François Magendie

Born 1783
Died 1855

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French physiologist, born October 6, 1783, Bordeaux; died October 7, 1855, Sannois, département Seine-et-Oise.

Biography of François Magendie

François Magendie made epoch-making contributions to experimental physiology, pharmacology and pathology. His pioneer studies of the effects of drugs on various parts of the body led to the scientific introduction into medical practice of such compounds as strychnine and morphine. In 1817 along with Pierre Joseph Pelletier (1788-1842) he isolated emetine. In 1822 he confirmed and elaborated the observation by the Scottish anatomist Sir Charles Bell (1811) that the anterior roots of the spinal nerves are motor in function, while the posterior roots serve to communicate sensory impulses. In 1825 he gave one of the earliest descriptions of the cerebrospinal fluid.

Spoiled in the spirit of Rousseau
Magendie was the son of the surgeon Antoine Magendie and Marie Nicole de Perey. He had a younger brother, Jean-Jacques, whose name testifies to the admiration of their father, an ardent republican, had for the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The two boys were brought up in accord with Rousseau’s pedagogical precepts: the emphasis was on their personal independence and not the instruction they received.

In 1791, swept along by the Revolution, the Magendie family moved to Paris, where the father devoted himself more to politics than to medicine. The death of his mother in 1792 and his father’s activities on revolutionary committees threw Magendie still further upon his own intellectual resources. Having reached the age of ten without having attended school or having learned to read and write, at his own wish he entered elementary school, where he made very rapid progress. At the age of fourteen he won the grand prize in a national contest for an essay on knowledge of the rights of man.

Dissecting in a time of upheaval
At sixteen, too young to be admitted to the École de Santé, Magendie became an apprentice at the Hôtel-Dieu, where the surgeon Baron Alexis de Boyer (1757-1833), a friend of his father’s, accepted him as a pupil and entrusted him with the anatomical dissections. This was a time of upheaval in the French medical world. In 1801 Napoleon, then first consul, passed a statute reforming medical education and stipulated that no-one could practise medicine without a diploma. Even Boyer and Guillaume Dupuytren (1777-1835) had to be examined.

In 1803 Magendie passed the examination required for an interne des hôpitaux and entered the Hôpital Saint-Louis as a medical student. In 1807 he became as assistant in anatomy at the école de Médecine and gave courses in anatomy and physiology. He received his medical degree in Paris on March 24, 1808. After receiving his doctorate, aged 24 years, he became prosector at the medical faculty, and as such lectured on anatomy and physiology.

Magendie’s studies reflect the chaotic situation of teaching in France during the period. A liberal education in his childhood, a practically oriented apprenticeship in medicine, the astonishing experience of the successive collapses of academic and doctrinal systems – all these combined to strengthen in Magendie a love of facts and a contempt for words, theories, and social conventions, as well as a rude frankness and a truly exceptional independence of judgement.

After his thesis Magendie’s first publication was an article of a theoretical, not to say doctrinal, character. It appeared in the Bulletin des sciences médicales, which, published by the Société Médicale d’Émulation, did its utmost to glorify the memory of Marie Francois Xavier Bichat (1771-1802); yet Magendie’s memoir was a harsh attack on the fundamental ideas of this intellectual master of French physicians.

No theories!
When Magendie qualified in medicine in 1808, physiology and biological sciences generally were not counted among the exact sciences. According to Magendie, the biological sciences had remained behind the physical sciences because they utilized complicated ideas and preconceptions to explain facts which very often were not themselves established with certainty. In Magendie’s view, physiology should explain the two phenomena essential to life – nutrition and movement – through reducing them to the organization of living beings and of their parts. Magendie’s profession of faith is, in fact, the fundamental dogma of modern biology: «Two living bodies having the same organization will display the same vital phenomena; two living bodies having different organizations will display vital phenomena the diversity of which will always be in direct proportion to the difference of organization».

Magendie, having taken an aversion to all theories, made an extraordinary effort during most of his life to discover and collect the «facts» and refused, to the extent this was possible, to interpret them. This was, of course, an illusion: Magendie made his discoveries on the basis of certain theoretical considerations and within the framework of a rather well defined philosophy of biology.

The birth of modern pharmacology
In 1809 Magendie presented to the Académie des Sciences and to the Société Philomatique the results of his first experimental work, which he carried out in collaboration with the botanist and physician Alire Raffeneau-Delille (1778-1850). In a series of ingenious experiments on various animals, the two investigators studied the toxic action of several drugs of vegetable origin, particularly of upas, nux vomica, and St.-Ignatius’s bean. These experiments mark the beginning of modern pharmacology. For the first time an experimental comparison was made of the similar effects produced by drugs of different botanical origin. Magendie held that the toxic or medicinal action of natural drugs depends on the chemical substances they contain, and it should be possible to obtain these substances in the pure state. As early as 1809 he suspected the existence of strychnine, later isolated, in accord with his predictions, by Pierre Joseph Pelletier (1788-1842) in 1819. Moreover, in 1817, in collaboration with Pelletier, Magendie discovered emetine, the active principle of ipeac.

