Alphonse Laveran

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Alphonse Laveran

French medical researcher and physician Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922) discovered the parasite that causes the endemic tropical disease of malaria. He also guessed correctly that the disease was transmit ted by mosquitoes.

The story of Laveran's discoveries was a remarkable one in several respects. They took shape not in the pure realm of laboratory research but in the field: Laveran was a military physician and surgeon posted to Algeria, where he observed the ravages of malaria firsthand. Laveran's hypotheses about malaria flew in the face of established scientific theories of his time, when the recently discovered role of bacteria in many other diseases was assumed to apply to malaria as well. Most remarkable of all was his ability to interpret what he saw under his primitive microscope: it was not a bacterium but a single-celled animal, trailing long filaments, that, in the early years of microscopy, appeared to be an entirely mysterious entity. Laveran's discovery of the malaria parasite was a scientific triumph combining patient observation, strong intuition, and the ability to synthesize diverse preexisting insights and ideas.

Spent Part of Childhood in Algeria

Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran was born on June 18, 1845, in Paris. His eventual choice of career followed that of his father, Louis-Théodore Laveran, who was a French military physician. His mother, the former Marie-Louise Anselme Guénard de la Tour, was herself descended from high-ranking army officers. When Laveran was five, the family was sent to Algeria, then a French colony where resistance to European rule was simmering. His first lessons in medicine came from his father, augmented by impressions gathered from the eyes of a child living in a tropical war zone. In 1856 the family returned to Paris, and the elder Laveran became a professor at the Ecole de Val-de-Grâce, a Paris military medical school.

Laveran attended two private schools in Paris, the Collège Saint Baube and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, planning on following his father into the medical profession. To that end he enrolled in a military medical college in Strasbourg, France, in 1863, graduating in 1867 with a thesis on the repair of nerve damage. After that he joined the French military as a physician, and by the time the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 he had reached the rank of medical assistant-major. He saw action as an ambulance officer during several major battles, including the disastrous siege of Metz, when he was briefly imprisoned by the Germans. After the French surrendered that city, he was moved to hospitals in Lille and then Paris. In 1874 he bested several other physicians in competitive exams and was appointed to a term as chair of Department of Military Diseases and Epidemics at the Ecole de Val-de-Grâce.

After completing his term as chair, Laveran was sent to the city of Bône in Algeria (now Annaba). Soon after that he moved to the city of Constantine (Qusantînah). Working in military hospitals in these two cities, Laveran was confronted by wards full of patients suffering from malaria, a common and serious tropical disease that was (and remains) potentially fatal and is invariably accompanied by extreme discomfort such as joint pain, intense flashes of fever and cold, and nausea. The disease took its toll on French military recruits, who sometimes dropped dead before they could be assembled into platoons. Laveran began making cultures of soil samples, doing autopsies, and drawing patients' blood with pinpricks in order to learn what he could about the disease.

At the time, malaria was poorly understood, and techniques for examining blood under a microscope were poorly developed. Laveran could see in the blood of his patients some small black granules or pigments that were already known to result from infection with malaria, but he had no idea what produced these pigments or caused the disease. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the germ theory of disease, and specifically the role of bacteria—single-celled organisms called prokaryotes, or organisms without a nucleus—in causing infectious diseases, had become generally accepted after experiments conducted by France's Louis Pasteur and Germany's Robert Koch had shown their widespread applicability. Malaria was thought by most scientists to be the result of an as-yet-undiscovered bacterium, and they were busily combing the air, water, and earth in malariainfested regions in search of it.

Spotted Motile Bodies

Laveran patiently continued his observations, and finally, early in the morning of November 6, 1880, he struck pay dirt: he spotted a moving organism on a slide he was examining under a high-powered microscope. It had long filaments that propelled it through the patient's blood like the legs of a swimmer, something no bacterium would do. According to an article published on the Malaria Site Web site, Laveran wrote, “In 1880, at the military hospital in Constantine, I discovered on the edges of the pigmented spheric bodies, in the blood of a patient suffering from malarial fever, thread-like elements resembling whips which were scurrying about with great vivacity, displacing neighboring erythrocytes [red blood cells]; from then on, I had no further doubts as to the parasitic nature of the elements I had found.”

