Pavlov was the son of a poor parish priest and was born in 1849 in Ryazan, which lies about 150 miles South-east of Moscow. His early education was in a church school and then in a seminary. Russia was ruled by a relatively liberal Czar, Alexander II, and so Pavlov was not starved of radical literature. In 1870, he entered St. Petersburg University.

Pavlov was a physiologist and had no intention of becoming a psychologist. In 1904 he was awarded the first Nobel prize to be given to either a physiologist or to a Russian. However, his work has had a profound influence within psychology and has earned him the status of one of the founders of psychology. He was a powerful bridge between the study of the brain and the study of behavior. Pavlov's contribution to psychology came after a long and distinguished career studying digestion; it was only at the age of 50 that Pavlov was able to develop the notion of the conditional reflex.

The Russian revolution of 1917 brought a materialist doctrine into the ascendancy in Russian thinking and Pavlov's work was at first regarded as entirely appropriate to this. Lenin and the Soviet regime extended favors to his laboratory. However, Pavlov regarded the new system with some suspicion and Soviet ideology was not entirely happy with some of the more radical features of Pavlov's science. In the West, Pavlov's ideas formed a crucial basis for Watson's behaviorist revolution.
Pavlov died in 1936.

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