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Pavlov's Perestroika

Harold Green

IVAN PAVLOV: A Russian Life in Science. Daniel P. Todes. xx + 860 pp. Oxford University Press, 2014. $39.95.

No matter how perfect a bird’s wing may be it could never make the bird airborne without the support of the air. Facts are the air of the scientist. Without them you will never be able to take off. Without them your theories will be barren.

—I. P. Pavlov

Astonishing as it may seem, Daniel P. Todes’s magisterial account of the life and times of physiologist Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov (1849–1936), one of the towering figures of psychiatry and experimental psychology, is the first comprehensive scholarly biography of the Russian scientist. There are reasons for this, mostly political, but such a work is long overdue and the wait has proved worthwhile.

Before Todes’s book appeared, readers interested in Pavlov did have some biographical options. One of the better early sources of original material in English is Boris Babkin’s Pavlov: A Biography, published in 1949. Babkin, who had been Pavlov’s laboratory assistant at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg, offers an intriguing glimpse into the physiologist’s youthful formative period and includes an account of his decision to renounce the priesthood for a career in science. Two more works deserving mention are Jeffrey A. Gray’s Ivan Pavlov, published in 1980, and Nikolai Krementsov’s 1997 book, Stalinist Science. While Krementsov is particularly adept at chronicling the adulation accorded the physiologist during the Stalinist period and beyond, Gray’s account is most noteworthy for the author’s discussion of Pavlov’s often uneasy relationship with Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Gray’s study also usefully crystalizes some of the principal trends from the history of experimental psychology.

Enter Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, a massive study that supersedes all previous biographical works in English on Pavlov in breadth, depth, and scope. Todes, a Russianist and professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, gained access to previously unavailable archival material in Russian, which has enabled him to portray Pavlov’s life, work, and achievements squarely within the purview of the unfolding drama of Russian and Soviet history, from the time of Czar Nicholas I to the Stalinist period. When Todes arrived in Leningrad in the autumn of 1990, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he began what evolved into decades of research. He dug into hundreds of articles and dissertations in Russian about Pavlov and pored over Pavlov’s personal papers held at the St. Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the I. P. Pavlov Memorial Museum in Riazan. He gathered additional material through his personal acquaintance with Pavlov’s granddaughters and great-granddaughter. Along the way Todes unearthed some relatively unknown as well as suppressed facts about Pavlov, affording readers the fullest portrait yet of the man behind the abstract theories.

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Todes reveals an autocratic, family-centered man who relished physical labor and athletic activities. A man of simple tastes who nevertheless appreciated and collected fine art. A man who was—crucially, for the director of a massive lab—a gifted administrator.

In Ivan Pavlov, a work reminiscent in style and content of Ernest Jones’s monumental The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Todes excels at distilling vast amounts of accumulated research material into a well-integrated, highly readable narrative. He divides the book into 49 short chapters and an epilogue. Taken together, they weave into a seamless tapestry the story of Pavlov’s many roles throughout his long and distinguished career—as scientist, political activist, and voice of reason during turbulent times in Russian history.

At the outset, Todes presents a fine summation of Pavlov’s temperament, character, attitudes, and values:

Pavlov was determined, disciplined, principled, and powerful; authoritarian, controlling, and intense; extraordinarily energetic and explosive. He expressed his deepest notions of human virtue in such lifelong keywords as tselesoobraznost (purposefulness, self-directedness), a quality that he also attributed to animals and their organ systems; and, most importantly, dostoinstvo (moral honor, self-worth, and dignity). His sense of dostoinstvo was profound, with its light and dark sides. For Pavlov the struggle for dostoinstvo was the secular counterpart of the soul’s aspiration toward God—a precious source of order, direction, and personal certainty.

Long before he became a star in the Russian scientific pantheon, Pavlov’s career nearly took an entirely different direction. Growing up in Riazan, a town about 200 miles from Moscow, he originally intended to pursue the vocation of his forbears, who were sacristans and clerics, and become a Russian Orthodox priest. To further this aim, he attended the local church school. In 1870 he decided instead on a career in science and matriculated at the University of St. Petersburg. He went on to study with an array of academic luminaries, including the chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev; eminent physiologist Elie Tsion; and physiologists Carl Ludwig and Rudolf Heidenhain, who became methodological models for Pavlov’s commitment to science and influenced his cognitive style and research techniques as well.

Even after renouncing a religious career, Pavlov continued his inquiry into the nature of consciousness, this time from an empirical perspective. His fascination with the inner workings of human nature has historically been overlooked in the United States, where the physiologist’s contributions remain popularly misunderstood. Jeffrey Gray’s 1980 biography maps out four stages of Pavlov’s influence in the United States. Although all four are useful for understanding the origin of entrenched misconceptions that Todes’s biography works to counter, the first stage, which Gray calls the symbolic phase, is most salient here. During this stage psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958), considered the founder of behaviorism, appropriated Pavlov’s terms conditioned and unconditioned reflexes to bolster his emerging theory of learning. As Gray explains, “The early behaviorists, led by Watson, took from Pavlov the language of conditioned reflexes, but not the methods or theories. Access to the details of Pavlov’s work was limited until the large-scale translations of his papers published in 1927 and 1928. By this time the mold was set . . . in America.” Watson’s influence was powerful enough that those initial, partial interpretations of Pavlov’s studies continued to affect the work of later generations of researchers, such Clark L. Hull and O. H. Mowrer, whose research focused steadfastly on observable behaviors, forgoing theories of consciousness.

It’s important to add here that a persistent and pivotal mistranslation further complicated U.S. scholars’ interpretation of Pavlov’s ideas. Todes explains that the terms conditioned and unconditioned are “linguistic distortions of conditional and unconditional reflexes, which is the actual translation from the original Russian.” The error first appeared in the Lancet in an anonymous translation of a speech Pavlov gave in London. Later, two of the physiologist’s associates noted the error as they composed their own translations of other works but did not correct it. Thus the mistranslation spread, gaining wide acceptance. And since the terms conditioned and unconditioned happened to be well suited to behavioral psychology’s learning theories, which focused on behavior modification, the usage stuck. (So far as I am aware, only Todes has used the correct translation.)

The reference value and appeal of Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science are further enhanced by the author’s inclusion of an exhaustive bibliography on Pavlov and related topics in both Russian and English, several pages of reproductions of Pavlov family photographs, a photocopy of the physiologist’s laboratory notebooks, and a reproduction of a page from a 1924 draft of Pavlov’s 1927 monograph lectures On the Work of the Large Hemispheres of the Brain.

Written with the jeweler’s eye of the scholar yet retaining the spontaneity and storytelling flair of the journalist, Todes’s study fills important gaps in Pavlov scholarship. It is a remarkable book, the likes of which are rarely seen today. I highly recommend this biography to students of medicine, physiology, psychiatry, and psychology, as well as to readers eager to steep themselves in Russian history and culture.

Harold M. Green is a writer and lecturer from Liberty, New York, and a frequent contributor to these pages. One of his research interests is the history of American psychology and sociology. He is an emeritus member of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.

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