Claude Bernard

Born 1813
Died 1878

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French physiologist, born July 12, 1813, Saint Julien near Villefranche-sur-Saône, Rhône département; died February 10, 1878, Paris.

Biography of Claude Bernard

Claude Bernard

"I consider the hospital the antechamber of medicine, it is the first place where the physician makes his observations. But the laboratory is the temple of the science of medicine."

The man who wrote this was less than brilliant as a student, ranking 26 of 29 in his medical class, and failed his examination as a practicing teacher. He had unusual literary talent but took up a critic's advice to devote himself to the study of medicine.

Bernard's father, Pierre François Bernard, was a winegrower. His mother, Jeanne Saulnier, of peasant background. The family, in which there was also one other child, a daughter, lived in very modest circumstances. When Claude was very young, his father failed in a wine-marketing venture and tried to make ends meet by teaching school. His father seems to have exerted so little influence that several biographers have erroneously asserted that he died when Bernard was an infant. On the other hand, Bernard always remained close to his mother, a gentle and pious woman. All his life he remained attached to the place of his birth, the hamlet of Chatenay at the outskirts of the village of Saint-Julien. Every fall he returned home to relax and to help with the grape harvest. His entire life revolved about two poles of attraction: the laboratories of Paris and the vineyards of Beaujolais. The family house is now a museum.

Into theatre
Educational possibilities were scarce for a poor winegrower's son in the France of Louis XVIII. The boy studied Latin with the parish priest who had chosen him for as choirboy, and then was enrolled in a Jesuit-conducted school at Villefranche, where no natural science was taught. At 18 he ended his secondary schooling at Thoissey without a diploma and in 1833-1834, aged nineteen, was apprenticed to an apothecary named Millet in Lyon-Vaise, a Lyon suburb. Bernard's days were spent in menial tasks relieved by errands to a veterinary school which received its supplies of medicine from the pharmacy. Thus he had occasion to observe the rude empiricism of the pharmacotherapy of that period.

Seeing the preparation of the universal medicine Theriak may have aroused his first scepticism of the healing practices of his day. Theriak consisted of a multitude of ingredients, of which opium was probably the most important. It was used for more than two thousand years, highly popular among shamans who smoked it – inhaling deeply to reach more pleasant spheres. It was used for almost every disease, particularly the plague.

On his rare times off, the apprentice pharmacist pursued his real interest: the theatre and belles-lettres. As a playwright he had some initial success, as he received a fee of one hundred francs for his first play, La Rose du Rhône, a vaudeville comedy now lost. The play was staged at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon. This was his only play ever to be performed. Encouraged by his initial success he began writing Arthur de Bretagne, a historical heroic drama in five acts. This work was first published in 1943, as a first posthumous edition in 1887 was suppressed by court decision upon the request of Bernard's widow.

Indirectly it was the theatre that led Bernard to medicine. His employer was not pleased with him, and by November 1834 he was in Paris with the completed manuscript of Arthur de Bretagne and a letter of introduction. The illustrious literary critic Saint-Marc Girardin read his play and advised him to acquire a profession in order to earn a living, as he lacked the talent necessary for a literary career. Many years later the two met again, as members of the Académie Francaise.

With great difficulty Bernard passed the baccalaureate and same winter, in 1835, he enrolled at the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris. At this time he was outwardly reserved and even shy, but with an inner strength that was to overcome poverty and discouragements. An average, conscientious but not really brilliant student, he passed the concours examinations for externship in the Paris municipal hospitals in 1837, internship in 1839, ranking 26 of the 29 students passing. As a student he was influenced by his fellow students Charles Lasègue (1816-1883) and Casimir-Joseph Devaine (1812-1882).

Into physiology
A protégé of Pierre Rayer (1793-1867), Bernard worked at the Charité and in 1839 was an intern under François Magendie (1783-1855) at the Hôtel-Dieu. What he admired in Magendie was not so much the clinician as the physiologist, the bold experimenter, and the aggressive sceptic. It was in Magendie's laboratory at the Collège de France that Bernard, even before the end of his clinical studies, discovered his real vocation: physiological experimentation.

From 1841 to December 1844 Bernard worked as préparateur to Magendie at the Collège de France, assisting him in experiments concerning the physiology of nerves, especially the problem of "recurrent sensitivity" of the spinal nerve roots, the cerebrospinal fluid, the question of the seat of oxidation in the body of horses (by important experiments with cardiac catheterisation), and the physiology of digestion.