The organism Laveran had seen was a protozoan, a single-celled microbe that contains a nucleus and shares certain characteristics with higher orders of animals—it can move, and it consumes other organic matter. Laveran found these protozoa in the blood of 148 of 192 malaria patients he examined, and he correctly concluded that they were the primary cause of malarial infection. Furthermore, he identified other small spherical organisms he had also found in patients' blood as stages in the development of the fullfledged motile protozoan that, he thought, lived on the surface of red blood cells and disrupted them (another researcher soon showed that the parasite actually grew inside cells). He named the new organism Oscillaria malariae and published his findings in an article titled “A new parasite found in the blood of malarial patients. Parasitic origin of malarial attacks.”

Laveran's ideas were not immediately accepted. Several other scientists claimed to have observed a Bacillus malariae or malaria bacterium, and Laveran's protozoan was an enigma with an appearance unlike any other microscopic organism that had yet been discovered. Many scientists looked to the familiar idea of bacteria as the most likely explanation, but experiments over several years in the early 1880s began to confirm Laveran's findings. An American military physician, George Sternberg, made an exhaustive search of air and mud from marshes in clearly malarial areas and found no trace of anything resembling Bacillus malariae. Other scientists observed parasites related to Laveran's protozoan in animals. In 1884 two Italian researchers named Ettore Marchiafava and Augusto Celli spotted blood organisms in malaria patients that were actually among the earlier stages of the malarial parasite Laveran had discovered, but they did not realize they were looking at the same organism. They named their new discovery Plasmodium, and that name, although technically inaccurate, continued to be used.

New techniques of microscopy yielded findings that expanded Laveran's own, and he continued to defend his ideas. He replicated his own results during a trip to Rome, Italy, in 1882, where he collected large numbers of blood samples from Italian soldiers who had served in the Roman Campagna, a swampy area south of Rome that was a notorious reservoir of the disease, and he then returned to Paris and the Ecole de Val-de-Grâce in 1884. That year Pasteur became the first big-name researcher to sign on to Laveran's theory, and by the end of the decade it had gained general acceptance. In 1889 Laveran was given the prestigious Brént Prize by the French Academy of Sciences.

Suggested Mosquitoes as Host

“After having discovered the parasite of malaria in patients' blood,” Laveran wrote, as quoted on Malaria Site, “there remained an important question to be solved: in what form did the hemacytozoon [the protozoan] exist in the exterior environment and how did the infection come about? The solution to this problem required long and laborious research.” He made extensive studies of air, water, and earth at sites known to be infested with malaria, but failed to find his parasite. “I was convinced that the microbe existed outside the human body, in a parasitic state, and most probably in the shape of a parasite of mosquitoes.”

Laveran presented this hypothesis in a new Treatise on Malarial Fevers and delivered it in report form to the International Congress on Hygiene at Budapest, Hungary. Once again, his ideas were generally rejected, but experiments by British researcher Ronald Ross, working in India, showed that the Plasmodium parasite did indeed develop inside mosquitoes. Soon malaria was understood to be a disease transmitted by mosquito bites, and was therefore almost impossible to eradicate.

The French military did not substantially reward Laveran for his accomplishments. In 1894 he was moved from the Ecole de Val-de-Grâce to the position of chief medical officer at the military hospital in Lille, and then to that of director of health services of the 11th Army Corps at Nantes. These were administrative posts where Laveran neither interacted with patients nor had access to a laboratory to do his beloved research. Offended, Laveran took a position as chief of the honorary service at the Pasteur Institute in 1896, heading a research lab of his own. For the next ten years he did research on trypanosomes—parasitic protozoa with a single flagellum (or whiplash tail) that live inside insects. He explored their role in several major diseases, including African Sleeping Sickness. In 1908 he founded a new Society for Exotic Pathology, remaining its president until 1920. He was inducted into major scientific societies in France, England, the United States and many other countries. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He donated half his prize money to the Pasteur Institute. In 1912 Laveran was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, a French honor roughly comparable to a knighthood in England.

