Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Sketch of Paul Bert

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IN Paul Bert we have an. example of a man who was able to achieve equal eminence in scientific research and in political life; and one of those extremely rare cases in which the excellence of scientific achievement was not apparently marred by the worker's participation in political activity. Announcing his death in the Chamber of Deputies, in November, 1886, M. de Freycinet said, "The members of the Chamber lose in him an eminent colleague, science one of its most illustrious representatives, and the Government an inestimable fellow-laborer in whom it had placed entire confidence."

M. Bert was born at Auxerre, on the 17th of October, 1833. He pursued his studies in his native town and in Paris, and obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1863. His graduating thesis was upon animal grafting, and in it, M. Gaston Tissandier says, the physiologist marked himself as an eminently original investigator and skillful experimenter. Three years after-ward, in 1866, he was admitted as a Doctor in Natural Science on the basis of a thesis upon the "Vitality of the Animal Tissues." His first labors attracted attention particularly by the interesting and curious nature of the results obtained. Animal grafting, an operation consisting of the removal of a living part and transplanting it so that it shall continue to live on another part of the same individual or on another individual, was studied in a special manner by the young physiologist, who was enabled thereby to shed a new light on the properties of the nerves. This was remarked by Claude Bernard, in whose laboratory he became an assistant, who discerned an ingenious mind in him, and predicted the brilliant future that awaited him. In 1865 the Academy of Sciences decreed to M. Bert the prize in Experimental Physiology. Two years later, in 1867, he was appointed to a chair in the Faculty of Sciences at Bordeaux; and in December, 1869, he was named Professor of Physiology in the Faculty of Sciences in Paris, as Bernard's successor. Here, in the possession of a vast field of study, M. Bert, with the financial aid of Dr. Jourdanet, constructed costly and magnificent apparatus for the execution of experiments on barometric pressure in relation to the effects it exerts on the organism. Dr. Jourdanet, having removed from the borders of the Gulf of Mexico to the highlands of Anahuac, had observed differences in pathological conditions, which he discovered, to his surprise, were not simply such as result from temperature or are paralleled in places of lower level and higher latitude, but presented peculiarities which he conceived to be dependent on the elevation of the situation alone. Among these conditions was a poverty of the blood-corpuscles in oxygen, which. lie believed to be a result of the feeble pressure of the atmosphere in those regions. In the study of the question of the influence of atmospheric pressure on health, which he was led by these observations to undertake, he availed himself of the aid of M. Bert's experimental skill. M. Bert performed a long series of experiments upon small animals exposed to atmospheres of various pressures. The book in which he gave an account of them includes full reviews of excursions into great altitudes, of observations on mountain-sickness, and of balloon ascensions to great heights. An experimental ascension in the balloon Zenith was made in 1875 in aid of this investigation, its special object being to determine the quantity of carbonic acid contained in the atmosphere at an altitude of twenty-four thousand feet. Three persons went up in the balloon, two of whom, M. Sivel and M. Crocé Spinelli, perished at a height of about twenty-four thousand feet, from the effects of the rarefied air, while the survivor, M. Gaston Tissandier, was made insensible for a considerable length of time. The main cause of the disaster was believed to be "the vertigo of high regions," by which the aeronauts were excited to throw out ballast and go higher, when prudence should have dictated to them to descend. The main object of the expedition was not attained, because the instruments also were thrown out and broken. The balloon reached a height of eight thousand six hundred metres, as was shown by the maximum barometers. The results of Prof. Bert's experiments were published in 1878, in his work "La Pression barométrique; Recherches de Physiologie expérimentale" ("Barometric Pressure; Researches in Experimental Physiology"). Among his principal conclusions were those that the diminution of barometric pressure acts on living beings only by diminishing the tension of the air which they breathe, in the blood which animates their tissues, and by thus exposing them to the dangers of asphyxia; that the increase of atmospheric pressure acts only by increasing the tension of the oxygen in the air and the blood; that the inconvenient effects of diminution of pressure may be efficaciously combated by the respiration of an air sufficiently rich in oxygen to maintain the tension of that gas at its normal value, and those of the increase of pressure may be combated by employing air sufficiently poor in oxygen to arrive at the same result; that the beings actually existing in a wild state on the surface of the globe are accommodated to the degrees of oxygenated tension under which they live; that barometric pressure and the proportion per cent of oxygen have not always been the same on our globe—the tension of the gas has apparently been, and will without doubt continue to go on, diminishing; and that it is inaccurate to teach that plants must have appeared on the earth before animals, in order to purify the atmosphere of the great quantity of carbonic acid which it contained. In fact, germination, even that of mildew, does not take place in air sufficiently charged with carbonic acid to be fatal to warm-blooded animals. It is quite as inaccurate to explain the anteriority of reptiles to warm-blooded animals by the impurity of the air tainted with too much carbonic acid. Reptiles, in fact, are more injured by this gas than birds, and still more so than mammals.