On dogs and poison
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the generally accepted view was that absorption takes place exclusively through lymphatic vessels. This theory, elaborated by John Hunter (1728-1793) and reinforced by Bichat’s teaching, had replaced Victor Albrecht von Haller’s (1708-1777) opinion, according to which food and all other substances are observed through the veins. Magendie, however, demonstrated the existence of two absorption paths. He conducted a classic experiment in which a dog was poisoned following the introduction of the toxic substance into a limb that was connected to the body only by a blood vessel, or even only by a quill. Magendie concluded that the absorption of liquids and semiliquids is not a vital and physically inexplicable function of the lymphatics but a simple physico-chemical phenomenon of the imbition of tissues and of passage through vascular walls.

Teacher turned physiologist
In 1811 Magendie was appointed anatomy demonstrator at the Faculté de Médecine of Paris, and for three years he taught anatomy and surgery. He displayed unusual skill during his operations at the École Pratique. Meanwhile, his rude behaviour precipitated a conflict with the professor of anatomy, François Chaussier (1746-1828). The professor of surgery, Guillaume Dupuytren, saw Magendie as a dangerous rival and created difficulties for him at the Faculté de Médécine. In 1813 Magendie resigned from his post as demonstrator, opened an office as a practicing physician, and organized a private course in physiology.

Although Magendie was interested primarily in experimental physiology, he did not neglect medical practice. For many years he suffered from not being on a hospital staff, which would have facilitated the clinical study of new medicines. In 1818, following a competitive examination, he was named to the Bureau Central des Hôpitaux Parisiens; but until 1826, when he became Médecin adjoint at the Salpêtrière, he had no official hospital assignment and had to rely on the understanding of his friend Henri-Marie Husson (1772-1853) in order to observe treatments and give a clinical course at the Hôtel-Dieu. In 1819 he was requested to give a course at the Athénée Royal.

Monsieur le professeur
In 1830 Magendie finally obtained the directorship of a hospital department, the women’s ward at the Hôtel-Dieu. Despite everything that one could say about his gruff manners toward his colleagues and his cruelty to animals, contemporary testimony agrees to the gentleness, patience, and understanding with which he treated his hospital patients. On April 4, 1831, he replaced Joseph Claude Anthelme Récamier (1774-1852) in the chair of medicine at the Collège de France. It was not without some difficulty that the medical instruction there was changed in style and in substance. Instead of expounding doctrines, Magendie gave public demonstrations of the experimental method; instead of teaching clinical medicine as it was practiced at the patient’s bedside, he concentrated on the presentation of physiological and pathological knowledge, derived from studies made on animals.

Cruel experiments
During a trip to England in 1824, when he was a guest of William Hyde Wollaston’s (1766-1828), Magendie gave several public demonstrations of his method of the experimental section of cranial nerves of living dogs. The cruel side of his experiments provoked an antivivisectionist campaign. Although powerful in Great Britain, this struggle for the protection of animals found no echo in France. Some colleagues, however, reproached Magendie for having experimented on sick people – that is, for having performed operations the goal of which was essentially scientific and not therapeutic. Such proceedings are described in Magendie’s publications, but they were never really dangerous or mutilating. Particularly noteworthy are his experiments on the human retina, which could have led him, if he had had a taste for theoretical generalization, to the discovery of the law of specific energy of the sense.

Great experimenter, erring doctor
One of the first topics of Magendie’s teaching was cholera. On his trip to England he had been to Sunderland, where he had been able to follow closely an epidemic of this disease. After his return to Paris, cholera broke out there. Magendie fought it courageously and devised a good symptomatic treatment, but he was seriously mistaken in asserting that it was not contagious. He also denied the contagiousness of yellow fever and opposed quarantine. This error had dire consequences, in particular after 1848, when Magendie was appointed head of the Advisory Committee on Public Hygiene. However, Magendie made a positive contribution to the study of infection: he had demonstrated experimentally that the saliva of rabid dogs contains a contagious principle. Another serious error of Magendie’s was his impassioned activity against surgical anaesthesia induced by ether (1847).

