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Father of modern gastroenterology

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Ivan Pavlov, the physiologist, was born in 1849 in Ryazan, 200km south-east of Moscow. His father was a village priest, and Ivan progressed from a church school to a seminary to study for the priesthood. However, after reading Darwin’s ‘On the origin of species’, as well as works by the Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov, he abandoned his theological studies and turned to science, enrolling in the department of physical and mathematical sciences at the University of St Petersburg, and later in the medical school, where he received his doctorate in 1878.

Pavlov was a keen follower of the philosophy of modern life science, which conflicted with Tsarist metaphysical views. He is said to have shown little interest in practising medicine, believing that research into physiology offered the best prospect of advancement in patient care.

His approach to research was in complete contrast to that of the time, where senior researchers tended to run small laboratories with a handful of assistants performing hands-on research. Pavlov developed a “research empire”, with teams of young physicians handed two-year research fellowships, becoming cogs in a research machine.

His research centred on the correlation between the nervous system and the autonomic functions of the body, particularly those involving digestion. He was an expert experimental surgeon, and his development of the Pavlov gastric pouch enabled the measurement of gastric and pancreatic secretions. He received the Nobel prize for his work in 1904, and he achieved fame for his study of conditioned reflexes in dogs. ­It was as a result of Pavlov’s work that the action of histamine upon gastric secretion was demonstrated by an ex-pupil, Leon Popielski, using Pavlov’s experimental techniques. It has been suggested that the discovery of H2 antagonists by James Black and the subsequent development of proton pump inhibitors should be considered part of his legacy.

Pavlov died in Leningrad 75 years ago on 27 February 1936.

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