Carrel, Alexis

views updated May 18 2018

Carrel, Alexis

(b. Lyons, France, 28 June 1873;d. Paris, France, 5 November 1944),

surgery, experimental biology.

He was the eldest child of Alexis Carrel–Billiard, a textile manufacturer, and his wife, Anne–Marie Ricard, both from bourgeois Roman Catholic families. When Alexis was five years old, his father died, and the three children were brought up by their devout and solicitous mother. Alexis was sent to a Jesuit day school and college near his home in Lyons. As a schoolboy he showed an interest in biology by dissecting birds. Encouraged by an uncle, he conducted experiments in chemistry. After taking his baccalaureate he entered the University of Lyons in 1890 as a student of medicine. He was attached to hospitals at Lyons from 1893 to 1900, except for a year as surgeon in the French army’s Chasseurs Alpins. His talent for anatomy and operative surgery became apparent when in 1898 he was attached to the laboratory of the celebrated anatomist J. –L. Testut. In 1900 he received his formal medical degree from the University of Lyons.

Carrel became interested in surgery of the blood vessels about 1894, inspired, it is said, by the death of President Carnot from an assassin’s bullet, which cut a major artery. Such wounds could not at that time be successfully repaired. He developed extraordinary skill in using the finest needles and devised a method of turning back the ends of cut vessels like cuffs, so that he could unite them end–to–end without exposing the circulating blood to any other tissue than the smooth lining of the vessel. By this device and by coating his instruments, needles, and thread with paraffin jelly, he avoided blood clotting that might obstruct flow through the sutured artery or vein. He avoided bacterial infection by a most exacting aseptic technique. His first successes in suturing blood vessels were announced in 1902.

This brilliant achievement did not spare Carrel from difficulties, brought on partly by his critical attitude toward what he considered the antiquated traditions and political atmosphere of the Lyons medical faculty. Finding a university career blocked by local opposition, he left Lyons and after a year of advanced medical studies in Paris went in 1904 to the United States. At the University of Chicago, where he was given an assistantship in physiology, he resumed his experiments in blood–vessel surgery, applying his methods to such difficult feats as kidney transplants in animals. His growing reputation for surgical skill, bold experimentation, and technical originality won him in 1906 appointment as Member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York. There he resumed his surgical experimentation. Subsequent progress in surgery of the heart and blood vessels and in transplantation of organs has rested upon the foundation he laid down between 1904 and 1908.

Carrel’s pioneer successes with organ transplants led him to dream of cultivating human tissues and even whole organs as substitutes for diseased or damaged parts. He seized at once upon the work of Ross G. Harrison of Yale University, who announced in 1908 the cultivation of frog’s nerve cells in vitro. Bringing to this kind of research his own dexterity, inventiveness, and command of asepsis, Carrel succeeded in cultivating the cells of warm–blooded animals outside the body. To prove his results in the face of skepticism, he began his famous undertaking to keep such a culture alive and growing indefinitely, using a bit of tissue from the heart of an embryo chick. He kept this strain of connective–tissue cells alive for many years; in the care of one of his assistants it outlived Carrel himself. Although he did not add greatly, by his largely methodological achievement, to the understanding of cellular physiology, in other hands tissue culture has contributed greatly not only to scientific theory but to practice as well—for example, the growing of virus cultures in animal cell and the preparation of vaccines. In 1912 he received the Nobel Prize for his surgical and cell–culture experiments.

Carrel was married in 1913 to Anne de la Motte de Meyrie, a devout Roman Catholic widow with one son. The couple had no children of their own. Recalled in 1914 to service in the French army during World War I, Carrel conducted a hospital and research center near the front lines, where Mme. Carrel assisted him as a surgical nurse. With the aid of a chemist, Henry B. Dakin, he developed a method of treating severely infected wounds, which although often effective was too complicated for general use and has been supplanted by the use of antibiotics.

About 1930 Carrel undertook another far–reaching experimental program, aimed at the cultivation of whole organs. In this work he was aided by the celebrated aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who devised a sterilizable glass pump for circulating culture fluid through an excised organ. Carrel was thus enabled to keep such organs as the thyroid gland and kidney alive and, to a certain extent, functioning for days or weeks. This was a pioneer step in the development of apparatus now used in surgery of the heart and great vessels.

Carrel’s naturally religious, even mystical, temperament led him to speculate on the great problems of human destiny. In a widely read book, Man the Unknown (1935), he expressed the hope that scientific enlightenment might confer upon mankind the boons of freedom from disease, long life, and spiritual advancement, under the leadership of an intellectual elite.