In order to carry out his own research, Bernard installed a very modest private laboratory in the Cour du Commerce de Saint-André-des-Arts. He also made use of the adjoining laboratory of Théophile Pelouze (1807-1867), where he enjoyed the intelligent help of his friend Charles-Louis Barreswil.

It was Magendie who taught Bernard to use animal vivisection as the principal means of medical research and to be suspicious of generally accepted theories and doctrines. Magendie noticed Bernard's skilful dissections, but his gruff manner disheartened the student, and Bernard almost resigned himself to settling in Beaujolais in a country practice. Fortunately Rayer gave him new hope, and Magendie took him on as a research assistant. The two worked together from 1839 to 1844.

Bernard's first publication dealt with another nerve, the chorda tympani, while his doctoral dissertation given on December 7, 1843, was devoted to the function of the gastric juice in nutrition. These maiden publications were prophetic, for much of his later research concerned neurology and metabolism.

Today Bernard is considered one of the founders of experimental medicine. Such honours, however, were still far in the future in the middle of the 1840's. Himself a conscientious investigator, he was an enemy of the charlatanry and oratory that always played the leading roles at the Paris faculty. Bernard invariably failed the competitive examinations for a position as professeur agrégé.

Failing in the examination that would have qualified him for a teaching post at the Faculty of Medicine, Bernard resigned his position with Magendie and, with his friend Charles Lasègue, tried vainly to organize a free course in experimental physiology. Desperate, he was about to take on a position as a country physician, when a friend of Pelouze, to save his research career, arranged a marriage of convenience for him with Marie-Françoise (Fanny) Martin, daughter of a Paris doctor. The marriage brought him a dowry of 60.000 francs, but was destined to be painfully unhappy. Their first child, a son, was born in 1846, but did not survive; their daughter, Tony, was born in 1847. The Bernards were separated following his election to the French Academy and his appointment to the Imperial Senate, a poignant contrast between personal unhappiness and public renown.

In 1847 Bernard was made suppléant to Magendie at the Collège de France, where Magendie was then professor of physiology. In his inaugural address Bernard said: ”The scientific medicine i will teach you, does not exist.” At first he gave the course in the winter term, while Magendie continued to teach experimental medicine during the summer semester. In 1852 Magendie retired completely and turned over his chair and laboratory to Bernard.

High point
Bernard made his principal discoveries early in his scientific career, in the period between his first publication and his thesis for the doctorate in science.

This period was marked by a veritable explosion of discoveries, beginning in 1846, when Bernard solved the mystery of the carnivorous rabbits. Puzzled one day by the chance observation that some rabbits were passing clear - not cloudy urine, just like meat-eating animals, he inferred that they had not been fed and were substituting their own tissues. He confirmed his hypothesis by feeding meat to the famished animals. An autopsy of the rabbits disclosed an unexpected but remarkable discovery concerning the role of the pancreas in digestion: the secretions of the pancreas broke down fat molecules into fatty acids and glycerine. Next, he took a step towards explaining diabetes by showing that sugar in the blood is not always a symptom of the disease, though his hopes to conquer diabetes were premature because of the many unknowns still connected with the problem.

In 1848 the Société de biologie was founded, and Bernard became its first vice-president. Named a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1849, he applied (unsuccessfully) for membership of the Académie des Sciences in 1850 and started to work on his thesis for the doctorate in science. On March 17, 1853 he received the doctorate in zoology at the Sorbonne after a brilliant presentation of his thesis, Recherches sur une nouvelle fonction du foie.

Simultaneously, he was nearing his third great achievement - explanation of the regulation of the blood supply by the vasomotor nerves. This experiment overlapped in time with a fourth discovery, one concerning curare, with which he was made acquainted by the chemist Théophile Pelouze. He showed how this dread poison causes paralysis and death by attacking the motor nerves, while having no effect on the sensory nerves. He demonstrated that, because of this selectivity, curare could be used as an experimental tool in differentiating neuromuscular from primary muscular mechanisms.

It was not until his 40th year of life that he was able to rise above his subordinate position. But then, within less than a decade, he had risen from obscurity in the shadows of Magendie, to a commanding position in science, with a reputation that extended beyond the borders of France. Honour followed honour in quick succession. In 1854 the government created a chair of general physiology for him at the Faculty of Sciences, and on May 1, 1854 he delivered his inaugural lecture at the Sorbonne. On June 26 the same year he was elected to the Académie des Sciences. When Magendie died in 1855, Bernard succeeded him as professor at the Collège de France. He became a member of the Académie de Médecine in March 1861.

