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Utrecht - Science

Comparative Physiology - The Discipline           




Physiology is the scientific study of the phenomenon "life", the functioning of organisms (Pütter 1911). Physiology builds on previously accumulated knowledge of shapes, construction plans, and behavior. The adjective 'Comparative' knew several 'flavors' in the course of time. At the University of Utrecht in the second half of the 20th century, Comparative Physiology meant fundamental animal physiology research, where biodiversity and adaptation to the environment were key. The animal is studied for the animal itself, and not as a 'model system' for the medical man, such as described by Severino in 1654 (Schmidt 1855), or in support of Darwin's theory of evolution.
In the Netherlands, Comparative Animal Physiology begins with the arrival of H.J. Jordan at Utrecht in 1913 . This is the period where Comparative Physiological textbooks appear, and publications of research results in journals. The majority of these publications are on 'vegetative' physiology: digestion, circulation, respiration, transport, and metabolism. The associated research methods are mainly borrowed from chemistry. Less accessible is the 'animate' physiology: the functioning of muscles, senses, nerves, and brains. Here, electrophysiological measurement methods are mainly used. The dichotomy in vegetative and animate physiology is based not only on differences in research methods, but also on parallels between the dualistic separation of vegetative, physical, growth functions, and the animate life functions. Note that Wilbrand in 1833, this distinction between geistig - animate and körperlich - vegetative already applied to the so-called "lower" organisms.

  • Image top left: Jordan-HJ 1929. Allgemeine vergleichende Physiologie der Tiere. De Gruyter, Leipzig. 
  • Image bottom left: quote from Wilbrand, 1833. Allgemeine Physiologie insbesondere vergleichende Physiologie der Pflanzen und der Thiere. Groos, Heidelberg.
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    D&V1       D&V2

    BitMan       BretschneiderF2006


    80 jaar Vergelijkende Fysiologie

    Sven Dijkgraaf, Head of the Department, gave Comparative Physiology in Utrecht a different signature. Focus of research was shifted to the 'animate' branch with social behavior and orientation. This turn was mainly inspired by the work of Karl von Frisch. Typical of this type of research is the study of the intact organism. Research questions are: what features can animals observe in their environment, and how do they use that type of information? Essential in this approach is the concept that the simplest living organism has an internal representation of the environment that allows it to survive and reproduce. The research methods that were in vogue for sensory, nerve, and muscle research were electrophysiology and psychophysics. The biochemical branch of comparative animal physiology at Utrecht, under the supervision of fellow professor H.J.Vonk, followed the instrumental developments into the cell and subcellular level in this period. In 1971 Dijkgraaf & Vonk's Dutch textbook on Comparative Animal Physiology was published. The discipline of Comparative Animal Physiology in Utrecht peaked around 1975. In addition to the biochemical, cellular and subcellular research - that is not discussed further here - a select group of scientists maintained expertise in the field of sensory and nerve physiology, and behavior. The publications cover information processing in the visual system of humans, rabbits, birds and invertebrates, hearing of fish, the magnetic susceptibility of insects, the electrical sensitivity of fish, beekeeping, social behavior of monkeys and apes, and orientation behavior of insects, fish, mollusks, and turtles. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Comparative Animal Physiology was overshadowed by molecular biology, cell biology, and medical disciplines like pharmacology. The use of animals was restricted, with disastrous consequences for research based on biodiversity.  Academic freedom was curtailed; focus, mass, and exploitation were the new dogmas. PhD students devalued to cheap temporary workers for venture related, applied research. Handbooks on Comparative Physiology disappeared from the bookstores. In the last 15 years of the 20th century, research concentrated on the visual system of cats, and primates, including human beings. Around 2010, Comparative Physiology disappeared from the Faculty of Biology.

  • Images left clockwise from top to bottom:
  • Dijkgraaf-S, Vonk-HJ 1971. Vergelijkende Dierfysiologie I & II. Oosthoek, Utrecht.

  • Peters-RC 2000. Bit Man. Beknopte neurofysiologie en neuroethologie voor de propedeuse. Stichting De Traditie, Utrecht.

  • Bretschneider-F, Weille-JR-de 2006. Introduction to electrophysiological methods and instrumentation. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

  • Prof. Dr. Ir. W. (Wim) A.P.F.L. van de Grind in his office (2000) in front of the painting of his predecessor H.J.Jordan. Especially thanks to his commitment, part of the archives of the Laboratory of Comparative Physiology could be preserved.

  • Cover of the 'Festschrift' on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Laboratory of Comparative Physiology in Utrecht. For the period 1915-1959 all Laboratory publications are included in the bibliography. For the period after 1959 - that is after the split in sections of animate and vegetative physiology - only the publications of the animate comparative physiological section are listed. The number of publications per research direction is a reflection of the interest of the students, and the policy of the university administration.