Golding Bird - Collateral Sciences - Chemistry - Vitalism


A prevalent idea in the 18th and early 19th centuries was that illness was a result of the condition of the whole body. The environment and the activity of the patient thus played a large part in any treatment. The epitome of this kind of thinking was the concept of the vital force, which was supposed to govern the chemical processes within the body. This theory held that organic compounds could only be formed within living organisms, where the vital force could come into play. This belief had been known to be false ever since Friedrich Wöhler succeeded in synthesising urea from inorganic precursors in 1828. Nevertheless, the vital force continued to be invoked to explain organic chemistry in Bird's time. Sometime in the middle of the 19th century, a new way of thinking started to take shape, especially among younger physicians, fuelled by rapid advances in the understanding of chemistry. For the first time, it became possible to identify specific chemical reactions with specific organs of the body, and to trace their effects through the various functional relations of the organs and the exchanges between them.

Among these younger radicals were Bird and Snow; among the old school was William Addison (a different person from Bird's superior at Guy's). Addison disliked the modern reliance on laboratory and theoretical results favoured by the new generation, and challenged Richard Bright (who gave his name to Bright's disease) when Bright suggested that the source of the problem in oedema was the kidneys. Addison preferred to believe that the condition was caused by intemperance or some other external factor, and that since the whole body had been disrupted, it could not be localised to a specific organ. Addison further challenged Bright's student, Snow, when in 1839 Snow suggested from case studies and laboratory analysis that oedema was associated with an increase in albumin in the blood. Addison dismissed this as a mere epiphenomenon. Bird disagreed with Snow's proposed treatment, but his arguments clearly show him to be on the radical side of the debate, and he completely avoided whole-body arguments. Snow had found that the proportion of urea in the urine of his patients was low and concluded from this that urea was accumulating in the blood, and therefore proposed bloodletting to counter this. Bird disputed that increased urea in the blood was the cause of kidney disease and doubted the effectiveness of this treatment, citing the results of François Magendie, who had injected urea into the blood, apparently with no ill effects. It is not clear whether Bird accepted Snow's reasoning that urea must be accumulating, or whether he merely adopted it for the sake of argument; while a student in 1833, he had disputed this very point with another of Bright's students, George Rees.

Justus von Liebig is another important figure in the development of the new thinking, although his position is ambiguous. He explained chemical processes in the body in terms of addition and subtraction of simple molecules from a larger organic molecule, a concept that Bird followed in his own work. But even the materialistic Liebig continued to invoke the vital force for processes inside living animal bodies. This seems to have been based on a belief that the entire living animal is required for these chemical processes to take place. Bird helped to dispel this kind of thinking by showing that specific chemistry is related to specific organs in the body rather than to the whole animal. He challenged some of Liebig's conclusions concerning animal chemistry. For example, Liebig had predicted that the ratio of uric acid to urea would depend on the level of activity of a species or individual; Bird showed this to be false. Bird also felt that it was not enough simply to count atoms as Liebig did, but that an explanation was also required as to why the atoms recombined in one particular way rather than any other. He made some attempts to provide this explanation by invoking the electric force, rather than the vital force, based on his own experiments in electrolysis.

Read more about this topic:  Golding Bird, Collateral Sciences, Chemistry

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