The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Physical Models and Physiological Concepts: Explanation in Nineteenth-Century Biology*

Everett Mendelsohn


The response to physics and chemistry which characterized mid-nineteenth century physiology took two major directions. One, found most prominently among the German physiologists, developed explanatory models which had as their fundamental assumption the ultimate reducibility of all biological phenomena to the laws of physics and chemistry. The other, characteristic of the French school of physiology, recognized that physics and chemistry provided potent analytical tools for the exploration of physiological activities, but assumed in the construction of explanatory models that the organism involved special levels of organization and that there must, in consequence, be special biological laws.

The roots of this argument about concept formation in physiology are explored in the works of Theodor Schwann, Johannes Müller, François Magendie and Claude Bernard among others.


* This is a version, edited by the author, of a paper read at a Meeting of the Society on 11 May 1964. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, Mass., 19 November, 1963.