Historian Daniel Todes, of Johns Hopkins University, has just published a biography of Ivan Pavlov with Oxford University Press. The book is also discussed in a recent piece in The New Yorker, “Drool: Ivan Pavlov’s Real Quest.”
Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science is described on the publisher’s website as,
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a definitive, deeply researched biography of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and is the first scholarly biography to be published in any language. The book is Todes’s magnum opus, which he has been working on for some twenty years. Todes makes use of a wealth of archival material to portray Pavlov’s personality, life, times, and scientific work.
Combining personal documents with a close reading of scientific texts, Todes fundamentally reinterprets Pavlov’s famous research on conditional reflexes. Contrary to legend, Pavlov was not a behaviorist (a misimpression captured in the false iconic image of his “training a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell”); rather, he sought to explain not simply external behaviors, but the emotional and intellectual life of animals and humans. This iconic “objectivist” was actually a profoundly anthropomorphic thinker whose science was suffused with his own experiences, values, and subjective interpretations.
This book is also a traditional “life and times” biography that weaves Pavlov into some 100 years of Russian history-particularly that of its intelligentsia—from the emancipation of the serfs to Stalin’s time. Pavlov was born to a family of priests in provincial Ryazan before the serfs were emancipated, made his home and professional success in the glittering capital of St. Petersburg in late imperial Russia, suffered the cataclysmic destruction of his world during the Bolshevik seizure of power and civil war of 1917-1921, rebuilt his life in his 70s as a “prosperous dissident” during the Leninist 1920s, and flourished professionally as never before in 1929-1936 during the industrialization, revolution, and terror of Stalin.
Todes’s story of this powerful personality and extraordinary man is based upon interviews with surviving coworkers and family members (along with never-before-analyzed taped interviews from the 1960s and 1970s), examination of hundreds of scientific works by Pavlov and his coworkers, and close analysis of materials from some twenty-five archives. The documents range from the records of his student years at Ryazan Seminary to the transcripts of the Communist Party cells in his labs, and from his scientific manuscripts and notebooks to his political speeches; they include revealing love letters to his future wife and correspondence with hundreds of lay people, scholars, artists, and Communist Party leaders; and unpublished memoirs by many coworkers, his daughter, his wife, and his lover.