Magendie's empirical methods of conducting experiments without a guiding hypothesis was by then out of date, partly as a result of his own discoveries. Bernard's historic role was to demonstrate the experimenter's need for a guiding hypothesis to be either confirmed or refuted by the results.

Magendie, while making great discoveries, usually went about his work in a haphazard fashion. Bernard, on the other hand, was a careful worker and observer. All of his discoveries were based on isolated facts which he had the ability to correlate and build into larger physiological generalizations, which he later verified, by experiments. The Académie des sciences awarded Bernard the grand prix in physiology in 1849, 1851, and 1853, for his discoveries concerning the pancreas, the liver, and the vasomotor function and other activities of the sympathetic nervous system.

From 1860 on, Bernard spent all his vacations at St.-Julien, where he had bought the manor house of the landlord on whose farm he had been born. In march 1860 he came here to recover from the first of a series of illnesses that were to mark his last years, and here, during the leisure enforced by a period of convalescence in 1862-1863, he drafted his principal theoretical work Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale. This work was planned as a preface, if a very long one, to a work of much greater magnitude, never completed, Principes de médecine expérimentale, for which Bernard wrote the rough drafts of several chapters. Bernard's aim in the Introduction was to demonstrate that medicine, in order to progress, must be founded on experimental physiology. The other points in his argument are that (1) the physical and chemical sciences provide the foundation for physiology, although it is not reducible to them; (2) the notion of "vital force" does not explain life; (3) vivisection is indispensable for physiological research; and (4) biology depends on the principle of scientific determinism, i.e. the principle that, under identical conditions, the phenomena will be identical.

The Introduction was published in August 1865. Ailing health forced Bernard to abandon work on Principes, which was to be reconstructed and published posthumously in 1947 by L. Delhoume.

For various reasons, a shift was occurring in Bernard's scientific interests. The productive researcher was turning into a philosopher of science. Failing health after 1860 led him to spend more time at Saint-Julien, less time in the laboratory. Louis Pasteur would blame the unhealthy conditions here for his colleague's long illness. By odd coincidence, Bernard suffered apparently from chronic enteritis, with symptoms affecting the pancreas and the liver. By way of compensation, the enforced leisure left him time for reflection, out of which would come his masterpiece, Introduction à la médecine expérimentale (1865 - An introduction to the study of experimental medicine (1927)).

He was sceptical regarding statistics and did not anticipate the later usefulness that statistical techniques would achieve. Still germane for modern science is his presentation of the concept of the milieu intérieur, or internal environment. He emphasised the milieu interieur, which the organism maintains constant in order to enable normal tissue function.

The book brought new honours to Bernard, notably election to the French Academy of Sciences in 1868 and subsequently was made imperial senator for life. After the break-up of his marriage, he found some consolation in a platonic friendship with Marie Raffalovich, a handsome woman of Russian-Jewish origin, married to an Odessa banker living in Paris. She attended his lectures and translated scientific works for him. After the separation of the Bernards, he became close to the Raffalovich house, where Rothschild sent him pheasants as presents, and Madame Raffalovich supplied him with the latest works by Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, and translated physiological works in Russian and German to him. Seven volumes of his letters from the years 1869 to 1878 are now in the archives of the Academie, and most of the important ones have been printed. Of importance are the childhood memories of Bernard by Sarah Raffalovich’s daughter Sophie O’Bryen (1925) who made her mother’s collection of letters available to the Institut de France.

His friends included such literary figures as Hippolyte Taine, and the Goncourts, besides such scientists as Louis Pasteur and Marcelin Berthelot.

The most renowned of the students trained by Bernard were Albert Dastre (1844-1917), Paul Bert (1830-1886), and Arsène d'Arsonval (1851-1940). Bert succeeded Bernard in the Sorbonne, when the latter transferred to the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle. Bernard's own experiments were taking new directions. The phenomena common to animals and plants formed the subject of lectures published posthumously. He also began research on fermentation. His findings were published after his death by Pierre Eugène Marcelin Berthelot (1827-1907) and, because they conflicted with Pasteur's views, cast a cloud over the microbe hunter's memory of his late colleague.

A severe suffering, which he had attracted in the moist basement that had served his as laboratory at the Collège de France, in 1866 forced him to renounce his chair at the Sorbonne for one at the Muséum d'histoire. Until 1870 Bernard was always rather sickly, but the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 induced new energy to him and he resumed his intense research activity.

