Houssay, Bernardo Alberto

views updated May 18 2018


(b, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 10 April 1887; d. Buenos Aires. 21 September 1971)

physiology, pharmacology, medicine.

Houssay was one of the most prominent and influential Latin American scientists of the twentieth century. His total dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and his untiring efforts to foster scientific and technical training among his compatriots received worldwide recognition. For more than twenty-five years his Institute of Physiology at the University of Buenos Aires was the scientific beacon for all of Latin America, and from its laboratories emerged disciples who now occupy prominent positions in scientific research and training throughout the continent.

The son of a French lawyer, Houssay was a precocious child who by the age of thirteen had already received his baccalaureate degree with honors from the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, Thus in 1901 he was able to enter the School of Pharmacy of the University of Buenos Aires, from which he graduated first in his class at age seventeen. Houssay subsequently studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires between 1904 and 1910; and his doctoral dissertation concerning the physiological activities of pituitary extracts, which won the school’s highest award, was published in 191 I.

While such academic achievements were being completed. Houssay was working as a hospital pharmacist to pay for his education and personal expenses. In 1908 he was named an assistant in the department of physiology of the Medical School, and was appointed to the chair of physiology at the School of Veterinary Science of the university the following year.

A measure of Houssay’s versatility and capacity for work can be seen in his activities after graduation from medical school. He established a private practice and became chief of a municipal hospital service while continuing as full professor in the School of Veterinary Science and part-time substitute professor in physiology at the Medical School, Beginning in 1915, Houssay took on the additional duties of chief of the section of experimental pathology at the National Public Health Laboratories in Buenos Aires. In the latter capacity he studied the action of snake and insect bites on coagulation, and developed a protective serum against certain spider toxins.

In 1919 Houssay was appointed to the chair of physiology at the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine, and promptly converted the department into a full-fledged Institute of Physiology capable of engaging in experimental investigations. For the next twenty-five years he developed the Institute into one of the most prestigious world centers of physiological research.

Houssay’s devotion to academic and political freedom collided with the military dictatorship ruling Argentina after the 1943 revolution. Consequently he was stripped of his university posts and forced to continue his research in a private laboratory especially organized for him and his collaborators by the Sauberan Foundation.

A short-lived restoration of Houssavs academic position after the general amnesty of 1945 was followed by a second dismissal, ordered by the new government of Juan Perón. Despite numerous offers from other countries. Houssay’s remained in Argentina and was officially reinstated as director of the Institute of Physiology in 1955. He spent his last years directing the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, which he had conceived and founded in 1957. This governmental organization sought to create new scientific careers, support research institutes, and stem the emigration of technical personnel.

Houssay was an outstanding, largely self-taught scientist who was influenced at the beginning of his career by Claude Bernard’s applications of the scientific method to medical problems. His early interests in the physiology of the pituitary gland and systematic studies regarding the action of insulin eventually led to a recognition of the role played by the anterior lobe of the hypophysis in carbohydrate metabolism. For this work Houssay shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with G. T. and C. F. Cori in 1947. Before Hous-says research, it was commonly accepted that the posterior lobe of the hypophysis played a role in carbohydrate metabolism. After the discovery of insulin Houssay systematically studied the influence of endocrine glands on its activity. He soon discovered that hypophysectomized dogs were very sensitive to the hypoglycemic action of insulin.

By 1930, Houssay had proved the diabetogenic effect of extracts from the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Conversely, there was a remarkable decrease in the symptomatic severity of pancreatic diabetes after removal of the anterior pituitary lobe. The new vistas in endocrinological research opened by Houssay’s attention to the anterior portion of the pituitary gland were momentous, leading to the discovery of a number of hormonal feedback mechanisms involving the thyroid, adrenals, and gonads.

With his disciples Houssay also studied the pancreatic secretion of insulin, the hormonal control of fat metabolism, and the factors regulating arterial blood pressure. Over 600 scientific papers and several books attest to the breadth as well as the depth of his research.

Houssay’s activities were widely admired and recognized. A long-time member of the Argentine Academy of Medicine and founder of the Argentine Association for the Advancement of Science and the Argentine Biological Society, Houssay received many honors, including degrees from Paris. Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard. In addition he was an associate foreign member of many scientific societies in the United States. Britain. Germany. France. Italy, and Spain.


I. Original Works. Houssay’s doctoral dissertation appeared as a book: Estttdos sobre la acción dc los extractos hipofisarios. Ensayo sabre la ftsiologia del lóbato posterior de In hipófisis (Buenos Aires, 1911). Among his best-known hooks are La acción fisiológica de los extractos hipofisarios (Buenos Aires, 19IS); Tiroides e inmundad estudio critico y experimental (Buenos Aires, 1924), written with ASordelli; and Acción de las tirodes sobre el mctabolismo de los hidratos de carbono y en la diabetes (Buenos Aires, 1945).

Most of Houssay’s research papers were published for more than live decades in leading Argentine journals. such as Revista de la Sociedad argentina de biologia, Revista de la Asociacion médiea arigentinu, Buletin de la Acudenun national de rnedicina de Buenos Aires, and Prensa médica aritentina. Others appeared in foreign publications, such as Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de biologic and American Journal of Physiology.

In 1935 Houssay delivered three Dunham lectures at Harvard, which were published: “What We Have Learned From the Toad Concerning Hypophyseal Functions,” in New England Journal of Medicine, 214 (1936), 913-926; “The Hypophysis and Metabolism,” ibid., 961 -971; and “Carbohydrate Metabolism,” ibid.. 971-986. These papers were reprinted with four additional talks as a book, Functions of the Pituitary Gland (Boston, 1936).