For these experiments, the Academy of Sciences, judging them worthy of the highest recompense in its power to bestow, awarded to Prof. Bert its grand biennial prize of twenty thousand francs.

Another important research of M. Bert was concerning the safe administration of chloroform and other anæsthetics, for which he devised a special apparatus.

A considerable portion of the work of Prof. Bert was performed in the public service. After the military disasters of 1870, he became Secretary-General of the prefecture of the Yonne, and in January, 1871, prefect of the Département du Nord. He resigned this office when Gambetta retired from the Department of War. He was chosen deputy from the Yonne in 1874; took his seat among the Extreme Left; and participated actively in the discussions of the National Assembly, particularly on questions relating to ecclesiastical and educational matters, strongly opposing the pretensions of the clergy to control the education of the young, making alarming exposures of the abuses which it was alleged they had allowed to be introduced into the schools, and condemning the teachings of some of their text-books. He advocated the giving of an annual pension of twelve thousand francs to Pasteur, and was one of the deputies who, in 1877, refused to give a vote of confidence to the De Broglie ministry. From 1877 to 1879 he represented the Canton of Ailtenet in the General Council of the Yonne. His appointment, in 1881, in the Gambetta ministry, as Minister of Public Instruction and Worship, was regarded with great disfavor by the clericals, who looked upon him as their pronounced enemy. His administration of the office was able, and furthered the movement to secularize the schools. The bill passed by the Chamber in March, 1884, was his work, and was a stringent measure for the accomplishment of that purpose. It directed the Government to secularize the state schools entirely within five years, by appointing lay teachers instead of the friars and nuns, who had a large proportion of the schools under their control; debarred the clergy and members of religious orders from the direction of primary schools as teachers, inspectors, or members of the educational councils, or of the officially appointed school boards; and forbade lay instructors from accepting salaried employments in the churches.

M. Bert was appointed in January, 1886, French Governor-General of Tonquin, and Minister-General to the court of Anam, where his functions were to be largely those of organization. He engaged himself with the duties of this mission with characteristic enthusiasm, applying himself almost equally to the performance of the civil work of his position, and to efforts for the encouragement of science in the new French dependency in which he was stationed. One of the last occasions on which he appeared in public in France was at the unveiling of the statue erected at the entrance of the Collége de France to the memory of Claude Bernard, where he delivered one of the addresses. At the ensuing meeting of the Academy of Sciences he made a farewell address, in anticipation of his departure, in which he expressed a hope that the young naturalists of the West would begin to turn their attention to the far East, and teach the learned classes of those regions more fully to appreciate the superiority of European science. "I rely on them," he added, "to increase our moral influence, and also to enlarge our knowledge of that region, in many places still unexplored, to study its resources, and prepare the way for the introduction of the great European industries. They will thus at once promote the interests of science and of France, a task enviable beyond all others."

