Ivan Pavlov: an international pioneer of Physiology Print
Written by Vasiliki Gkanti   


Pavlov was the first truly international pioneer of physiology whose contributions continue to shape our understanding of human physiology until today. Pavlov’s work on conditioned reflexes and the physiology of the gastrointestinal tract was awarded in 1904 the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. Conditional reflexes led to a new psychologically oriented school of physiology and stimulated ideas about many aspects of human behavior as a result of conditioning. His work opened a remarkable gate to the knowledge of the complicated functions of our nervous system.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born in Ryazan, a small village in central Russia, on September 14, 1849. Pavlov was the son of the village priest and was the eldest of eleven children, six of whom died in childhood of infectious diseases. Likely to his father, Pavlov should have become a priest. He was first educated in the church school. Later, he advanced to the theological seminary (1), which differed from other schools in the sense that the boys were encouraged to develop their natural inclinations instead of being forced up to the same standard in all subjects (2). Pavlov, inspired by the papers of Charles Darwin and I.M. Sechenov, the father of Russian physiology, discovered his interest in science and abandoned his religious career. In 1870, at the age of 21, he entered the University of St. Petersburg to study physics and mathematics. During his studies, Pavlov became passionate with physiology. His first work on the physiology of the pancreatic nerves was awarded a gold medal. After completing his courses with academic excellence in 1875, he decided to continue studying medicine at the Academy of Medical Surgery, where he was also awarded a gold medal in 1879. In 1883, he received his medical doctoral degree. Pavlov, then, became director of a physiological laboratory and studied the nervous control of heart activity. During his dissertation on the nervous supply of the heart, he developed his theory of nervism, which he defined as a physiological theory which tries to prove that the nervous system controls the greatest possible number of bodily functions. Pavlov, then, was trained in research in Germany under Carl Ludwig, a cardiovascular physiologist and Rudolf Heidenhain, a gastrointestinal physiologist. After completing his studies in Germany, in 1895, he became Professor of Physiology and in 1890, he became Professor of Pharmacology at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg as well as the director of the Department of Physiology. He continued his directorship for 45 years- to the end of his life. In 1907, Pavlov was elected Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Five years later, he gained a rare honorary doctorate at Cambridge University. In the following years, he was awarded honorary membership of various scientific societies abroad, including the French Order of the Legion of Honour (1, 3, 4, 5).

Pavlov is recognized more as a physiologist than a surgeon, but much of his success can be traced to his technical skills in operating on laboratory animals. He was a pioneer in vascular surgery. While studying portal venous physiology in dogs, he used ‘’Eck’s fistula’’, which would probably have remained unknown outside Russia without the work of Pavlov. He is best known for his dog experiments. He created an animal model which allowed him to collect and measure the secretions of the stomach without oral contamination. In this model, Pavlov found that the stomach began to secret gastric juice by placement of food in the dog’s mouth. Then, he noted that gastric secretion was also activated when the animal was conditioned by certain stimuli, such as the smell of food. After being trained in this manner, the dog was found to secret digestive juices simply upon hearing the bell, even though it was given no food. Pavlov was able to distinguish the types of reflexes – inborn and learned or conditioned reflexes. Inborn reflexes were controlled in the spinal cord and brainstem, while conditioned reflexes were controlled in the cerebral cortex. Pavlov also demonstrated that learned reflexes could be abolished if the stimulus was inconsistent or not reinforced. For this novel work on the physiology of digestion, Pavlov was awarded in 1904 the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. Conditional reflexes led to a new psychologically oriented school of physiology and stimulated ideas about many aspects of human behavior as a result of conditioning. In the late 1920’s, after extending his research in human psychopathology, Pavlov began to observe patients in a psychiatric hospital and explained the disorders he saw in terms of his work on conditioning. Pavlov also presented brilliant studies in integrated physiology, in which he demonstrated that the function of different, successive steps in the gastrointestinal canal are coordinated through autonomic control by the vagus nerve. Considering the increasing prevalence of obesity due to overeating and also of anorexia and bulimia, Pavlov’s discoveries may be of current importance (1, 3, and 6).

In 1881, at the age of 32, Pavlov married a teacher, Seraphima Karchevskaya, who was the daughter of a doctor. They had five children; four sons (one of whom died) and a daughter. Money problems plagued Pavlov and his family. Early in marriage, he and his wife lived in an empty room in his younger brother’s house. Because Pavlov cared little for material things, he was able to weather his financial plight. Pavlov was also opposed to communism but due his stature, he was permitted to pursue his work under the aegis of the Soviet Union. In 1935, Pavlov was the president of the 15th International Congress of Physiological Scientists which was held in Leningrad and Moscow. In his opening address, Pavlov considered the internationalism of physiology and the importance of the Congresses to younger scientists. This congress was the last appearance of Pavlov on the world stage. On February 27, 1936, aged 86, Pavlov died from pneumonia and by the time the Congress Proceedings were printed, they were prefaced with an obituary. Pavlov’s death removed one of the most outstanding figures in modern medicine. He was the first truly international star of physiology and his contributions continue to shape our understanding of human physiology until today (1,7,8,9).



  1. Tan S Y, Graham C, Medicine in Stamps, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936):conditioned reflexes, Singapore Med J 2010; 51(1) :1
  2. IVAN PETROVICH PAVLOV, The Lancet, March 7, 1936, p.564-566
  3. Palmes D, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Journal of Investigative Surgery, 13:69± 70, 2000
  4. HAAS L F,  Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), Neurological Stamp, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1999;67:p. 299
  5. Marks M I, The Nobel Prize award in physiology to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov – 1904, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2004; 38:674–677
  6. Zetterstroem R, The Nobel Prize for 1904 to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936): Function of the gastrointestinal tract, Acta Pædiatrica, 2006; 95: 770-771
  8. Tansey EM, Pavlov at home and abroad: His role in international physiology, Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical 125 (2006) 1 – 11
  9. Haubrich WS, Pavlov of the Pavlov pouch, GASTROENTEROLOGY 1998;115:1055