During his convalescence of 1865-1867, Bernard turned his attention to philosophy, and read and annotated the philosophical works of G. Tennemann and of Auguste Comte. In 1866, at the request of the minister of public education, he prepared his Rapport sur les progrés et la marche de la physiologie générale en France, which was published on the occasion of the World Exposition of 1867. On December 12 1868 the chair of general physiology was transferred from the Sorbonne to the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle; as the titular holder of the chair, Bernard succeeded Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867), who had held the chair as professor of comparative physiology, on the council of professors to the museum. Flouren's chair was transferred to the Sorbonne, and was awarded to Paul Bert, one of Bernard's most faithful pupils.

In January 1869, after a hiatus of three years, Bernard resumed his courses in experimental medicine at the Collège de France. Although he was only a mediocre lecturer, he was able to hold the attention of his audience by the novelty and vividness of his arguments and by the experiments that he improvised in the amphitheatre to support his statements. At the beginning of his career, Bernard's audiences had been composed almost exclusively of physicians and physiologists, especially foreigners; gradually, however, they became larger, more varied, and more fashionable.

Bernard was showered with honours in the final years of his life: he was commander of the Légion d'Honneur (1867), president of the Société de biologie (1867), senator of the Empire (May 6, 1869), member of the Académie de France (May 27, 1869) and its president (1869). His separation from his wife and the Franco-Prussian was affected him profoundly, but he took pleasure in long stays ate St.-Julien, and in the tender friendship with Marie Raffalovich, to whom his letters reveal a glimpse of his poetic sensibility.

However, Bernard's health declined precipitously in the autumn of 1877. On New Year's Day he caught cold, and shortly after inflammation of the kidneys set in. Soon he was confined to his bed. Mme Raffalovich and her daughter nursed him, and students and friends gathered around; his daughter Tony stopped short of his threshold. A travelling rug was laid over his legs, of which he is reported to have said: "This time it will serve me for the journey from which there is no return." His sister called in the priest to hear his confession, though his closest friends were convinced that there was no deathbed confession. There was a national funeral, the first ever granted a scientist in France. A statue of him was erected in his honour in his birthplace, St. Julien on the Rhone.

Bernard was reputedly a very kind person, always ready to help his younger colleagues, a tolerant sceptic who stood out in a France where the hatred between the parties was prevailing. Himself a convinced Orleanist, he was appointed imperial senator for life.

Claude Bernard holds a peculiar position in the life sciences. While the brothers Eduard, Ernst Heinrich and Wilhelm Weber, Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858), and their brilliant students: Hermann Helmholtz (1821-1894), Emil Du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), Karl Ludwig (1816-1895), and Ernst von Brücke (1819-1892), had pioneered the transformation of medicine into an exact science, the French physiologists still continued in the ways of Flourens, Magendie, and François Achille Longet (1811-1871). Without exact methods, lacking the necessary equipment, equipped only with a few surgical instruments, the French physiologists approached their investigations rather by chancy methods. The fact that they still achieved numerous brilliant and important results, proves more than anything the great genius of some of them.

The genius of Claude Bernard is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the fact that he made his epoch-making discoveries during his lectures and demonstrations. Few of the best equipped physiological laboratories in his time made more numerous and more brilliant contributions to physiological knowledge than the damp cellar serving as Bernard's laboratory.

Despite his epoch-making contributions, Claude Bernard left no school, and as his results rested more on his personal brilliance than upon strict scientific principles, he was not able to prevent the decline of French physiology.

Claude Bernard died on February 10, 1878, left by his family, in the presence of his pupil Arsène d’Arsonval (1851-1940).

A selection of quotations by Bernard:

«A great discovery is a fact whose appearance in science gives rise to shining ideas, whose light dispels many obscurities and shows us new paths.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«When it is said that great thoughts come from the heart, it means that they come from the feelings, for our feelings, which have their physiological origin in nerve-centers, act upon the heart like peripheral sensations.»

