After a recent talk that I gave about Bernard, quite a few people showed interest in this sketch of his (state) funeral in Paris in 1878. A cortege of some 4000 mourners had followed him to his final resting place in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. The very next day, Le Figaro reported the occasion, commenting that “…all Paris wept…”
Would this happen today if an equally famous scientist died? I think not, and let me explain.
Quite apart from the brilliance of his discoveries, Bernard was a fine communicator. He loved writing, had an imaginative mind, and in his early years had embarked on a literary career which was brought to an abrupt halt by Saint Marc Girardin, the harsh but well-meaning critic who steered him towards medicine. Later, Bernard’s research was largely based at the College de France, where he was also obliged to lecture on his research. A centuries-old decree of the College declares that the public should have free access to all its lectures. Accordingly, those who give them are obliged to make their presentations readily understood. The French term vulgarisateur is still used to describe lecturers who achieve standing in this art, and there were – and still are – many of them. Indeed, the French have always laid emphasis on educating the grand public. It was the brief of successive ministers of ‘public instruction’ to ensure that this ethos was maintained. During the 19th century, Louis Napoleon was particularly keen on the concept and personally endorsed Bernard’s capacity as a communicator.
In addition, that century had ushered in a hunger for written knowledge. Daily newspapers reported medical advances which were explained in fine, but still easily understood detail – and not just those advances that were simply sensational. Weekly publications like l’Illustration also followed this trend, while other journals like La Revue des Deux Mondes actually invited physicians and scientists (as well as other academics) to submit reviews on subjects of general interest. Claude Bernard, with his capacity both for good, simple writing and for rhetoric was born into, and thrived under this culture – and so the public certainly knew about him!
Science has become more complex, and then again more relevant to everyday life. More than ever – and despite television, the Internet and the ever-useful Wikipedia – there is a need for this verbal process to be maintained and extended beyond its birthplace in France (incidentally, we also need an English equivalent for the term vulgarisateur).
Finally, medical schools spend far too little time teaching students how to communicate to patients the nature of their condition, their responsibility in its management and the limits of their medication. I am convinced that physicians more oriented towards this type of communication will have better outcomes in their patients. Some years ago, I enlisted the help of my colleagues in different specialties to compile a computer database of information leaflets on a wide range of disease entities. These were specifically designed for physicians to help their patients to understand their conditions. PatientWise went on-line and a computer-based version is still available from various internet suppliers.