A summary of Houssay’s most important studies, also written in English, are “Advancement of Knowledge of the Role of the Hypophysis in Carbohydrate Metabolism During the Last Twenty-Five Years.” in Endocrinology, 30 (1942). 884-897; and “The Hypophysis and Secretion of Insulin,” in Journal of Experimetal Medicine. 75(1942), 547-566.

Houssav’s Nobel Prize lecture, “The Role of the Hypophysis in Carbohydrate Metabolism and in Diabetes,” was delivered on 12 December 1947 (in English) and reprinted in Nobel Foundation. Nobel Lectures in Physiology or Medicine (New York. 1964), 210-217. With a few disciples, Houssay wrote a compendium of physiology, Fisiahght Humana (Buenos Aires, 1950), which was translated into various languages and went through several eds. The English one was Human Physiology, translated by Juan and Olive T. Lewis (New York, 1951)- A collection of his earlier writings and speeches on various subjects is Escritos v diseursos (Buenos Aires, 1942).

II. Secondary Literalure. While there is us yet no complete biographical study available, some information can be obtained from the obituaries written by disciples in a number of journals. The most comprehensive one is V. Foglia, “Bernardo Alberto Houssay (IKK7- 1971).” in Acta physiológicu latino America21 (1971). 267-285. Shorter essays by the same auihor appeared in Diabetes22 (1973). 212-214; Acta diabetológi-ca latina8 (1971), 1209- 1216,

A short biographic sketch of Houssay is appended to his Novel Prize lecture, in Nohel Foundation. Sohei Lectures in Physiology or Medicine (New York, 1964), 218-219; and another, written by Juan T. Lewis, appeared in Perspectives in Biology, a collection of papers dedicated to Houssay on the occasion of his 75th birthday. C. R Cori, V- G. Foglia, L. F, Lcloir. and S. Ochoa, eds. (Amsterdam, 1963), vii-xiv,

A list of Houssay’s writings until 1961, with data concerning his various activities, positions, and awards, is in Ahef Sánchez Díaz. Bernardo A. Houssay (Buenos Aires. 1961).

Among the various public acknowledgments of which there are published proceedings “ire the commemoration of Houssay’s 25th anniversary as an academician. Libra jubilar del Projesor Dr. Bernardo A.Houway 1910-1934 (Buenos Aires, 1935); and the celebrations of the Argentine Academy of Medicine on ihe occasion of Houssay’-s 80th birthday. Honwnajes al Dr. Bernardo A. Houssay (Buenos Aires, 1967). A complete bibliography of his writings has been prepared and awaits publication in Argentina.

Guenter B. Risse

Bernardo Alberto Houssay

views updated Jun 27 2018

Bernardo Alberto Houssay

The Argentine physiologist Bernardo Alberto Houssay (1887-1971) is noted for his research in endocrinology, particularly on the activity of the hypophysis.

Bernardo Alberto Houssay was born in Buenos Aires on April 10, 1887. His father, Alberto Houssay, was a French-born lawyer and philosopher. Young Bernardo was a prodigy: by the age of 9 he had completed secondary school and was a mere 13 when he received his bachelor's degree. He then entered the Buenos Aires College of Medical Sciences, specializing in pharmacology, a concentration which was to be reflected in many of his research papers over the next 60 years. In 1904 he completed these studies and began medical training.

Houssay graduated with honors in 1911, presenting for his thesis an elaborate study of the pituitary body. These early studies marked Houssay as a laboratory researcher rather than as a practitioner of medicine. He was named professor of physiology in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Agronomy of Buenos Aires, and in 1919 he was appointed to the first full professorship in the Buenos Aires School of Medicine. Under Houssay's direction the Institute for Physiology was established, where for over two full generations he labored on a frontier of biology. Following clues observed in his early student years, he tracked down the elusive hormonal and enzymatic systems that regulate the body's metabolism.

In 1947 Houssay received the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech he described how observations on the hypophysis, or pituitary body, made during his student days, had led him to his lifelong research program. "The production and consumption of glucose and hence the sugar level are controlled by a functional endocrine equilibrium. The endocrine glands are ductless glands secreting hormones into the bloodstream. This mechanism acts on the liver— the organ which produces and stores glucose—and on the tissues which are the consumers of glucose, by means of hormones which play a part in the chemical processes of carbohydrate metabolism. … I was attracted to the study of the hypophysis because the microscopic picture showed that glandular activity, and its lesions, was accompanied by serious organic disturbances such as acromegaly, dwarfism, etc."

Houssay had been expelled from his university post in 1943 during Juan Perón's regime but continued his research with private support. He was reinstated after Perón's overthrow in 1955. Houssay died in Buenos Aires on Sept. 21, 1971.

Houssay published over 1, 000 research papers. Perhaps his life is best told, not by listing his prizes, honorary degrees, memberships in scientific academies, and other plaudits, but in listing the topics which his work has benefited. These include pituitary anatomy and physiology, diabetes and the role of insulin, hormone biochemistry, the pancreas, general endocrinology, the renal glands and adrenalin, the thyroid and its secretions, hematology and immunology, cardiology, human metabolism and problems of nutrition, snake venom, the venom of spiders and other insects, respiratory functions, hypertension from a biochemical point of view, biology of the sexual functions, comparative physiology, and the physiological action of curare.

Further Reading

A short biography of Houssay and his Nobel lecture are in Nobel Foundation, Physiology or Medicine: Nobel Lectures, Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies (3 vols., 1964-1967). The technical problems of carbohydrate metabolism which led to Houssay's Nobel Prize are analyzed in Herman M. Kalckar, comp., Biological Phosphorylations: Development of Concepts (1969). Further insights and additional references may be found in Philip Handler, comp., Biology and the Future of Man (1970). □