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PHYSIOLOGY—DINOSAUR OR PHOENIX? WIIJJAM R. MILNOR* Physiologists are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as an endangered species, but perhaps we need to consider that possibility. Not long ago, a distinguished medical scientist asked me, "What's left in physiology today ifyou take away the neural and cellular parts?" When I finally grasped the assumptions behind his question, I was amazed, for he thought that all the other problems of physiology had been solved, that the physiology of organ systems and the integration of functions in living animals are completely understood. Physiology, he believed, had reached a static condition, like gross anatomy. Apart from a few minor details, the excitement was over. To a physiologist, this image clashes so sharply with reality that he wonders how it could arise. The answer, I suggest, is that scientists have become so specialized that we are in danger of forgetting the broad scope of biology. In seeking a full explanation, we must recall three developments in the years after the Second World War: advances in physiological knowledge stimulated by federal support of research, technical innovations that were in part the result of military needs, and the discoveries that created modern genetics and molecular biology. Some of the gains in physiology, particularly in the cardiovascular and respiratory fields, were widely recognized because they quickly found practical application in medicine and surgery. Others, like electrophysiology and the concept of cell "receptors," laid foundations that would become more and more important as time went on. Meanwhile, improvements in instrumentation altered virtually all of the life sciences, using the echoes of "sonar" to outline the internal structures of man, the X-ray diffraction of crystallographers to deduce the structure of complex biological molecules, and the digital computer ?Department of Physiology, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 725 North Wolfe Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21205.© 1987 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/87/3004-0535$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 30, 4 ¦ Summer 1987 \ 561 to comprehend the otherwise unmanageable flood of data. A new curiosity about the life sciences on the part of physicists and mathematicians was in part a cause and in part a result of this technological flowering. Physicists recognized the challenges posed by living cells and saw the applicability of special physical techniques. All of these developments paved the way for the emergence of molecular biology, epitomized in the discovery of the structure of DNA. These historical facts are well known, but their consequences for basic science in the medical school deserve closer inspection. First, as in all periods of explosive growth, new academic species appeared. Departments or research divisions devoted exclusively to such specialties as genetics and cell biology were formed, and highly specialized periodicals appeared (The Journal of Molecuhr Cardiology, Journal of Biological ResponseModifiers ). Many parts of physiology became subdisciplines in their own right, neurophysiology, immunology, and cellular physiology being prominent examples, and here and there new departments were created by combining parts of older ones. "Neuroscience," for example, came into being because many workers in neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, behavioral physiology, psycholinguistics , and other branches of psychology found more in common with each other than with members of their former units. Such restructuring had obvious benefits, bringing together and establishing communication among individuals with common interests and complementary talents. Another consequence, closely related to the first, was the increasingly "interdisciplinary" nature of each of the basic sciences. Research that previously had been labeled as anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry was carried out in many different departments. The broadening of approach was accomplished in some cases by creating teams of investigators with different backgrounds, but to a larger extent it placed broader responsibilities upon each individual. The successful basic scientist needed an up-to-date working knowledge of many fields. Spectroscopes, electron microscopes, and computers were no longer the exclusive prerogative of chemists, morphologists, or engineers, nor was the electronic counterpart of the smoked drum the unique property of physiologists. The tremendous surge of new scientific knowledge that accompanied these events has rightly been called a revolution, and its results are apparent throughout biology today. The multiplication and rearrangement of academic categories were inevitable, and only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 561-565
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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