-lived cabinet, and in 1881 he created a great sensation by a lecture on modern Catholicism, delivered in a Paris theatre, in which he poured ridicule on the fables and follies of the chief religious tracts and handbooks that circulated especially in the south of France.[1]

Bert was unexpectedly named resident general of the French Republic in Annam and Tonkin on 31 January 1886.[2] He left France in February 1886 accompanied by a dozen people including Antony Klobukowski, former chief of staff of Charles Thomson, and Charles François Laurent, inspector of finances.[3] Bert died of dysentery at Hanoi on 11 November 1886.[1] After Bert's death Klobukowski and Laurent were listed among the subscribers in Tonkin to a fund to erect a statue in Bert's honour.[4]


He was more distinguished as a man of science than as a politician or administrator. His classical work, La Pression barometrique (1878), embodies researches that gained him the biennial prize of 20,000 francs from the Academy of Sciences in 1875, and is a comprehensive investigation on the physiological effects of air-pressure, both above and below the normal.[5] Central nervous system oxygen toxicity was first described in this publication and is sometimes referred to as the "Paul Bert effect".[5][6] He showed that oxygen was toxic to insects, arachnids, myriapods, molluscs, earthworms, fungi, germinating seeds, birds, and other animals.

His earliest researches, which provided him with material for his two doctoral theses, were devoted to animal grafting and the vitality of animal tissues, and they were followed by studies on the physiological action of various poisons, on anaesthetics, on respiration and asphyxia, on the causes of the change of color in the chameleon, etc.[1]

He was also interested in vegetable physiology, and in particular investigated the movements of the sensitive plant, and the influence of light of different colours on the life of vegetation.

He wrote a very successful textbook with Raphael Blanchard Éléments de zoologie G. Masson (Paris), 1885.

In The Phrenological journal and science of health (1883) it was claimed that he held an atheistic belief[7]

Racist theories

After about 1880, he produced several elementary textbooks of scientific instruction and also various publications on educational and allied subjects. Widely used in French schools for decades as the basis for scientific education, his book La Deuxième année d'enseignement scientifique (34th edition: Armand Colin, 1896) claimed that whites are far superior and more intelligent than both blacks and the Chinese. He thus followed Arthur de Gobineau's Aryan supremacist theories, then quite popular, which were later used by the Nazis.

He also actively opposed the granting of any political rights for the indigenous people in French Algeria.

See also


  1. Chisholm 1911.
  2. Chailley-Bert 1887, p. 1.
  3. Chailley-Bert 1887, p. 14.
  4. Cousin 1886, p. 22.
  5. Bert, Paul (1943) [First published in French in 1878]. Barometric pressure: Researches in Experimental Physiology. Columbus, OH: College Book Company. Translated by: Hitchcock, Mary Alice; Hitchcock, Fred A.
  6. Acott, Chris (1999). "Oxygen toxicity: A brief history of oxygen in diving". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 29 (3): 150–5. ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved 2011-10-16.
  7. "Dr. Paul Bert, the atheist Minister of Public Instruction, in M. Gambetta's Cabinet, made the next greatest sensation of the Congress." The Phrenological journal and science of health: incorporated with the Phrenological magazine, Volume 76, Fowler & Wells (1883), page 42.


  • Chailley-Bert, Joseph (1887), Paul Bert au Tonkin (in French), Paris, p. 404, retrieved 2017-10-17
  • Cousin, Jules, ed. (1886), L'Avenir du Tonkin (in French), Librairie F. Crettier, retrieved 2017-10-17


  • Marotte, Henri (2006). "The exposure of man to altitude when flying: from Paul Bert to today". Journal de la Société de Biologie. 200 (3): 251–5. doi:10.1051/jbio:2006029. PMID 17417140.
  • Rostène, William (2006). "Paul Bert, scientist and politician". Journal de la Société de Biologie. 200 (3): 245–50. doi:10.1051/jbio:2006028. PMID 17417139.
  • Rudolph, G (1993). "In memory of Paul Bert (1833-1886) and the development of high altitude physiology in Switzerland". Gesnerus. 50 ( Pt 1-2): 79–95. PMID 8365675.
  • Dejours, P; Dejours S (October 1992). "The effects of barometric pressure according to Paul Bert: the question today". International Journal of Sports Medicine. 13 Suppl 1: S1–5. doi:10.1055/s-2007-1024577. PMID 1483742.
  • Monod, H (August 1988). "Paul Bert at Bordeaux apropos of a letter". Archives Internationales de Physiologie et de Biochimie. 96 (3): A43–6. PMID 2463800.
  • Jacquemin, C (August 1988). "Paul Bert or positive science in the service of national policy". Archives Internationales de Physiologie et de Biochimie. 96 (3): A34–42. PMID 2463799.
  • Leonhardt, M (January 1987). "Paul Bert (1833-1886)". Der Pathologe. 8 (1): 61. PMID 3550778.
  • Trago, V (October 1986). "Paul Bert and the flight of the Zenith". Medicine's Geographic Heritage. 2: 66–72. PMID 11613723.
  • Cui, H (1986). "In commemoration of the centenary anniversary of the passing away of Paul Bert, one of the founders of aero-medicine and diving medicine". Zhonghua Yi Shi Za Zhi (Beijing, China : 1980). 16 (2): 116–8. PMID 11612004.
  • Fontaine, M (1986). "Homage to Paul Bert (1833-1886)". Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de biologie et de ses filiales. 180 (1): 7–9. PMID 2943374.
  • Keys, T E (1973). "Dr. Paul Bert (1833-1886)". Anesthesia and Analgesia. 52 (3): 437–8. doi:10.1213/00000539-197305000-00029. PMID 4574964.
  • Tindal, Andrew (1973). "The perfect anaesthetic. Anaesthesia by the method of Paul Bert: Surgo, vol. VII, No. 2, 1941". Anesthesia and Analgesia. 52 (3): 361–8. doi:10.1213/00000539-197352030-00013. PMID 4574962.
  • Hitchcock, F A (October 1971). "Paul Bert and the beginnings of aviation medicine". Aerospace medicine. 42 (10): 1101–7. PMID 4937813.
  • "Paul Bert (1833-1886), aviation physiologist". Journal of the American Medical Association. 211 (11): 1849–50. March 1970. doi:10.1001/jama.211.11.1849. PMID 4905892.
  • Jacquemin, C; Varène P (December 1968). "Paul Bert and body plethysmography (1868-1968)". La Presse Médicale. 76 (50): 2403–4. PMID 4895138.
  • Mani, N (1966). "Paul Bert as politician, educator and founder of the physiology of altitude". Gesnerus. 23 (1): 109–16. PMID 5330817.
  • Seghers, M J; Longacre J J (February 1964). "Paul Bert And His Animal Grafts". Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. 33 (2): 178–86. doi:10.1097/00006534-196402000-00009. PMID 14120252.

Further reading

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