He retired from the Rockefeller Institute in 1938 and, after the outbreak of World War II, returned to Paris, hoping to serve his native country by a grandiose program to safeguard and improve the population by scientific nutrition, public hygiene, and eugenics. During the German occupation he remained in Paris at the head of a self–created Institute for the Study of Human Problems. His acceptance of support from Vichy and his negotiations with the German command on behalf of his institute led to exaggerated charges of collaborationism. His death from heart failure aggravated by the hardships of life in wartime Paris spared him the indignity of arrest. Although not a fully orthodox churchman, he received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and was interred in a chapel at his home on the island of St. Gildas, off the coast of Brittany.


1. Original Works. Carrel’s writings include Man the Unknown (New York, 1938); The Culture of Organs (New York, 1938), written with Charles A. Lindbergh; La Prière (Paris, 1944), English trans., Prayer (New York, 1948); Le Voyage à Lourdes (Paris, 1949), English trans., with an intro. by Charles A. Lindbergh, Voyage to Lourdes (New York, 1950); and Réflexions sur la vie (Paris, 1952), English trans., Reflections on Life (London, 1952). A bibliography of his numerous scientific and popular articles is included in Soupault’s biography, cited below.

II. Secondary Literature. The definitive biography is Robert Soupault, Alexis Carrel, 1873–1944 (Paris, 1952), in French, with portraits and a full bibliography. See also Mme. Carrel’s preface to Reflections on Life; George W. Corner, History of the Rockefeller Institute (New York, 1965); Henriette Delaye–Didier–Delorme, Alexis Carrel, Humaniste Chrétien (Paris, 1964); Joseph T. Durkin, Hope for Our Time: Alexis Carrel on Man and Society (New York, 1965); and Alfonso M. Moreno, Triunfo y ruina de una vida: Alexis Carrel (Madrid, 1961).

Carrel’s correspondence and scientific records are at the library of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

George W. Corner

Alexis Carrel

views updated May 23 2018

Alexis Carrel


French Physician and Surgeon

Alexis Carrel is recognized for making advances in surgery and promoting interest in organ transplants. He received the 1912 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for his development of a technique to sew blood vessels together end-to-end.

Born in Ste-Foy-les-Lyon, France, on June 28, 1873, he was the son of a silk merchant. He was interested in many subjects and received two degrees before getting his medical degree from the University of Lyons in 1900. In 1894, while in Lyons, the French president was stabbed and bled to death because there were then no procedures for repairing blood vessels. The death had a profound effect on Carrel, who sought to find ways to sew blood vessels. Using a very fine silk thread and needle, he practiced on paper to perfect the technique. He then turned to ways of keeping cells around the area alive and well. He published an account of his successes in a French medical journal in 1902, but the French establishment was not impressed.

Carrel moved briefly to Canada, then to the University of Chicago. In 1906 he joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York, where he worked to perfect his technique for suturing blood vessels. Carrel envisioned a time when blood transfusions and organ transplants would become reality. He even performed successful kidney transplants on dogs. For his initiatives, he was given the 1912 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology.

In 1912 Carrel began a fascinating experiment in which he kept heart tissue from a chick embryo alive and beating by maintaining the proper nutrient culture and carefully removing waste accumulation. The monstrous heart became a media sensation, with one New York newspaper reporting each year on the "birthday" of the chick heart. The heart was maintained for 34 years, even outliving Carrel, before it was deliberately destroyed.

Although he lived in New York, he never became a United States citizen and maintained a home in France off the coast of Brittany. When World War I broke out, the French government called Carrel into service and placed him in a front line hospital. He was assisted by his wife of one year, who was a surgical nurse. Carrel worked with biochemist Henry Dakin (1880-1952) to develop a method for cleaning wounds using sodium hypochlorite. The complicated Carrel-Dakin method was very important in its time, but now has been replaced by antibiotics.

After his discharge in 1919, Carrel returned to Rockefeller Institute to continue his work with tissue cultures and began to focus on causes of cancer. He won several awards, including the Nordhoff-Jung Prize in 1931, for his study of malignant tumors.

Carrel was always fascinated with keeping organs alive outside the body. He and famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974) designed a special pump made of glass that would circulate fluids around organs and keep them viable for a period of time. Called the perfusion pump, the device laid the foundation for the future development of the heart-lung machine. Carrel and Lindbergh became good friends. They appeared together with their mechanical heart in the July 1, 1935, issue of Time magazine and published a book together called The Culture of Organs.

Carrel had many personal interests and was deeply religious. He visited Lourdes in France as a young man and made a spiritual pilgrimage there each year. He wrote several books on the topic, including Man the Unknown, which became a bestseller in 1935. Some considered his mixing of religion and science inappropriate. One such person was the new director of the Rockefeller Institute, who encouraged Carrel's "retirement" and closed the division of experimental surgery.

