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Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature


George Rick Welch

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.
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Chapter 9: Physiology Today: Finding the Word in the Data


Chapter 9Physiology Today: Finding the Word in the Data

          Ours is the age that is proud of machines that think and suspicious of men who try to.

– H. Mumford Jones (1892–1980)

(“Thoughts on the business of life,” Forbes 20 March 1989)

At the dawn of the twentieth century, physiology carried the disciplinary banner for research, teaching, and discourse on the living being as a system – an integrated, coordinated array of functioning entities and dynamical processes. It was ushered into the new century by such notable figures as Michael Foster (1836–1907), who was appointed to the first professorial chair in physiology at the University of Cambridge in 1883 (and whose student, C.S. Sherrington, would come to write the first modern-day biography of Jean Fernel – see Chapter 7). His Text-Book of Physiology (1877) went into multiple editions and was a standard reference in the field. Foster also founded the Journal of Physiology in 1878 and wrote one of the first modern treatises on the history of physiology, his Lectures on the History of Physiology, in 1901. As one indication of physiology’s stature at the turn of the century, “medicine or physiology” was among the select group of five subject areas chosen in the establishment of the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, as the twentieth century unfolded, the methods and concepts of the developing fields of cell biology, biochemistry, and biophysics were applied with increasing rigor to the elucidation of specific physiological operations in living...

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