Marey, Étienne-Jules

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(b. Beaune, France, 5 March 1830; d. Paris, France, 15 May 1904)


Marey’s central significance for the development of physiology in France lies in his adoption and advocacy of two fundamental techniques in experimental physiology: graphical recording and cinematography.

Marey studied medicine at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris and then was an intern at the Hôpital Cochin. His doctoral dissertation (1857) on the circulation of the blood utilized recording instruments that were modified versions of those developed by German physiologists, particularly Karl Ludwig. By installing these instruments in his lodgings on the Rue Cuvier, he established the first private laboratory in Paris for the study of experimental physiology. In 1868 he succeeded Pierre Flourens in the chair of “natural history of organized bodies” at the Collège de France.

During the first decade of his research career (1857–1867) Marey applied the technique of graphical recording to the study of the mechanics and hydraulics of the circulatory system, the heartbeat, respiration, and muscle contraction in general. He analyzed the circulatory and muscular systems in terms of the physical variables, elasticity, resistance, and tonicity. With the graphical trace he established the relationship of heart rate and blood pressure, thus supplementing previous studies of the value of blood pressure in a vessel with traces of its waveform.

After having identified the actions of parts of the organ or system under investigation by means of particular motions of the recording stylus, Marey constructed an artificial model of the organ or system. By manipulating these constructions to obtain wave forms identical to those produced in the living subject, he demonstrated the accuracy of his analyses of the characteristics of his graphical traces.

In this early work Marey sought to apply his methods and results to pathology and to clinical diagnosis. His concern with the greatest possible accuracy in graphical records was matched by his concern for simplifying instruments so that they could be easily used by the clinical diagnostician.

During this first decade Marey’s accomplishments depended more upon technical achievement than upon innovative choice of problems. His research topics were in fact fairly straightforward extensions of investigations begun by Bernard, Helmholtz, and Vierordt. Emil du Bois-Reymond, Fick, and Weber were also important influences. After 1868, however, he turned to what was then a more novel area for the application of recording devices—the study of human and animal locomotion. Using traces of the motions of bird and insect wings, Marey showed that changes in the form of the wing modify its air-resistance properties; rather than contracting the wing flexor and extensor muscles, this surface change accounts for much of the upward and forward motion of the flying animal. By this means Marey determined the mechanical requirements for the physiological apparatus of flight. As with his deductions drawn from his circulatory studies, here too he sought to verify his deductions by constructing models that would display the same properties as those of the living specimen. He examined the structure of the muscle and skeletal systems systems in the light of these mechanical requirements to learn how the size and insertion of muscles, bone length, and joint angles combined to fulfill those requirements.

Marey also studied the length and frequency of steps taken by human beings and quadrupeds under various environmental conditions. Again, he sought the clinical application of his results—in this case to elucidate different locomotor pathologies. This work depended upon the invention of “Marey’s tambour,” a device for the transmission and recording of subtle motions without seriously limiting the subject’s freedom of movement. The tambour is an air-filled metal capsule covered by a rubber membrane. When compression distorts the membrane, air is forced through an opening from the capsule into a fine, flexible tube; at the opposite end of the tube a similar capsule receives these variations in air pressure and its membrane activates the movable lever on the graphical recorder. Marey’s tambour was still being used in 1955.

When Marey saw that the pattern of leg motions and hoofbeats of a trotting horse could be depicted clearly by photographs taken in rapid succession, he turned to the perfection of a photographic device that could be used to improve his studies of animal locomotion. Beginning in 1881, his modifications of a camera that had been used by Janssen to record the transit of Venus in 1874 made an important contribution to the development of cinematographic techniques. Also in 1881 he persuaded the municipal council of Paris to annex to his professorial chair land at the Parc-des-Princes, where he constructed a physiological station for the photographic study of animal motion outdoors under the most natural conditions possible. For almost the whole of the following two decades he devoted himself to the application of cinematography to physiology, extending its use to such subjects as photographing water currents produced by the motions of fish and microscopic organisms.

