Paul Bert Biography (1833-1886)


Paul Bert was a French physiologist whose research laid the foundation for understanding how the body reacts to significant changes in air pressure. Thiswork has proved useful both to undersea explorers and divers and those involved in space exploration.

Born in Auxerre, France, Bert originally entered the École Polytechnique in Paris intending to become an engineer. Changing his mind, he first studied law, then became a student of the Claude Bernard, one of the greatest physiologists of the nineteenth century, and the founder of experimental medicine.

Appointed as a professor of physiology, first at Bordeaux in 1866, then at the Sorbonne (1869-86), he studied the effects of altitude on animals. He discovered that altitude sickness in these animals was caused mainly by a lack ofoxygen in the air at high altitudes. In addition, he studied hot air ballonists and discovered that the effects of various respiratory gasses dissolved intheir blood were proportional to their partial pressures and not to their concentrations in the bloodstream.

Bert was also interested in what happened to blood gasses when people were exposed to greater than normal pressures. This led him to study divers and thephenomenon of decompression sickness. From his studies, he determined that the high external pressures the divers experienced forced large quantities of nitrogen gas from the atmosphere to dissolve in their blood. When the externalpressure was relieved as the diver surfaced, this nitrogen came out of the blood stream in the form of bubbles. These bubbles blocked the capillaries (the smallest blood vessels) causing the painful phenomenon that divers called the bends.

In 1875, Bert was awarded a prize of 20,000 francs from the Academy of Sciences for this research. Three years later, he compiled his findings into a book, La Pression baroméetrique: recherches de physiologie expéerimentale, called in English Barometric Pressure: Researches in Experimental Physiology. Bert's work provided a foundation for the developmentof aviation medicine, a field of importance during World War II. Still laterit served as a starting point in early aerospace research on the effects of changes in pressure on astronauts. In addition to his book on barometric pressure, Bert also wrote several elementary science textbooks.

Bert had other interests besides the effects of air pressure on the body. Heexperimented with animal tissue grafting and studied the effects of various poisons on the respiration and physiological function of different animals. Healso was interested in plant physiology and studied the influence of different colored light on plant growth.

At a time when the Catholic church was deeply involved in education in France, Paul Bert was looked at as a left wing radical, dedicated to providing public education free of church influence. He was elected to the Assembly in 1874, and in 1881 was briefly a cabinet minister of education and worship. His political career was not nearly as successful as his scientific career.

In 1886 Bert was appointed governor-general in Anham and Tonkin (now Vietnam)where the French were a colonial presence. He strove to liberalize French colonial rule and to increase the role the Vietnamese played in the colonial judicial system. Unfortunately, after only a short time as governor-general, hedied of dysentery in Hanoi.

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