Paul Bert

Paul Bert
Born 17 October 1833
Auxerre (Yonne)
Died 11 November 1886 (1886-11-12) (aged 53)
Nationality French
Fields physiology
Institutions Sorbonne
Alma mater École polytechnique
Known for oxygen toxicity
Influences Louis Pierre Gratiolet
Claude Bernard

Paul Bert (17 October 1833 – 11 November 1886) was a French zoologist, physiologist and politician. He is sometimes given the sobriquet "Father of Aviation Medicine".


Bert was born at Auxerre (Yonne). He entered the École polytechnique at Paris with the intention of becoming an engineer; then changing his mind, he studied law; and finally, under the influence of the zoologist, Louis Pierre Gratiolet (1815–1865), he took up physiology, becoming one of Claude Bernard's most brilliant pupils. After graduating at Paris as doctor of medicine in 1863, and doctor of science in 1866, he was appointed professor of physiology successively at Bordeaux (1866) and the Sorbonne (1869). [1]

After the "Commune de Paris" (1870) he began to take part in politics as a supporter of Gambetta. In 1874 he was elected to the Assembly, where he sat on the extreme left, and in 1876 to the chamber of deputies. He was one of the most determined enemies of clericalism, and an ardent advocate of "liberating national education from religious sects, while rendering it accessible to every citizen."[1]

From 14 November 1881 to 30 January 1882 he was minister of education and worship in Gambetta's short-lived cabinet, and in 1881 he created a great sensation by a lecture on modern Catholicism, delivered in a Paris theatre, in which he poured ridicule on the fables and follies of the chief religious tracts and handbooks that circulated especially in the south of France. Early in 1886 he was appointed resident-general in Annam and Tonkin, and died of dysentery at Hanoi on 11 November of that year.[1]


He was more distinguished as a man of science than as a politician or administrator. His classical work, La Pression barometrique (1878), embodies researches that gained him the biennial prize of 20,000 francs from the Academy of Sciences in 1875, and is a comprehensive investigation on the physiological effects of air-pressure, both above and below the normal.[2] Central nervous system oxygen toxicity was first described in this publication and is sometimes referred to as the "Paul Bert effect".[2][3] He showed that oxygen was toxic to insects, arachnids, myriapods, molluscs, earthworms, fungi, germinating seeds, birds, and other animals.

His earliest researches, which provided him with material for his two doctoral theses, were devoted to animal grafting and the vitality of animal tissues, and they were followed by studies on the physiological action of various poisons, on anaesthetics, on respiration and asphyxia, on the causes of the change of color in the chameleon, etc.[1]

He was also interested in vegetable physiology, and in particular investigated the movements of the sensitive plant, and the influence of light of different colours on the life of vegetation.

He wrote a very successful teaching manual with Raphael Blanchard Éléments de zoologie G. Masson (Paris), 1885.

In the The Phrenological journal and science of health (1883) it was claimed that he held an atheistic belief[4]


After about 1880 he produced several elementary text-books of scientific instruction, and also various publications on educational and allied subjects. Widely used in French schools for decades as the basis for scientific education, his book La Deuxième année d'enseignement scientifique (34th edition: Armand Colin, 1896) claimed that White people were far superior and more intelligent than Black people as well as Chinese people, thus following Arthur de Gobineau's then quite popular white supremacist, aryan supremacist, unfounded theories later used by the nazis. He also actively opposed indigenous Algerian people getting any political rights in French-colonized Algeria.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Chisholm 1911.
  2. 1 2 Bert, Paul (1943) [First published in French in 1878]. Barometric pressure: Researches in Experimental Physiology. Columbus, OH: College Book Company. Translated by: Hitchcock, Mary Alice; Hitchcock, Fred A.
  3. Acott, Chris (1999). "Oxygen toxicity: A brief history of oxygen in diving". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 29 (3): 150–5. ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved 2011-10-16.
  4. "Dr. Paul Bert, the atheist Minister of Public Instruction, in M. Gambetta's Cabinet, made the next greatest sensation of the Congress." The Phrenological journal and science of health: incorporated with the Phrenological magazine, Volume 76, Fowler & Wells (1883), page 42.


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Paul Bert
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