Xavier Bichat – the Father of Histology

Marie François Xavier Bichat

Marie François Xavier Bichat

On November 14, 1771French anatomist and pathologist Marie François Xavier Bichat was born. Bichat is known as the father of histology. Although working without the microscope, Bichat distinguished 21 types of elementary tissues from which the organs of human body are composed.

Xavier Bichat was the son of Jean-Baptise Bichat, a physician who had trained at Montpellier and was Bichat’s first instructor. Bichat enrolled at the college of Nantua, and later studied at Lyon. Even though he was probably pretty well trained in mathematics and physical science, Bichat ultimately decided to study anatomy and surgery under the guidance of Marc-Antoine Petit, chief surgeon to the Hotel-Dieu at Lyon.

Due to the revolutionary disturbances, Bichat fled from Lyon and took refuge in Paris in 1793. Xavier Bichat met Pierre-Joseph Desault there, who became Bichat’s teacher and mentor and was inpressed by Bichat’s abilities. For two years (until Desault’s death), he took active part in Desault’s work, at the same time pursuing his own research in anatomy and physiology. In 1796, Xavier Bichat and further colleagues formally founded the Société d’Emulation de Paris, which provided an intellectual platform for debating problems in medicine. After the death of Pierre-Joseph Desault, Bichat further completed the fourth volume of Desault’s Journal de Chirurgie to which he added a biographical memoir of its author. Another task of Bichat was to reunite and digest in one body the surgical doctrines which Desault had published in various periodical works. In 1797, one year after founding the Société d’Emulation de Paris, Bichat began a course of anatomical demonstrations, and his success encouraged him to extend the plan of his lectures, and boldly to announce a course of operative surgery.

To Xavier Bichat’s best known contributions to the science of medicine and physiology was his perception that the diverse body of organs contain particular tissues or membranes, and he described 21 such membranes, including connective, muscle, and nerve tissue. The scientist did not use a microscope because he distrusted it and therefore his analyses did not include any acknowledgement of cellular structure. However, Bichat was able to form a significant bridge between the organ pathology of Giovanni Battista Morgagni and the cell pathology of Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow. The field of histology became a distinguished discipline during the 19th century and in 1906, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to histologists Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal who had dueling interpretations of the neural structure of the brain based in differing interpretations of the same images. Cajal won the prize for his correct theory and Golgi for the staining technique he invented to make it possible.

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