Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature

by George Rick Welch (Author)
Monographs 202 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1: A Word about “Words”
  • 1.1 The Word and Science
  • 1.2 The Language Base
  • 1.3 Naming and Knowledge: The Act of Creation
  • Chapter 2: The Living Being
  • 2.1 The Culture of Being
  • 2.2 From Being to Becoming: The Birth of Physis
  • 2.3 The Greek Linguistic Mythos
  • 2.4 The Greek Linguistic Tree
  • 2.5 Physis: Emergence in Early Greek Poetry
  • 2.6 Physis: Emergence in Natural Philosophy
  • Chapter 3: Physiology: The Mythos and Logos of Life in Antiquity
  • 3.1 Physis and Life in Ancient Greece: From Mythos to Logos
  • 3.2 Physis and the Origin of the Greek Medical Tradition
  • 3.3 Physiologia: An Informatics Base in Early Biomedical Thought
  • 3.4 Galen and Physiologia… and Physiology
  • Chapter 4: Physiologia in Early Medieval Times
  • 4.1 The Peculiar Case of the Physiologus
  • 4.2 The Written Word in Late Antiquity
  • 4.3 Physiologia Recast in the Medical Semiotics of Late Antiquity
  • Chapter 5: Physica-cum-Medicina in the Middle Ages
  • 5.1 The “Renaissance” of the Twelfth Century
  • 5.2 The Word Spreads
  • 5.3 Physis: A Götterdämmerung
  • Chapter 6: The Renaissance Natural World: Cradle of a Newfound Physiologia
  • 6.1 A “Philological Safari”
  • 6.2 Renaissance Language of Nature
  • 6.3 The Changing Nature of Medicine
  • 6.4 Medical Humanism in the Renaissance
  • 6.5 Nature and Medicine
  • 6.6 The New Physiologia
  • Chapter 7: Physiologia Gives Birth to Physiology
  • 7.1 From Physiologia to Physiology
  • 7.2 Fernel’s Legacy
  • Chapter 8: Physiology: The Word Comes to Life
  • 8.1 Physiology: A Word Apart
  • 8.2 Physiology: What Does It Mean?
  • Chapter 9: Physiology Today: Finding the Word in the Data
  • Epilogue
  • References Cited
  • Index
  • Series Index

(or, an Apology to the Reader)

          Occasionally people make the mistake of asking me where a word comes from. They never make that mistake twice.

        – Mark Forsyth, The Etymologicon (2011)

I must begin with an apology to the reader, for my obsession (I prefer the word love) for words. This book is the story of a particular word, physiology. Looking at the jargon of modern-day science, one encounters widespread usage of such terms as “physiology,” “physics,” “physician,” inter alia. These expressions dot much of the verbal landscape of today’s science and medicine. It is rather obvious that they originated from a shared source. This monograph grew out of a simple question, which has been on my mind for a long while: How, why, when, and where did these words branch from an older, common root – to produce the etymological tree that we see today? Physiology manifests a split personality in the course of history, including both the study of “nature” and the study of “life.” How the language of life and the language of nature branched-out and splintered into the linguistic forms that we see today, I felt, was a story worth telling. This book emerged as a flowing study of life and nature, as revealed through the evolution a word – physiology.

I should state at the outset, that I am not, by profession, a historian of science, nor am I a philosopher of science. My background is in basic science. The majority of my academic career has been devoted to research on subject matter situated at interface between the disciplines of biology and physics. Over time, though, historical issues at that interface have attracted more and more of my attention (and, indeed, my research publications). With apology (and deep respect) to historians and philosophers of science, it will be evident that, in my historical endeavour herein, I am rather much of “an outsider looking in.” The expanse of time covered by this work is ambitious, starting from pre-history and ending in the present day. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking, as well as the limitations in my in-depth knowledge and expertise along the way, has demanded that I rely heavily on secondary historical sources – viz., reviews, scholarly analyses, and commentaries from recognized authorities in the various areas. I have not attempted an exhaustive survey of the literature at every step. (My apology to any authors whose works I may have missed in the process.) Thus, my coverage of many of the topics might seem superficial. Notwithstanding, I hope that I have included sufficient detail, within the confines of a reasonably sized book, to give the reader a true appreciation of my storyline. ← 7 | 8 →

This book is intended for a wide audience, including not only scientists and historians of science, but also those with an interest in the power of words in the advancement of knowledge. In reading this book, a basic knowledge of the history of science is helpful, though not necessary. I have tried to define key terms and concepts in the course of the narrative. And, at each stage, I have included ample general references that will guide the reader to deeper exploration of the subjects at hand. This book is not meant to be a history of the science of physiology per se, nor is it designed as a complete survey of the ancient ideas on “nature.” My focus here is on terminological and lexical aspects of the expression “physiology,” and the historical facts that are incorporated into the following study are there in support of the etymological concentration. It is my wish that physiologists of today will find the all-encompassing features of the word – one that so defines what they do nowadays – enriching to their professional practice. Equally, I hope that classicist scholars will be intrigued to see what one of the most treasured words from antiquity has come to be in the sphere of biomedical science today. I offer this work in the spirit of what Hasok Chang (2004) calls “complementary science.” That is, the interface between the seemingly separate realms – the world of the practicing scientist and that of historian – should be regarded as a dynamic and causal medium in which new scientific knowledge can be generated. If new knowledge emerges from my approach, I could not hope for more. ← 8 | 9 →


I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to Peter Lang International Academic Publisher, for their interest in my monograph for the series on “Nature, Science, and the Arts.” In particular, I owe a big debt of gratitude to Angelica Scholze, the editor at Peter Lang who has guided my book through the publication process with great care, skill, and patience. I should also like to thank the kind and helpful staffs at the British Library, the Cambridge University Library, and the Whipple Library, where much of my literature research was conducted. I am grateful to the Wellcome Trust (Medical Humanities section) for a grant in support of this work.

