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emeritus professor of anaesthesia Imperial College London

Many scientific disciplines experience an Einstein like revelation when a new concept pulls many ideas together under a single, all embracing umbrella. In medicine it came with the realisation that the ultimate purpose of life was keeping the contents of the tiny drops of water within the millions of cells of our body within strict limits. All bodily functions - breathing, the circulation of blood, the detoxifying and excretory work of the liver and kidneys and the controlling action of the brain - are directed to this end. If these parameters are disturbed the cell ceases to function properly and disease results. The watery soup inside the cells has the same concentration of sodium, potassium and chloride as that believed to have been present in the oceans when life began, some 600 million years ago. The tiny content of oxygen in these cells reflects the low concentration of the gas in the atmosphere at that time.

This unifying concept was originally proposed by the French physiologist, Claude Bernard in 1853 and developed in 1929 by the Harvard professor, Walter B Cannon, in his theory of ‘homeostasis’. Today we realise that life is impossible unless we control what Bernard described as the ‘milieur interieur’. It is the real secret of life.