Scientific contributions
Magendie made a great many discoveries in almost all the fields of research that then constituted physiology. His first physiological experiments were on the mechanisms of swallowing and vomiting, proving the passive role of the stomach in vomiting, demonstrated the mammal’s need for a protein supply and made the first experimental production of an avitaminosis. With Poiseulle he noted that the blood pressure rises on expiration, and in 1817 the two isolated emetine. He conducted experiments on digestive properties of pancreatic juice, he proved the liver’s decisive role in the detoxification processes, and demonstrated the homodynamic importance of the elasticity of the arteries.

Magendie introduced into medical practice a series of recently discovered alkaloids: strychnine, morphine, brucine, codeine, quinine, and veratrine. They were pioneer efforts in experimental pharmacology.[He also generalized the therapeutic use of iodine and bromine salts. His first experiments were concerned with the effects of strychnine. Contrary to the dominant opinion among the older physicians, Magendie favoured the use of chemical substances over that of natural drugs, and he did not hesitate to test on himself all the substances that were shown to be harmless in the animal experiments.

In 1839 Magendie was one of the first to observe anaphylaxis when he found that rabbits able to tolerate a single injection of egg albumin often died following a second injection. In 1846 he demonstrated that the presence of sugar in the blood is not necessarily a pathological phenomenon. These experiments on glycaemia served Claude Bernard as the starting point of the research that culminated in his discovery of the glycogenic function of the liver.

Bell-Magendie law
It was in his Journal that Magendie published the results of his investigations on the physiology of the nervous system and on the cerebrospinal fluid. The discovery of the Bell-Magendie law (1822) was the source of a distressing dispute over the parts played by Charles Bell and by Magendie in distinguishing the motor and sensory roots of the medulla. The historical documents relating to this subject do not appear to contradict Magendie’s final claims:

    «In sum, Charles Bell had had, before me, but unknown to me, the idea of separately cutting the spinal roots; he likewise discovered that the anterior influences muscular contractility more than the posterior does. This is a question of priority in which I have, from the beginning, honoured him. Now, as for having established that these roots have distinct properties, distinct functions, that the anterior ones control movement, and the posterior ones sensation, this discovery belongs to me» (Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 1847, 24: 320).
Although it is possible that, from the start of his research on the spinal nerves, Magendie knew of Bell’s general idea through the latter’s assistant, John Shaw, it is nonetheless certain that the clear statement and the experimental verification of the law in question belongs to him.

The man
Through his marriage to Henriette Bastienne de Puisaye in 1830, Magendie had acquired an estate in Sannois, Seine-et-Oise. There he led a very happy family life. Yielding to the fatigue brought on by approaching old age, he withdrew more and more to his country house, left the Hôtel-Dieu in 1845, and had Claude Bernard substitute for him at the Collège de France (1847). Bernard was Magendie’s student 1841-1843. At Sannois he undertook experiments in plant physiology with a view to improving agricultural yield. He died probably of a heart ailment.

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) masterfully characterized Magendie, under the barely disguised name «docteur Maugredie,» in La peau de chagrin (1831): «a distinguished intellect, but sceptical and contemptuous, who believed only in the scalpel» and who «claimed that the best medical system was to have none at all and to stick to the facts.»

Magendie's biographer reports that he was vain, stubborn, and rash. His fiery temper made him unpopular and often stimulated criticism. He was extremely jealous, and resented the work of others, especially those who had anticipated his own discoveries. These traits were all exemplified in the prolonged Bell-Magendie controversy over priority in discovering the functions of the spinal nerve roots, which did no one credit.[8] Nevertheless, he continued in a distinguished experimental

In 1821 he founded the first journal devoted entirely to physiology, Journal de physiologie expérimentale. The journal was well received, paid for itself, and appeared for ten years. This success was aided by Magendie's policy of accompanying articles on animal experiments with citation of hospital cases illustrating the principles involved. Consequently, it was popular with physicians.

    "Every one is fond of comparing himself to something great and grandiose, as Louis XIV likened himself to the sun, and others have had like similes. I am more humble. I compare myself to a mere ragpicker: with my spiked stick in my hand and my basket on my back, I traverse the field of science and I gather what I find.»
    Claude Bernard, Magendie, p 13.

    « Medicine is a science in the making.» (une science à faire)

    «The majority of physiological facts must be verified by new experiments and this is the only means of bringing the physics of living bodies out of the state of imperfection in which it lies at present.»
    Bulletin des sciences médicales, 1809; 4: 147.

    «I hesitate not to declare, no matter how sorely I shall wound our vanity, that so gross is our ignorance of the real nature of the physiological disorders, called diseases, that it would perhaps be better to do nothing, and resign the complaint we are called upon to treat to the resources of nature, than to act ass we are frequently compelled to do, without knowing the why and the wherefore of our conduct,, and at obvious risk of hastening the end of the patient.»
    Quoted in Vital Magnetic Cure.

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