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A Matter of Doubt - the novel of Claude Bernard Paperback – December 28, 2011
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All dull, serious stuff for most people; yet Peter Wise, a medical doctor and researcher, has succeeded brilliantly in bringing to life the man, the challenges and the many famous people who played a role in his search for truth, through this imaginative novel.
Cholera strikes Lyon, not far from young Claude's village in the Beaujolais wine country. He is a difficult student, a disappointment to his parents, dreaming of becoming a playwright, and just manages to become apprenticed to a nearby pharmacist. Bleeding is still the recommended cure for many illnesses; medicines are prescribed without any understanding of how or whether they actually work. His intense curiosity is aroused.
The first two chapters are a little slow, before the pace picks up rapidly with Claude's move to Paris, his early experiments on animals, and his difficult marriage to a woman who is active in the anti-vivisection movement. The vivid detail of his physiological research is expertly described, while the novel flows effortlessly due to the author's lively style.
One can visualise the dingy conditions for medical research, the stiffness of the academic world, and the struggle by scientists to gain admittance into upper French society. Claude succeeds through his tireless passion for finding the truth, and through the influential people he meets as if by chance, including Louis Napoleon and his enterprising cousin Mathilde. He is less successful in his family relationships or in caring for his own health.
This is an intelligent, well-researched novel that will be enjoyed for its insight into the history of medical science, as an important biography of one of the key figures, or simply as an absorbing good book.
Peter Wise has imaginatively created a very interesting book about scientific discovery, presenting it not from the laboratory but from the personal perspective of Claude Bernard. Not many readers are aware of how these scientific breakthroughs were pursued without all the fancy instruments we have today. The author wove historical scientific advances and their champions (Bernard, Pasteur, etc) into the trials and tribulations of this very important researcher, Claude Bernard. I sense that Dr. Wise must have done a lot of research into the development of medical and physiological ideas at the time of the novel, in order to work them into this story. I could feel Bernard's frustrations in the beginning of the book, as he changed vocations, schools, moving from his happy family to his woeful married life. Nothing was easy for him. He managed to turn his talents into great discoveries only after disappointing many around him.
I found myself noticing every now and then just how beautiful certain passages had been written. I found a funny parallel that Dr Wise, a physician, was sort of like Bernard, both authors and both choosing medicine as their vocations, but not giving up the creative passions in their lives.
Well done, this provides fascinating reading for those of us in medical and scientific research - a look into the past at Claude Bernard, a great scientist upon whose shoulders we stand in medicine and pharmacy today.
We see Bernard as a man, not so much intellectually blessed in the traditional academic way, but with an original, sceptical mind and with a dogged persistence and certainty about his science which rose above personal friendships and needs of his family. We experience Bernard's struggles with his own personal health and its relationship with his working conditions and personal conflicts. We see him struggle to find financial support in academe, when he shows no natural talent for lecturing and no inclination for clinical practice. It says much of the enlightenment of Louis Napoleon and Bernard's other faithful sponsors and supporters that they could see that the establishment of the fundamentals of experimental science by Bernard would have such longstanding impact on teaching and clinical medicine.
The author, who has a life long fascination with Claude Bernard, writes with a deep understanding and love of both Bernard the man and of French culture and science. Technically, the writing is flawless. The dialogue in the book flows naturally and the author generates a series of intriguing contrasts, including Bernard's interaction with his own and the Raffalovich family and with his life in the laboratories of Paris and in the vineyard of Chatenay. The strength and influence of women on Bernard's life is another important theme that links the narrative. In all these matters, the author shows a sure and confident hand which keeps the story moving, enriching the simple biography.
In all, a very enjoyable read, which should be of interest to lovers of the historical fiction genre and to those who want to know more about this remarkable and intriguing man, the father of the scientific method of investigation.