Although France had fallen to Germany, Carrel returned to his homeland in 1941 by making his way through Spain. The Germans had set up a puppet French government at Vichy. Carrel refused to serve as director of health under the new regime, but did accept a position with the Foundation for the Study of Human Problems. He brought together young intellectuals for philosophical discussions.

When the Germans were defeated in 1944, the French government accused Carrel of collaborating with the Nazis and intended to prosecute him. Shortly before the trial, Carrel had a heart attack and died in Paris on November 4, 1944. He was buried in Saint Yves Church near his home on Saint Gilder.


Alexis Carrel

views updated May 23 2018

Alexis Carrel

The French-American surgeon and Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) developed surgical techniques that marked the beginning of modern work in transplanting organs.

Alexis Carrel was born in Sainte-Foy-les-Lyon, France, on June 28, 1873. He graduated from the University of Lyons with a bachelor of letters degree in 1889, followed the next year by a bachelor of science degree; and, in 1900, by a medical degree. He taught anatomy and operative surgery at Lyons, beginning experimental research there. Carrel's particular interest in vascular surgery, however, met with little approval at Lyons. In 1904 he migrated to Canada and a year later to Chicago, where he was associated with the Hull Physiology Laboratory.

In 1906 Carrel joined the new Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. He became a fellow of the institute in 1909, a member in 1912, and member emeritus in 1939. Here he did research in vascular surgery, directing attention to organ transplantation and vascular suture. He recognized that the replacement or transplantation of organs was possible only if circulation without hemorrhage or thrombosis could be reestablished in the organ. For the successful techniques he developed in vascular anastomosis, Carrel was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912.

In 1913 Carrel married Anna de la Motte. During World War I he served in the French Army Medical Corps and, with the chemist Henry Drysdale Dakin, developed sodium hypochlorite for the sterilization of deep wounds.

After the war he returned to the Rockefeller Institute. In 1935 Carrel and Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator, announced methods by which the heart and other organs of an animal could be kept alive in glass chambers supplied by a circulation of artificial blood. In 1938 they published The Culture of Organs.

Carrel's most popular book, Man the Unknown (1935), deals with a range of scientific concepts and argues that man is in a position to control his destiny and reach perfection through eugenics, or selective reproduction. During World War II he was accused of Nazi sympathy because of these ideas.

Upon retirement in 1939 from the Rockefeller Institute, Carrel went to France. In 1940 he returned to the United States on a special mission to study man and the environment. At the time of his death in Paris on Nov. 5, 1944, he was director of the Vichy government's Carrel Foundation for the Study of Human Problems.

Further Reading

Carrel's Reflections on Life was translated from the French by Antonia White (1953). Two full-length studies of him are Robert Soupault, Alexis Carrel, 1873-1944 (1952), and Joseph T. Durkin, Hope for One Time: Alexis Carrel on Man and Society (1965). A good introduction to Carrel is the chapter in Theodore L. Sourkes, Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 1901-1965 (1966).

Additional Sources

Malinin, Theodore I., Surgery and life: the extraordinary career of Alexis Carrel, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

May, Angelo M., The two lions of Lyons: the tale of two surgeons, Alexis Carrel and René Leriche, Rockville, MD: Kabel Publishers, 1992. □

Carrel, Alexis (1873-1944)

views updated May 14 2018

Carrel, Alexis (1873-1944)

French surgeon and biologist with a philosophical interest in the unknown possibilities of mankind. Born at Sainte-Foy-les Lyons, France, June 28, 1873, Carrel studied at the Universities of Dijon and Lyons, obtaining his M.D. in 1900. In 1904 he went to Canada, hoping to raise cattle, but ended up instead pursuing his surgical skills at the Hull Physiological Laboratory, Chicago. In 1906 he became a staff member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and in 1912 received a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work on vascular surgery and transplantation of organs. He joined the French army in World War I and with Henry Drysdale Dakin developed the Carrel-Dakin solution for sterilizing infected wounds. His philosophical interests came to the forefront in his first book, Man the Unknown (1935), which became a best-seller.

During World War II Carrel lived in France and held an appointment as director of the Foundation for the Study of Human Relations under the Vichy government. After the war he was dismissed as a collaborationist, although it is probable that he was more interested in human biology and physiology than politics. He died in Paris, November 5, 1944. Two of his books, The Prayer (1948) and Voyage to Lourdes (1949), were published posthumously.


Carrel, Alexis. Man the Unknown. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935.

. Reflections on Life. New York: Hawthorn, 1953.

. Voyage to Lourdes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.

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