If one had to describe, with a single word, what physiology is all about, that word would be homeostasis. This word was coined by the great American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon, in his book entitled The Wisdom of the Body (1939) and refers to regulatory mechanisms by which biologic systems tend to maintain the internal stability necessary for survival while adjusting to internal or external threats to that stability. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if it is unsuccessful, disease and perhaps death ensue.
Cannon's notion of homeostasis was an extension of the concept first introduced by one of the founders of modern physiology, Claude Bernard, a physician by training who made many seminal contributions to our early understanding of digestion, metabolism, vasomotor activity of nerves, neuromuscular transmission, and other areas of physiology. But perhaps his greatest lasting contribution was the notion that all physiologic processes are designed to maintain the internal environment, the milieu interieur, that bathes our cells, tissues, and organs. The following is from his opening lecture in a course in general physiology given at the College de France in 1887:
The living body, though it has need of the surrounding environment, is nevertheless relatively independent of it. This independence which the organism has of its external environment derives from the fact that in the living being, the tissues are in fact withdrawn from direct external influences and are protected by a veritable internal environment which is constituted, in particular, by the fluids circulating in the body.
In short, he suggested that we exist within our own "hot houses'' and that our existence depends on our abilities to maintain that "hot house.''
Although this notion may seem trivial now, at the time when it was introduced it was revolutionary. It proved to be prophetic and has influenced all physiologic thinking to this day.
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