Biography of Ivan Pavlov, Father of Classical Conditioning

Portrait of Ivan Pavlov

National Library of Medicine / Public Domain

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (September 14, 1849 - February 27, 1936) was a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist best known for his classical conditioning experiments with dogs. In his research, he discovered the conditioned reflex, which shaped the field of behaviorism in psychology.

Fast Facts: Ivan Pavlov

  • Occupation: Physiologist
  • Known For: Research on conditioned reflexes ("Pavlov's Dogs")
  • Born: September 14, 1849, in Ryazan, Russia
  • Died: February 27, 1936, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia
  • Parents: Peter Dmitrievich Pavlov and Varvara Ivanovna Uspenskaya
  • Education: M.D., Imperial Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Key Accomplishments: Nobel Prize for Physiology (1904)
  • Offbeat Fact: A lunar crater on the Moon was named after Pavlov.

Early Years and Education

Pavlov was born on September 14, 1849, in the small village of Ryazan, Russia. His father, Peter Dmitrievich Pavlov, was a priest who hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps and join the church. In Ivan's early years, it seemed that his father's dream would become a reality. Ivan was educated at a church school and a theological seminary. But when he read the works of scientists like Charles Darwin and I. M. Sechenov, Ivan decided to pursue scientific studies instead.

He left the seminary and began studying chemistry and physiology at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1875, he earned an M.D. from the Imperial Medical Academy before going on to study under Rudolf Heidenhain and Carl Ludwig, two renowned physiologists. 

Personal Life and Marriage

Ivan Pavlov married Seraphima Vasilievna Karchevskaya in 1881. Together, they had five children: Wirchik, Vladimir, Victor, Vsevolod, and Vera. In their early years, Pavlov and his wife lived in poverty. During the hard times, they stayed with friends, and at one point, rented a bug-infested attic space.

Pavlov's fortunes changed in 1890 when he took an appointment as the Professor of Pharmacology at the Military Medical Academy. That same year, he became the director of the Department of Physiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine. With these well-funded academic positions, Pavlov had the opportunity to further pursue the scientific studies that interested him.

Research on Digestion

Pavlov's early research focused primarily on the physiology of digestion. He used surgical methods to study various processes of the digestive system. By exposing portions of a dog's intestinal canal during surgery, he was able to gain an understanding of gastric secretions and the role of the body and mind in the digestive process. Pavlov sometimes operated on live animals, which was an acceptable practice back then but would not occur today due to modern ethical standards.

In 1897, Pavlov published his findings in a book called “Lectures on the Work of the Digestive Glands.” His work on the physiology of digestion was also recognized with a Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1904. Some of Pavlov's other honors include an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, which was awarded in 1912, and the Order of the Legion of Honor, which was given to him in 1915.

Discovery of Conditioned Reflexes

Although Pavlov has many notable accomplishments, he is most well known for defining the concept of conditioned reflexes. 

A conditioned reflex is considered a form of learning that can occur through exposure to stimuli. Pavlov studied this phenomenon in the lab through a series of experiments with dogs. Initially, Pavlov was studying the connection between salivation and feeding. He proved that dogs have an unconditioned response when they are fed — in other words, they are hard-wired to salivate at the prospect of eating.

However, when Pavlov noticed that the mere sight of a person in a lab coat was enough to cause the dogs to salivate, he realized that he had accidentally made an additional scientific discovery. The dogs had learned that a lab coat meant food, and in response, they salivated every time they saw a lab assistant. In other words, the dogs had been conditioned to respond a certain way. From this point on, Pavlov decided to devote himself to the study of conditioning.

Pavlov tested his theories in the lab using a variety of neural stimuli. For example, he used electric shocks, a buzzer that produced specific tones and the ticking of a metronome to make the dogs associate certain noises and stimuli with food. He found that not only could he cause a conditioned response (salivation), he could also break the association if he made these same noises but did not give the dogs food.

Even though he was not a psychologist, Pavlov suspected that his findings could be applied to humans as well. He believed that a conditioned response may be causing certain behaviors in people with psychological problems and that these responses could be unlearned. Other scientists, such as John B. Watson, proved this theory correct when they were able to replicate Pavlov's research with humans. 


Pavlov worked in the lab until his death at the age of 86. He died on February 27, 1936, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia after contracting double pneumonia. His death was commemorated with a grand funeral and a monument that was erected in his home country in his honor. His laboratory was also turned into a museum.

Legacy and Impact

Pavlov was a physiologist, but his legacy is primarily recognized in psychology and educational theory. By proving the existence of conditioned and non-conditioned reflexes, Pavlov provided a foundation for the study of behaviorism. Many renowned psychologists, including John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, were inspired by his work and built on it to gain a better understanding of behavior and learning.

To this day, nearly every student of psychology studies Pavlov's experiments to gain a better understanding of the scientific method, experimental psychology, conditioning, and behavioral theory. Pavlov's legacy can also be seen in popular culture in books like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", which contained elements of Pavlovian conditioning.


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Schweitzer, Karen. "Biography of Ivan Pavlov, Father of Classical Conditioning." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2020, Schweitzer, Karen. (2020, October 30). Biography of Ivan Pavlov, Father of Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from Schweitzer, Karen. "Biography of Ivan Pavlov, Father of Classical Conditioning." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).