In Marey’s view, physiology “is itself but the study of organic movements,” and the graph best represents all the variations that such phenomena undergo. Marey believed, however, that these motions ultimately were to be explained by laws of physics and chemistry. Furthermore, while he accepted the application of physiological research to medical problems, he subordinated this utilitarian purpose to a more abstract goal: “analyzing the conditions which modify the functions of life and … better determining the laws which regulate these functions.” Toward this end medicine served only as one further means of analysis.

Marey’s strong desire to see the graph become the language of physiological description led him to fear that confusion and repetition would increase without some standardization of the equipment and parameters used in recording. He therefore proposed to the fourth International Physiological Congress in 1898 that a committee be formed to suggest uniform standards and to perfect the technology of recording devices. When his suggestion was accepted, he solicited and obtained donations from the French government, the municipality of Paris, the Royal Society of London, and other scientific academies for construction at the Parc-des-Princess of an institute where the committee members could work. This institute has since been called the Institut Marey.

In 1895 he became president of the Académie des Sciences, to which he had been elected in 1878.


I. Original Works. Marey published more than 150 papers, which are indexed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 237; VIII, 327–328; X, 719–720; XII, 484; XVII, 16–17. Among his major papers are “Recherches hydrauliques sur la circulation du sang,” in Annales des sciences naturelles. Zoologie…, 4th ser., 8 (1857), 329–364; “Études physiologiques sur les caractéres du battement du coeur et les conditions qui le modifient,” in Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie,2 (1865), 276–301, 416–425; “Étude graphique des mouvements respiratoires et des influences qui les modifient,” ibid., 425–453; “Études graphiques sur la nature de la contraction musculaire,” ibid., 3 (1866), 225–242, 403–416; “Mémoire sur le vol des insectes et des oiseaux,” in Annales des sciences naturelles. Zoologie …, 5th ser., 12 (1869), 49–150, and 15 (1872), art. 13; “De la locomotion terrestre chez les bipèdes et les quadrupèdes,” in Robin’s Journal anatomique,9 (1873), 42–80; “Emploi de la photographie instantanée pour l’analyse des mouvements chez les animaux,” in Comptes rendusde l’Académie des sciences,94 (1882), 1013–1020; “La photochronographie et ses applications à l’analyse des phénomènes physiologiques,” in Archives de physiologie normale et pathologique,1 (1889), 508–517; and “Mesures à prendre pour l’uniformisation des méthodes et le contrôle des instruments employés en physiologie,” in Comptes rendus … de l’ Académie des sciences,127 (1899), 357–381.

Among Marey’s books are Physiologie médicale de la circulation du sang (Paris, 1863); Du mouvement dans les fonctions de la vie (Paris, 1868); La machine animale, locomotion terrestre et aérienne (Paris, 1873); La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales (Paris, 1878); and Le mouvement (Paris, 1894).

II. Secondary Literature. See Association Internationale de l’Institut Marey, Travaux de l’Institut Mare (Paris, 1905–1910), which contain summaries of laboratory work at the institute; A. Chauveau, H. Poincaré, and C. Richet, “Inauguration du monument élevé à la mémoire de Étienne-Jules Marey,” in Mémories de l’Académie des sciences de l’Institut de France, 2nd ser., 52 (1915), separately paginated; A. R. Michaelis, Research Films (New York, 1955), 4–6, 118–119, and passim; “E. J. Marey—Physiologist and First Cinematographer,” in Medical History, 10 (1966),2; and “Marey, Étienne-Jules,” in Trevor I. Williams, ed., A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (London, 1969), 352–353; “Obituary, É.-J. Marey,” in Lancet(1904),1, 1530–1533; Henri de Parville et al., Hommage à M. Marey (Paris, 1902); and C. J. Wiggers, “Some Significant Advances in Cardiac Physiology,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine,34 (1960),1–15, esp. 9–10.

Background to the development of graphical recording techniques in physiology is in H. E. Hoff and L. A. Geddes, “The Technological Background of Physiological Discovery: Ballistics and the Graphic Method,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences,15 (1960), 345–363.

Michael Gross

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Marey, Étienne-Jules

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