«Medicine includes real experiments which are spontaneous, and not produced by physicians.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Experiment is fundamentally only induced observation.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Among the experiments that may be tried on man, those that can only harm are forbidden, those that are innocent are permissible, and those that may do good are obligatory.... If it is immoral, then, to make an experiment on man when it is dangerous to him, even though the result may be useful to others, it is essentially moral to make experiments on an animal, even though painful and dangerous to him, if they may be useful to man.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Experimental medicine is not a new system of medicine, but on the contrary is the negation of all systems. ... A science that halted in a system would remain stationary and would be isolated, because systematization is really a scientific encysting, and every encysted part of an organism ceases to take part in the organism’s general life.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Our feelings lead us at first to believe that absolute truth must lie within our realm; but study takes from us, little by little, these chimerical conceits.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«A scientific hypothesis is merely a scientific idea, preconceived or previsioned. A theory is merely a scientific idea controlled by experiment.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Our ideas are only intellectual instruments which we use to break into phenomena; we must change them when they have served their purpose, as we change a blunt lancet that we have used long enough.» An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«A few days ago, two surgeons came to give me a cystic examination.... both of them washed their instruments and their hands. Gosselin washed his after, but your pupil, Guyon, before this small operation.» Quoted by J. M. D. Olmsted in Claude Bernard, Physiologist. Chapter 8.
From a conversation between Bernard and Louis Pasteur around 1877, when Pasteur had been severely attacked for his views on infection.
Guyon is the surgeon Jean-Casimir-Félix Guyon (1831-1920).

«It is that we do know which is the great hindrance to our learning that which we do not know.» An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.

«If I had to define life in a single phrase, I should clearly express my thought by throwing into relief the one characteristic which, in my opinion, sharply differentiates biological science. I should say: life is creation.» An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«We may, of course, strike a balance between what a living organism takes in as nourishment and what it gives out in excretions.... This would be like trying to tell what happens inside a house by watching what goes in by the door and what comes out by the chimney.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«The constancy of the internal environment is the condition of free and independent existence.»
Leçons sur les phénoménes de la vie communs aux animaux at aux végétaux.

«The truly scientific spirit, then, should make us modest and kindly. We really know very little, and we are all fallible when facing the immense difficulties presented by investigation of natural phenomena. The best thing, then, for us to do is to unite our efforts, instead of dividing them and nullifying them by personal disputes.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«The progress of the experimental method consists in this - that the sum of truths grow larger in proportion as the sum of error grows less. But each one of these particular truths is added to the rest to establish more general truths. In this fusion, the names of promoters of science disappear little by little, and the further science advances, the more it takes an impersonal form and detaches itself from the past.» An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«The science of life is a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing through a long and ghastly kitchen.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«If an idea presents itself to us, we must not reject it simply because it does not agree with the logical deductions of a reigning theory.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«It has often been said that to make discoveries, one must be ignorant. This opinion .... means that it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas based on theories whose confirmation we constantly seek, neglecting meanwhile everything that fails to agree with them.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«We must never make experiments to confirm our ideas, but simply to control them.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown”
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Scholastics or systematizers never question their starting point, to which they seek to refer everything; they have a proud and intolerant mind, and do not accept contradiction ... The experimenter, on the contrary, who always doubts and who does not believe that he possesses absolute certainty about anything, succeeds in mastering the phenomena which surround him, and in extending his power over nature.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Let me assume that, instead of succeeding at once in making a rabbit diabetic, all the negative facts had first appeared; it is clear that, after failing after two or three times, I should have concluded.... that the theory guiding me was false..... yet I should have been wrong. How often must man have been and still must be wrong in this way! It even seems impossible absolutely to avoid this kind of mistake. We wish to draw from this experiment another general conclusion .... that negative facts when considered alone, never teach us anything.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«The origin of an original work is always the pursuit of a fact which does not fit into accepted ideas.» Manuscript, Collège de France.

«In pathology, as in physiology, the true worth of an investigator consists in pursuing not only what he seeks in an experiment, but also what he did not seek.»

«A contemporary poet has characterized this sense of the personality of art and of the impersonality of science in these words: «Art is myself; science is ourselves.»»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Science rejects the indeterminate.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«True science teaches us to doubt and, in ignoring, to refrain.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«Particular facts are never scientific; only generalization can establish science.»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«In experimentation it is always necessary to start from a particular fact and proceed to the generalization . . . . But above all one must observe.»
Manuscript, Collège de France

«Put off your imagination, as you take off your overcoat, when you enter the laboratory; but put it on again, as you do your overcoat, when you leave the laboratory. Before the experiment and between whiles, let your imagination wrap you round; put it right away from you during the experiment itself lest it hinder your observing power.»

«It is in the darker regions of science that great men are recignized; they are marked by ideas which light up phenomena hitherto obscure and carry science forward.
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«The doubter is a true man of science; he doubts not only himself and his interpretations, but he believes in science.» An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

«When we begin to base our opinions on medical tact, on inspiration or on more or less vague intuitions about things, we are outside of science and offer an example of that fanciful method which may involve the greatest dangers, by surrendering the health of life of the sick to the whims of an inspired ignoramus. True science teaches us to doubt and, in ignorance, to refrain,»
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine.
Translated by H. C. Greene.

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