Laveran was a man entirely devoted to science. In 1885 he married Sophie Marie Pidanc¸et, but the pair had no children. He spent most of each day doing research, but during World War I he served on committees devoted to protecting and improving the health of French soldiers. He continued to work until a few weeks before his death, sending assistants to inform him of the day's happenings at the Pasteur Institute's labs even after he lost the strength to visit the labs himself. Laveran died on May 18, 1922, after a long illness.


Journal of Medical Biography, May 2002.


“Alphonse Laveran,”, (December 14, 2007).

“Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922),” Malaria Site, (December 14, 2007).

“Laveran and the Discovery of the Malaria Parasite,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control, (December 14, 2007).

World of Anatomy and Physiology. Online. Thomson Gale, 2006, (April 16, 2008).

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Charles-Louis-Alphonse Laveran was born in 1845 in Paris, France, where he also died in 1922. Laveran's father was a distinguished physician in the French military, and Laveran continued the family tradition. He enrolled in l'École du Service de Santé Militaire at Strasbourg in 1863 and served during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1874 he received the post of Professor Agregé des Maladies et Epidemies des Armées. In 1878, Laveran was sent to work in an Algerian hospital outside the city of Constantine. A number of troops had fallen victim to malaria and Laveran began conducting postmortem examinations. Physicians had been familiar with this disease, which is characterized by fever, since ancient times, but its etiology and process of transmission were still unknown. Laveran's initial findingsthat the internal organs were discoloredconfirmed previous research experiments. When he began to examine blood from the organs, however, he noticed something new. He observed a series of filaments, or parasites, moving independently among the red blood cells.

Laveran presented his discovery at a meeting at the Académie de Médecine in Paris a few weeks later on November 23, 1880. During the next year, Laveran recorded parasites in 148 out of 200 patients believed to have died from malaria. Yet, when Laveran demonstrated his experiment in Italy, a center for the study of malaria, skeptics questioned his deduction that the filaments were independent living organisms. Although he had discovered the parasite that causes malaria, now known as Plasmodium, the relationship between the parasite and outbreaks of the disease remained elusive. Laveran returned to Paris in 1884 and published Traité des Fièvres Palustres. He continued his studies as a professor of military hygiene at Valde-Grace Hospital and, after his retirement from the army, at the Pasteur Institute. By the time of his death, Laveran had published approximately six hundred works on the subject of parasites in man and animals and received a Nobel Prize for his work.

Jennifer Koslow

(see also: Malaria; Pathogenic Organisms )


Bruce-Chwatt, L. J. (1981). "Alphonse Laveran's Discovery 100 Years Ago and Today's Global Fight Against Malaria." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 74(7):531536.

Garnham, P. C. C. (1998). "History of Discoveries of Malaria Parasites." In History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 10(1):93108.

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Laveran, Charles Louis Alphonse

(b. Paris, France, 18 June 1845; d. Paris, 18 May 1922),

medicine, biology, parasitology.

Laveren studied medicine in Strasbourg, attending simultaneously the École Impériale du Service de Santé Militaire and the Faculté de Médecine, which in the 1860’s were both well-known medical schools. His doctoral dissertation, defended at Strasbourg in 1867, dealt with experimental research on the regeneration of nerves; it is still worth consulting. Laveran served as military physician in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1874, after a competitive examination, he was named professeur agrégé at the École du Val de Grâce. From 1878 to 1883 he served in Algeria. During this period he carried out research on malaria, first at Bône and then at Constantine, where on 6 November 1880, at the military hospital, he discovered the living agent of malaria. Malarial fevers had afflicted men since antiquity, and their causes had been explained by the most varied and most contradictory hypotheses (see Hackett and Manson-Bahr). In his Nobel address he gave a precise and detailed account of his discovery.

Laveran, transferred to Paris, left the malaria-infested regions; and the discovery that its vector is the mosquito was made by Sir Ronald Ross, who always admitted having been put on this track by the work of Manson and of Laveran.

