Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov

Was a Russian physiologist known primarily for his work in classical conditioning. Inspired by the progressive ideas which D. I. Pisarev, the most eminent of the Russian literary critics of the 1860’s, and I. M. Sechenov, the father of Russian physiology, were spreading, Pavlov abandoned his religious career and devoted his life to science.

Pavlov was born in Ryazan, Russia. He began his high studies as a seminarian, then, he gave up and joined the University of Petersburg to study natural sciences. He obtained his PhD in 1879. His mother, Varvara Ivanovna Uspenskaia (1826-1890), was a devoted homemaker. As a child, Pavlov willingly participated in house duties such as doing the dishes and taking care of his siblings. He loved to garden, to ride his bicycle, row, swim, and play gorodki. He devoted his summer vacations to these activities. Although he was able to read by the age of 7 years old, Pavlov was seriously injured when he fell from a high wall onto a stone pavement. He did not undergo formal schooling until he was 11 years old as a result of his injuries.

In 1890, Pavlov investigated the gastric function of dogs by externalizing its salivary gland in order to collect, measure and analyze the saliva produced in response to food under different conditions. He noticed that they tend to salivate before the food reached their oral cavity, and thus he started to investigate this “psychic secretion”, as he called it. He decided that it is far more interesting than the chemistry of saliva, and he changed his research purposes, performing a long series of experiments in which he manipulated the stimuli which appeared before bringing food to the dogs. He established the fundamental laws for the appearance of what he named “conditional reflexes”, the reflex responses, like salivation, which only appeared conditionally, as a result of the previous experiences with the animal.

Pavlov was obsessed with his schedule and work habits. He used to eat lunch at exactly 12 o’clock every day, used to sleep at the same time each night, fed his dog at the same hour each night and used to leave Leningrad for Estonia on vacation in the same day every year. This behaviour changed when his son, Victor, died in the White Army, then Ivan subsequently suffered from insomnia.

Unlike many pre-revolutionary scientists, Pavlov was respected by the Soviet government, which allowed him to continue his investigations until old age. Pavlov himself didn’t have a favorable attitude towards Marxism, but as a Nobel laureate, he was seen as an important political asset, and thus was strongly supported. After the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, Pavlov wrote several letters to Molotov, criticizing the mass persecutions which followed and demanding the retrial of the cases of people he personally knew. Later in his life, Ivan was particularly interested in the use of the conditioning to establish an experimental model over the induction of neurosis. He died in Leningrad. His laboratory in Sankt Petersburg has been preserved until today.

Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904. He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1907 and was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1914. He became a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1907. Pavlov’s dog, the Pavlovian session and Pavlov’s typology are named in his honour.

It is widely believed that Pavlov usually brought food to his dogs announcing them by a bell, but his notes showed the use of a large number of auditory stimuli, including whistles, metronomes, as well as visual stimuli. In the 1990’s, when Western scholars had access to Pavlov’s laboratory, they haven’t found any of these items.

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