Shortly after he had settled himself in his office in Tonquin, M. Bert published a decree to carry out a project, which he had entertained and matured before leaving France, for founding a Tonquinese Academy, on a plan similar to that on which Napoleon created the Egyptian Institute in 1798. It was set forth, in the preamble to this paper, that it was desirable to revive in the country which had been disturbed for so long a time the taste for literature and science, and to preserve to the people the vestiges of its glorious past, as well as to collect the scattered evidences of its ancient splendor. It was provided that the seat of the academy should be at Hanoi; and that its functions should be to investigate and collect everything of interest relating to Tonquin, to preserve ancient monuments, to initiate the people into the knowledge of modern sciences and civilization by translating and publishing in the Anamite language summaries of European works; to translate desirable Tonquinese works into French; to aid in forming a national library at Hanoi and public libraries in the principal towns; to publish monthly bulletins treating of scientific and other questions; and to put itself in relation with other Oriental societies in Europe and Asia. Various degrees would be given by the academy to Tonquinese, to be marked by a medal or emblem to be worn on the dress.

One of the last letters written by M, Bert from Hanoi was in reference to the improved lighting of the city at night. Gas being too dear, and the use of petroleum being a "barbarous expedient," he was anxious to know whether it would not be possible for him to make the Red River, which flows past the capital, produce the required illumination. "Would the expense be great?" he asked. "Only think, if we 'succeeded, we should be ahead of England and Japan!. . . Answer, and answer quickly; my days are numbered." This letter was deposited, by vote, in the archives of the Academy of Sciences at Paris.

During the first months, of his stay in Tonquin, M. Bert enjoyed the best of health. But the constant friction which existed between himself and the military authorities worried him, and the climate of Hanoi wore upon him. He concealed, as much as possible, the fact that he was becoming ill, and was anxious that none but good reports should go out concerning the country. When called to go to Anam in September, it was remarked on board the steamer that "he was ever full of that good humor which he had the gift of communicating to others. He was always surrounded by a little circle of friends, who left him the stronger and the better advised. At table his marvelous appetite contrasted curiously with the dejected features and languishing airs of his traveling companions, and it seemed as yet impossible to believe in his unforeseen, sudden death." "It is difficult," says the author of a letter in the "République Française," describing a "Last Interview" with him at this time, "to form any idea of the indefatigable activity which M. Bert had displayed ever since his departure from France. At Hanoi he was shut up in his room early in the morning till his family came to call him to breakfast. In the middle of the hot day, at the hour which even the most robust dedicate to rest and quiet, he was found at his work, which only ended at five, with the end of the day. At five—his family were waiting patiently for him; they were all going to drive out together, but the time passes, and M. Bert does not appear. He is looked for everywhere, and at last he comes, only to tell his friends that an officer is dying at the hospital, or that one of his functionaries is ill, and that he must go and see them both. At the Hanoi hospital, whence the French soldiers and travelers are buried who have died in the neighborhood, M. Bert followed each coffin to its last resting-place. Times without number he has walked through this hospital, distributing books and medicines, and bringing such consolation which only those can fully appreciate who have been ill away from their own country and their own people,"

Two weeks before his death he telegraphed confidentially to M. de Freycinet that he was ill, and it would be well to appoint his successor. M. de Freycinet replied that it would be better for him to rest, and that his retirement would be detrimental to the public interests; and he responded: "You are right; better die at my post than quit Tonquin just now." He had gone for rest to the Doson Peninsula, a favorite resort of Europeans in Tonquin for recreation, where he had. built him a small house in which "he intended to rest when he should be tired." He suffered a fresh attack of dysentery, from which he died in five days, on the 11th of November, 1886. On the announcement of his death in the Academy of Sciences, addresses were made by President Jurien de la Gravière and M. Vulpian, in which references were made on the great services which he had rendered to science—especially in his researches on the action of light on living organisms; on the physiology of respiration; on the influence exercised on man, animals, plants, and ferments, by increased or diminished pressure of atmospheric air, of carbonic acid, and of oxygen; and on his theory of the physiology of anæsthetics, and his efforts to render absolutely inoffensive the inhalation of protoxide of nitrogen. M. Bert, M. Vulpian added, was endowed with one of the most open minds to be found, and his prodigious facility in work permitted him to bring many tasks to the front. Most of his researches were undertaken and carried to a good result while he seemed to be wholly given up to labors of another kind. What might we not yet have expected from his indefatigable energy?