Laveran’s discovery was greeted without enthusiasm. The military authorities did not recognize his merits, and he was not promoted. After having held the post of professor of military hygiene at the École du val de Grâce from 1884 to 1894 and having filled several temporary administrative positions at Lille and Nantes, he left the army in 1896 to enter the Pasteur Institute, which “was proud to welcome independent spirits desiring to undertake disinterested research” (Roux). From 1897 Laveran carried out research on parasitic blood diseases in man and animals. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on pathogenic protozoans. He used the prize money to organize a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute for tropical medicine, which bears his name. In 1908 he founded the Sociélté de Pathologie Exotique and was its president for twelve years. The Academy of Sciences, which had acknowledged his talents in 1889 with a major prize, elected him a member in 1901. He later became a member and president of the Academy of Medicine. He published the results of his numerous investigations not only in notes and memoirs but also in voluminous monographs remarkable for both the precision of their texts and the excellence of their illustrations.

Laveran was described by his friends Calmette and Émile Roux. He was cold and distant to those who did not know him and was a tenacious and solitary worker. Yet in his private life he was known for his cheerful disposition and was devoted to literature and the fine arts. His family consisted not only of his wife and sister, but also of his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute to whom he was attached by bonds of friendship.


I. Original Works. Laveran’s writings include “Recherches expérimentals sur la régénération des nerfs” (Strasbourg, 1867), his M.D. theses; Traite des maladies et épidémies des armées (Paris, 1875); “Sur un nouveau parasite trouvé dans le sang de plusieurs malades atteints de fièvre palustre,” in Bulletin de l’Académie de Médecine, 2nd ser., 9 (1880), 1268; “Deuxiéme note relative à un nouveau parasite trouvé dans le sang de malades atteints de la fièvre palustre,” ibid., p. 1346; “Description d’un nouveau paasite délcouvert dans le sang de malades atteints d’impaludisme,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences,93 (1881), 627; Nature parasitaire des accidents de l’impaludisme, description d’un nouvean parasire trouvé dans le sang des malades atteints de fièvre palustre (Paris, 1881); Nouveaux éléments de pathologie et de clinique médicales, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., 2 vols. (Paris, 1883), written with S. Teissier—see “Paludisme,” p. 92; Du paludisme et de son hématozoaire (Paris, 1891); “Protozoa as Causes of Diseases,” in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921 (Amsterdam, 1967), pp. 257-274; Trypanosomes et trypanosomiases, 2nd ed., rev. (Paris, 1912), written with F. Mesnil; and Leishmanioses-Kala-Azar-Bouton d’Orient, Leishmaniose américaine (Paris, 1917).

II. Secondary literature. See A. Calmette, “Le professeur Laveran,” in Bulletin de la Société de pathologie exotique,15 no. 6 (1922), 373-378; I. Fischer, Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Aerzte der letzten fünfzig Jahre, II (Berlin, 1933), p. 873; L. W. Hackett, Malaria in Europe, an Ecological Study (Oxford, 1937), p. 109; P. Manson-Bahr, “The Story of Malaria: The Drama and Actors,” in International Review of Tropical Medicine, 2 (1963), 329-390; R. Ross, Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921 (Amsterdam, 1967), pp. 19-119; J. L. Rouis, Histoire de l’École impériale du Service de santé militaire instituée en 1856 à Strasbourg (Nancy, 1898); E. Roux, “Jublilé de M. le pr. Laeran,” in Annales de l’Institut Pasteur,29 (1915), 405-414; and “A. Laveran,” ibid.,36, no. 6 (1922), 459-461; and Edmond and étienne Sergent and L. Parrot, La découverte de Laveran (Paris, 1929).

Marc Klein

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Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (shärl lwē älfôNs´ lävəräN´), 1845–1922, French physician. While an army surgeon in Algiers he discovered (1880) the parasite that causes malaria and wrote many treatises on the subject. He received the 1907 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on protozoa in the causation of disease.