I would like to thank the Department of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for accepting me into its fold (jointly with my position in the Department of Biological Sciences) some years back, as I began a serious “turn” to the history of science. I am especially grateful to Profs. Sandra Herbert and Joe Tatarewicz, for their camaraderie and for their tutelage in the teaching of the history of science.

I am especially grateful to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, for hosting me as an Affiliated Research Scholar during these past six years. The academic and support staffs there have been incredibly helpful and supportive on so many levels. I should particularly like to thank Drs. Andrew Cunningham and Lauren Kassell, for their advice and constructive feedback on the project. I am extremely grateful to Prof. Hasok Chang, for his continuing support of my work and for the stimulating atmosphere in his departmental reading and seminar groups. I have also benefitted from a visiting fellowship at Clare Hall in Cambridge during the early stages of the research for the monograph.

I should also like to thank Prof. Vivian Nutton (University College London), for helpful advice. I am much indebted to Dr. Alison Abbott, Senior European Correspondent for Nature, for her attention and encouragement in the germinal idea for this project (see Welch, 2008); and to Prof. Denis Noble (University of Oxford), editor of Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Bio­logy, for his interest and support of a more developed version of the work (see Welch, 2009).

I hold a deep sense of thankfulness for my lifelong friends, Jim Clegg and Douglas Kell. The intellectual discourse I have enjoyed with these two mates, during the countless halcyon days we have spent together, has been truly inspirational. Many of the thoughts and thought processes at play in this book have gelled during these times. ← 9 | 10 →

My most heartfelt appreciation goes to my family, for the periods of exclusion and seclusion that the research for, and the writing of, this book have demanded. I could not have done it without their abiding love and backing. ← 10 | 11 →


          Physiology, noun

          1.   Natural philosophy, natural science. Also: a particular system or doctrine of natural science. Obsolete.

          2.   The branch of science that deals with the normal functioning of living organisms and their systems and organs. Also: the functional processes of an organism, organ, or system. Also figurative.

Oxford English Dictionary

This is a story of life and nature in a word – physiology. It is an old word. It came down to us, via Latin, from the ancient Greek world, from the time of Aristotle, where it signified the “study of nature.” It originates from an even older Greek root, physis – meaning “nature” – that stretches far back into pre-history. Our go-to reference, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – pronouncing itself “the definitive record of the English language” – gives two meanings of the term “physiology.” The first definition shows the original Greek gist of the word – a connotation that held sway for a long time throughout history. Yet, it is the second definition that rose to characterize physiology in the modern era. Broadly speaking, physiology nowadays denotes the “study of life” – more specifically, “how life works.” Today, it is a canonical scientific discipline that is entrenched in biology and medicine. How did this word come to express two such seemingly disparate meanings, as the “study of nature” and the “study of life”? What does this word tell us, historically, about humankind’s grasp of the essence of nature and the essence of life – and, more to the point, the interrelationship of the two? This query lies at the core of our story.

The history of the science of physiology has been surveyed by numerous eminent physiologists in modern times. Moreover, the Greek concepts of “life” and “nature” are among the most exhaustively investigated topics by classicist scholars. Building on such authoritative works, we take a lexical course, following an etymological path into the distant past, in pursuit of the biography of the word “physiology” per se. Along the way, we encounter another old philosophical imprint – the belief that words themselves provide the basis of our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, and that the evolution of ideas is reflected in the changing usage of the expressive words. The ancient Greeks shaped our image of nature and our place therein, transforming the impression of the cosmos from that of a bewildering array of supernatural deities at play, to one of natural forces and rational causes. We owe to the Greeks our fundamental conceptualization of – and the beginning of our practice of – science and medicine. Our exploration will carry us into linguistic pre-history, in search ← 13 | 14 → of the primordial inception of the Greek view of nature – and the words that symbolized nature. We track the evolving meaning of those words in Western civilization across time, space, language, and culture.


This book paints a flowing picture of the relationship beween life and nature, through the evolution of a word – physiology. Today, it denotes a scientific discipline at the intersection of biology and medicine, signifying the «study of life». Yet, physiology manifests a split personality in the course of history. It came down to us from the ancient Greeks, where it represented the «study of nature», or «natural philosophy» – the precursor of modern-day «science». Physiology originates from an older Greek root, physis – meaning «nature» itself – that stretches far back to the birth of Greek thought. How did this word generate two such disparate meanings? What does this word tell us, historically, about humankind’s grasp of the essence of nature and the essence of life – and the interrelationship between the two? The author follows an etymological path into the distant past, in writing the biography of the word «physiology». The book delves into linguistic pre-history, in search of the primordially interwoven views of life and nature – and the words that symbolized those views. It tracks the evolving meaning of those words in Western civilization across time, space, language, and culture.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 202 pp.

Biographical notes

George Rick Welch (Author)

Rick Welch is emeritus dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA, and an affiliated research scholar in History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, UK. His research interests lie at the interface between the biological and physical sciences, as well as the history of science.


Title: Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature