Robin, Charles-Phillipe

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(b. Jasseron, Ain, France, 4 June 1821; d. Jasseron, 6 October 1885) biology, histology.

Robin’s father’s family were rich bourgeoisie with a high regard for scholarship. He was greatly influenced by his mother, Adelaïde Tardy, whose family included several physicians. Robin attended the boarding-school at Menestruel, near Poncin (Ain), where as a young boy he lost an eye while playing with his fellow students. He had to wear a glass prosthesis, and monocular vision may have played some role in his later predilection for working with the microscope.

After studying the classics at the Collège Royal of Lyons, Robin enrolled in 1838 at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris. From the start of his medical studies, anatomy and biological research attracted him much more than clinical medicine. In 1845, while still a student, Robin traveled with Hermann Lebert to the coast of Normandy and to the Channel Islands to collect specimens for the museum of comparative anatomy that M. J. B. Orfila wished to establish in Paris. Robin subsequently published (partly in collaboration with Lebert) a series of notes on such topics as the lymphatic and venous systems of marine animals, the reproductive mechanism of the squid, the comparative anatomy of the genitalia, the structural elements of the fibroplastic tissue, and the morphology of various animal and vegetable parasites (1845–1846). His initial research displayed two recurrent characteristics, skillful use of the microscope and a comparative approach to his subject matter.

Robin received his medical degree on 31 August 1846 with a thesis on the topographical anatomy of the region of the groin. In 1847 he defended two theses for the doctorat ès sciences naturelles: an original and important zoological investigation of the electric organs of Rajidae, and a biological examination of parasitic vegetable growths of man and animals. He was the first to describe Oidium albicans (Candida albicans) and to explain thrush as a parasitosis caused by this microscopic fungus.

Having won the agrégation in natural history (1847), Robin began a private course in pathological anatomy, set up a laboratory of comparative anatomy, and in 1849 replaced Achille Richard in the chair of natural history at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris. The primary subjects of his publications were now the histology of the vertebrate nervous system and the microscopic structure of tumors. Through Pierre-François Rayer, Robin met émile Littré and was introduced to Auguste Comte, whose lectures on positivist philosophy captivated him. In positivism Robin found the possibility of giving to his specialized studies a doctrinal unity. Lamarck introduced the term biologie into France and Comte and Littré had popularized it. But Robin was responsible for its final acceptance and for the later elaboration of the concept of general biology in French scientific circles.

Robin was the leading proponent of the Société de Biologic; he urged its creation, wrote up its statutes, and, with Rayer, Claude Bernard, and Brown-Sequard, directed its initial activities (1848). At the first meeting of this society, Robin presented a memoir entitled “Sur la direction que se sont proposé, en se réunissant, les membres fondateurs de la Société de Biologic pour répondre au titre qu’ils ont choisi.” This credo of positivist biology exercised a significant influence onthe orientation of physiological, medical, and zoological research in France.

Robin set forth in detail his own ideas on biology in two books, published in 1849 and 1851, Du microscope and Tableau d’anatomie. In this view of general anatomy Robin went beyond Bichat, asserting that the anatomical element itself, independent of the tissue of which it is a part, ought to be the subject of both morphological and physiological research. At the same time, Robin asserted that life did not depend on a rigid structure but on a “state of organization”—in fact, on “a particular molecular state.” The notion of the blastema, central to Schwann’s cell theory, fully corresponded to Robin’s ideas, but he was never able to adopt the cell theory in its newest phase, as formulated by Virchow. Robin never accepted the view that the cell could be the single fundamental component of organized beings. For him the real seat of life was constituted by the humoral parts of the organism. Beyond the fixed anatomical elements, there must be, he thought, a molecular organization that explained the morphology. In his opinion, therefore, microscopic investigation was only a stage of biological research and must be followed by chemical analysis. In collaboration with a chemist. F. Verdeil. Robin studied the chemical compounds of which the organism is composed. Despite its display of useful information, the resulting Traité de chimie anatomique et physiologique, normale et pathologique (1852–1853), showed that research oriented in this direction led at that time to a dead end and that, given the contemporary stale of chemical knowledge, the superiority of a morphological approach was undeniable.

In carrying out his ambitious program of histological and biochemical research Robin made serious errors but also a number of important discoveries, including the description of the osteoclasts in regard 10 bone formation (1851), study of the change in the uterine mucus during pregnancy and some new facts on the microscopic structure of ganglions and of neuroglia.

At Littré’s request he helped him to revise Nysten’s Dictionnaire de médecine. Far from being a simple guide to semantics and orthography, Littré and Robin’s Dictionnaire became “the medical code of the positivist doctrine” (E. Chauffard). A chair of histology was created for Robin in 1862 at the Paris Faculty of Medicine. In 1864 he founded, with Brown-Séquard, the Journal de I’anatomie et de la physiologic normales et pathologiques de l’homme et des animaux.

With Robin’s election to the Académie des Sciences on 15 January 1866, politics, teaching, and administrative tasks began to take precedence over scientific research. During the Franco-Prussian War he held the post of director of the army medical corps, and in 1873 he was named director of the marine zoology laboratory at Concarneau. In 1875 he was elected to the Senate as deputy from the Ain. In polities Robin was a partisan of the left, a “free-thinker,” heavily engaged in anticlerical activity.

Although Robin’s early micrographical research was a valuable contribution to science, and although his conception of general anatomy was historically useful as a transition between Bichat’s histology and cellular biology, a similarly favorable judgment cannot be rendered on the work and ideas of the last period of his life. He opposed Virchow’s cellular pathology, refused to accept such modern histological methods as slices and stainings, and opposed Pasteur’s microbiological discoveries. When Robin’s lifework. Anatomic et physiologic cellulaires, was published in 1873, even his students were abandoning him. His teaching no longer reflected contemporary scientific thought.

Robin never married. He led a frugal life, wholly dedicated to his work. He was a brilliant but peremptoryteacher. Serving as medical counselor to many French writers (Mérimée. Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Flaubert, A. Dumas fils, Michelet, About, the Goncourt brothers), Robin deserves to be labeled the “éminence grise of naturalism” (P. Voivenel).


I. Original Works. Robin’s principal books are Recherches sur un appareil qui se trouve sur les poissons du genre des Raies (Paris, 1847); Du microscope et des injections dans leurs applications à l’anatomie et à la pathologie (Paris, 1849; rev. ed., Paris, 1877); Tableaux d’anatomie (Paris, 1851); Traité de chimie anatomique et physiologique, normale et pathologique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1852–1853), written with F. Verdeil; Histoire naturalle des végétaux parasites qui croissent sur l’homme et sur les animaux vivants (rev. ed., Paris, 1853); Dictionnaire de médecine, de chirurgie, de pharmacie, des sciences accessaires et de l’art vétérinaire, 10th ed. of P. H. Nysten, Dictionnaire de médecine, 2 vols. (Paris, 1855; 11th ed., 1858; 12th ed., 1865), written with E. Littré; Leçons sinles humeurs normales et morbides du corps de l’homme (Paris, 1867; 2nd ed., 1874); Anatomie et physiologie cellulaires (Paris, 1873); and Nouveau dictionnaire abrégé de médecine (Paris, 1886).

Robin was a prolific writer; for a bibliography of about 300 of his articles (1844–1885), see Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie normales et pathologiques de l’homme et des animaux, 22 (1886), clxvi-clxxxiv.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biographical study of Robin is undoubtedly V. Genty, Un grand hiologiste: Charles Robin (1821–1885), sa vie, ses amitiés philosaphiques et littéraires (Lyons, 1931), but the treatment of his purely scientific work is superficial and excessively indulgent. The basic work remains the éloge of his disciple G. Pouchet, “Charles Robin (1821–1885), sa vie, son oeuvre,” in Journal de l’anatomie et de la physiologie …, 22 (1886), i-clxv. Also useful is his autobiographical Notice sur les travaux d’analomie et de zoologie de M. Charles Robin, 2 pts. (Paris, 1860–1865); and a collective publication, “L’oeuvre scientifique de Charles Robin,” in Annales de la Sociétè d’èmulation de l’agriculture, sciences, lettres et arts de l’Ain, 21 (1888), 59–305. For insights into Robin’s personality, see G. Variot, “Quelques souvenirs aneedotiques sur Charles Robin,” in Bulletin de la Société française d’histoire de la médecine, 19 (1925), 8–15.

M. D. Grmek

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Robin, Charles-Phillipe

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