M. Bert was endowed with an extraordinary capacity for work. Although in his latter days political life seemed to absorb his attention, he found time to receive numerous visitors, to prepare standard works, to write scientific articles, and to keep up a voluminous correspondence. While he was regarded by the general public as harsh and authoritative, he was in private life a man of charming simplicity and a most agreeable conversationalist. His Wednesday evening receptions in his apartments in Paris were most agreeable occasions to all who were privileged to participate in them, and were marked by a free flow of conversation in which the host was among the most lively talkers, and science always held a prominent position. He had, says M. Gaston Tissandier, an absolute faith in himself, and did not believe that his star could be dimmed. He departed for Tonquin with the feeling that he had a great duty to perform, and was glad to believe that the difficulties in the way of his mission would yield before his determination to triumph over them.

Besides the volume on "Barometric Pressure," already referred to, M. Bert's chief publications were "Revue des Travaux d'Anatomie et de Physiologie publié en France pendant l'Année 1864" (Review of the Works on Anatomy and Physiology published in France during the Year 1864), 1866; "Notes d'Anatomie et Physiologie comparées" (Notes on Comparative Anatomy and Physiology), second series, 1867-'70; "Recherches sur la Mouvement de la Sensitive" (Researches on the Movement of the Sensitive Plant); "Leçons sur la Physiologie comparée de la Respiration" (Lessons on the Comparative Physiology of Respiration), 1869; "Recherches expérimentales sur l'Influence que les Modifications exercent sur les Phénomènes de la Vie" (Experimental Researches on the Influence which Modifications exercise on the Phenomena of Life), 1874; "La Science expérimentale" (Experimental Science), 1878; "La Morale des Jésuites" (The Morals of the Jesuits), 1880; "Leçons, Discours et Conferences" (Lessons, Talks, and Lectures), 1880; "Leçons de Zoölogie professées à la Sorbonne" (Lessons in Zoölogy taught at the Sorbonne), 1881; "La première Année d'Enseignement scientifique: Sciences naturelles et physiques" (The First Year of Scientific Knowledge: Natural and Physical Sciences), 1882; "L'Instruction civique à l'École" (Civic Instruction at School), 1882; and "Discours parliamentaires" (Parliamentary Addresses), 1882. For many years he furnished a scientific feuilleton to M. Gambetta's journal, "La République Française," The "First Year of Scientific Knowledge" has been translated into English, and is published by D. Appleton & Co. It is intended for children beginning to study science, and has probably no superior in suitableness for that purpose. It has proved an extraordinarily popular book in France, where it is said to have made the author's name known to a vast number of persons who knew nothing of his eminence either in science or in politics.

Professor Archibald Geikie names four obvious sources of information regarding former conditions of the land: the testimony of historical documents; the names of places; tradition; and geological evidence. The historical testimony is not always direct, but is often very strong by incidental reference; and of this character are the allusions in poems and romances. Numerous local names which have now lost significance or seem inappropriate, are found upon analysis to have been descriptive, at the time, of the places on which they were conferred. So tradition, when well sifted, often throws light upon mooted points. Geological evidence is the best, the most accurate, the most lasting, and goes farthest back.

Some excellent maxims are given in a book on "The Ministry of Fine Art to the Happiness of Life," by Mr. Gambler Parry. On "The Purpose and Practice of Fine Art," the author says that "fine art comes of the union of love and labor, for without love it has no sufficient motive, and without labor it can have no success." The first step in a student's life, he adds, "is to divest his mind of all idea that genius can dispense with labor." A glaring fault of much of the work of the day is rebuked in the precept, "Of all the vices which pollute the source and thwart the progress of fine art, the striving after novelty is among the worst." Impatience and fickleness of purpose are condemned in "the genius most precious to mankind is continuous."