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With Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, Daniel P. Todes achieves a level of mastery that transforms biography into history. The technical accomplishment of this volume, especially the originality of its multilingual sources and serious treatment of scientific research, marks it as an exemplary work of scholarship that reveals much about the history of 19th- and 20th-century Russia. In eminently readable and beautifully arranged chronological chapters, Todes captures both the sluchainost' (chance and randomness) andpravil'nost' (regularity and lawfulness) of Pavlov's life. And as those words—which appear frequently in Pavlov's writing—suggest, he, like his times, was characterized by many contradictions.
Born in 1849, Pavlov matured into the decadent, aristocratic, and yet impoverished feudal world of Tsarist Russia. He died in 1936, having witnessed a history filled with the assassinations, executions, and revolutions that led to the birth of the Soviet state, the repressions of Bolshevism, and the depravities and crimes of “Stalin Times.” Trained for the priesthood, yet inspired to pursue a career in science by Ivan Sechenov's materialist Reflexes of the Brain, the self-proclaimed atheist and harsh critic of communism nonetheless believed that religious freedom was a basic human right and sometimes acknowledged unity in the missions of Jesus and the Communists. He would submit privately in his later years that religion served individual needs and fulfilled positive cultural roles in a healthy society.
Pavlov elevated skepticism in science to the status of virtue. Yet he could be dogmatic, petty, and unforgiving of those who dared entertain even minor differences of interpretation with him. He thought of himself as inclined to laziness but adopted the essayist Samuel Smiles's moral doctrine of industriousness (1) as his mantra and life's practice. Nine months of each year, he devoted himself obsessively to scientific work in St. Petersburg, and then for three summer months he enjoyed gardening, art, music, philosophy, and literature in his family's summer residence, with science seemingly forgotten. Clearly devoted to his wife and children, Pavlov nevertheless pursued an adulterous relationship in his last three decades. He furthermore could be a tyrannical and indifferent father.
The vigor with which Pavlov fought for deterministic interpretations in physiology and sought to establishpravil'nost' in his laboratories appears counterpoised to the sluchainost' of his external world. Providence could play a cruel role at times in Pavlov's personal life, not least by suddenly claiming the life of a son in 1883. Similarly, if ironically, professional failures and setbacks opened better (albeit later) professional opportunities. Randomness was a way of life for Pavlov and his compatriots. Even the name of his chosen city of residence—which, in his lifetime, began as St. Petersburg, was changed to Petrograd, and finally became Leningrad—was a reminder of impermanence and indeterminacy.
Pavlov's career in physiology, defined by struggle and poverty until his fourth decade, was, beginning in his fifth, marked by illustrious achievements and ideas for new research programs. His Nobel Prize–winning research on the digestive glands gave way to an even more ambitious program that sought to explain the mysteries of the human psyche. In this later project, he posited that the conditional reflex characterized in his earlier work was the physiological correlate of psychological association. However, he was never able to satisfyingly demonstrate his overarching theory of the origins and formation of habits and temperaments. Despite this, his research program engaged with and contributed to a range of topics across the fields of clinical neurology, neurosurgery, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, human genetics, and Gestalt psychology.
Like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, Pavlov possessed and set high intellectual aspirations for himself. But unlike Darwin and Freud, Pavlov published in Russian, and, perhaps for this reason, he never elicited the same adulation as those other “great men” (this is the first major biographical study that engages with the voluminous multilingual archival and literary sources from his life). The subtleties of his life and labor thus disappeared after his death. The discipline of physiology diminished over time, too. It was replaced by a myriad of other scientific disciplines and specialties. Many of these new disciplines, Todes notes, have lost interest in wholeorgan function and bodily integration and ultimately even faith in the unification of science with medicine.