Biography of Charles-Philippe Robin
Robin’s father’s family were rich bourgeoisie with a high regard for scholarship. He was greatly influenced by his mother, Adelaide Tardy, whose family included several physicians. Robin attended the boarding school at Menestruel, near Poncin. Here, as a young boy he lost an eye while playing with his fellow students. He had to wear a glass prothesis, and monocular vision may have played some role in his later predilection for working with the microscope.
After studying the classics at the Collège Royal of Lyons, Robin enrolled in 1838 at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris. From the start of his medical studies, anatomy and biological research attracted him much more than clinical medicine. In 1845, while still a student, Robin travelled with Hermann Lebert (1813-1878) to the coast of Normandy and to the Channel Islands to collect specimens for Musée Orfila - the museum of comparative anatomy that Mathéo-José-Bonaventure Orfila (1787-1853) wished to establish in Paris. Robin, partly in collaboration with Lebert, subsequently published a series of notes on such topics as the lymphatic and venous systems of marine animals, the reproductive mechanism of the squid, the comparative anatomy of the genitalia, the structural elements of the fibroplastic tissue, and the morphology of various animal and vegetable parasites (1845-1846). His initial research displayed two recurrent characteristics, skillful use of the microscope and a comparative approach to his subject matter.
Robin received his medical degree on August 31, 1946, with a thesis on the topographical anatomy of the region of the groin. In 1847 he defended two theses for the doctorat ès sciences naturelles: an original and important zoological investigation of the electric organs of the Rajidae, and a biological examination of parasitic vegetable growths of man and animals. He was the first to describe Odium albicans (Candida albicans) and to explain thrush as a parasitosis caused by his microscopic fungus.
Having won the agrégation in natural history in 1847 with the thesis Des fermentations, and in the same year also became Dr. ès-sciences naturelles. Robin began a well attended private course in pathological anatomy, and set up a laboratory of comparative anatomy. In 1859 he replaced the botanist Achille Richard (1794-1852) in the chair of natural history at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris. The primary subjects of his publications were now the histology of the vertebrate nervous system and the microscopic structure of tumors. Through Pierre-François Rayer (1793-1867), Robin met Émile Littré (1891-1881) and was introduced to Auguste Comte (1798-1857), whose lectures on positivist philosophy captivated him. In positivism Robin found the possibility of giving to his specialized studies a doctrinal unity. Jean-Baptiste de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, introduced the term biologie into France and Comte and Littré had popularized it. But Robin was responsible for its final acceptance and for the later elaboration of the concept of general biology in French scientific circles.
Robin was the leading proponent of the Société de biologie; he urged its creation, wrote up its statutes, and, with Rayer, Claude Bernard (1813-1878), and Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894), directed its initial activities in 1848. At the first meeting of this society, Robin presented a memoir entitled Sur la direction que se sont poposé, en se réunissant, les membres fondateurs de la Société de Biologie pour répondre au titre qu’ils ont choisi. This credo of positivist biology exercised a significant influence on the orientation of physiological, medical, and zoological research in France.
Robin set forth in detail his own ideas on biology in two books, published in 1849 and 1851, Du microscope and Tableau d’anatomie. In this view of general anatomy Robin went beyond the physiologist and anatomist Xavier Bichat (1771-1802), asserting that the anatomical element itself, independent of the tissue of which it is a part, ought to be the subject of both morphological and physiological research. At the same time, Robin asserted that life did not depend on a rigid structure but on a “state of organization” – in fact, on “a particular molecular state.” The notion of the blastema, central to Theodor Schwann’s cell theory, fully corresponded to Robin’s ideas, but he was never able to adopt the cell theory in its newest phase, as formulated by Rudolf Virchow. Robin never accepted the view that that the cell could be a single fundamental component of organized beings. For him the real seat of life was constituted by the humoral parts of the organism. Beyond the fixed anatomical elements, there must be, he thought, a molecular organization that explained the morphology. In his opinipn, therefore, microscopic investigations was only a stage of biological research and must be followed by chemical analysis. In collaboration with a chemist, F. Verdeil, Robin studied the chemical compounds of which the organism is composed. Despite its display of useful information, the resulting Traité de chimie antomique et physiologique, normale et pathologique (1852-1853), showed that research oriented in this direction led at that time to a dead end and that, given the contemporary state of chemical knowledge, the superiority of a morphological approach was undeniable.
In carrying out his ambitious program of histological and biochemcial research Robin made serious errors but also a number of important discoveries, including the description of the osteoclasts in regard to bone formation (1851), study of the change in the uterine mucus during pregnancy and some new facts on the microscopic structure of ganglions and of neuroglia.
At Littrés request he helped him to revise Pierre-Hubert Nysten’s (1774-1817) Dictionnaire de médecine. Far from being a simple guide to semantics and orthography, Littré and Robin’s Dictionnaire became “the medical code of the positivist doctrine” (Émile Chauffard). A chair of histology was created for Robin in 1862 at the Paris Faculty of Medecine. In 1864 he founded, with Brown-Séquard, the Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie normales et pathologiques de l’homme et des animaux.
From the beginning of his teaching career Robin had had to fight the intrigues of the cleresy, which in 1872 struck him, a materialist and atheist, from the list of the sworn. Neither the clericals nor the conservative, however, could prevent him from being elected to the senate from his native départément, Ain, in 1875, and the renewal of his mandate in 1885. However, both the pupils and the republican press suspected him of being in a double role as both senator and professor. The tumults in the lecture rooms, however, did not stop him from remaining in both positions.
With Robin’s election to the Académie des Sciences on January 15, 1866, politics, teaching, and administrative tasks began to take precedenc over scientific research. During the Franco-Prussion War he held the post of director of the army medical corps, and in 1873 he was named director of the marine zoology laboratory at Concarneau in Bretagne.
Although Robin’s early micrographical research was a valuable contribution to science, and although his conception of general anatomy was historically useful as a transition between Bichat’s histology and cellular biology, a similarly favourable judgmenet cannot be rendered on the work and ideas of the last period of his life. He opposed Virchow’s cellular pathology, refused to accept such modern histological methods as slices and stainings, and opposed Pasteur’s microbiological discoveries. When Robin’s lifework, Anatomie et physiologie cellulaires, was published in 1873, even his students were abandoning him. His teaching no longer reflected contemporary scientific thought.
Robin never married. He led a frugal life, wholly devoted to his work. He was a brilliant but peremptory teacher. Serving as a medical counselor to many French writers. Robin deserved to be labeled the “éminence grise of naturalism” (P. Voivenel).
Robin was one og the first in France to introduce the use the microscope in normal and pathological anatomy.
Robin was a prolific writer; for a bibliography of about 300 of his articles (1844-18859, see Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie normales et pathologiques de l’homme et des animaux, 1886; 22: clxvi-clxxxiv.