Bordet, Jules (1870-1961)

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Bordet, Jules (1870-1961)

Belgian physician

Jules Bordet's pioneering research made clear the exact manner by which serums and antiserums act to destroy bacteria and foreign blood cells in the body, thus explaining how human and animal bodies defend themselves against the invasion of foreign elements. Bordet was also responsible for developing complement fixation tests, which made possible the early detection of many disease-causing bacteria in human and animal blood. For his various discoveries in the field of immunology , Bordet was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology in 1919.

Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet was born in Soignies, Belgium, a small town situated twenty-three miles southwest of Brussels. He was the second son of Charles Bordet, a schoolteacher, and Célestine Vandenabeele Bordet. The family moved to Brussels in 1874, when his father received an appointment to the École Moyenne, a primary school. Jules and his older brother Charles attended this school and then received their secondary education at the Athéné Royal of Brussels. It was at this time that Bordet became interested in chemistry and began working in a small laboratory that he constructed at home. He entered the medical program at the Free University of Brussels at the age of sixteen, receiving his doctorate of medicine in 1892. Bordet began his research career while still in medical school, and in 1892 published a paper on the adaptation of viruses to vaccinated organisms in the Annales de l'Institut Pasteur of Paris. For this work, the Belgian government awarded him a scholarship to the Pasteur Institute, and from 1894 to 1901, Bordet stayed in Paris at the laboratory of the Ukrainian-born scientist Élie Metchnikoff . In 1899, Bordet married Marthe Levoz; they eventually had two daughters, and a son who also became a medical scientist.

During his seven years at the Pasteur Institute, Bordet made most of the basic discoveries that led to his Nobel Prize of 1919. Soon after his arrival at the Institute, he began work on a problem in immunology. In 1894, Richard Pfeiffer, a German scientist, had discovered that when cholera bacteria was injected into the peritoneum of a guinea pig immunized against the infection, the pig would rapidly die. This bacteriolysis, Bordet discovered, did not occur when the bacteria was injected into a non-immunized guinea pig, but did so when the same animal received the antiserum from an immunized animal. Moreover, the bacteriolysis did not take place when the bacteria and the antiserum were mixed in a test tube unless fresh antiserum was used. However, when Bordet heated the antiserum to 55 degrees centigrade, it lost its power to kill bacteria. Finding that he could restore the bacteriolytic power of the antiserum if he added a little fresh serum from a nonimmunized animal, Bordet concluded that the bacteria-killing phenomenon was due to the combined action of two distinct substances: an antibody in the antiserum, which specifically acted against a particular kind of bacterium; and a non-specific substance, sensitive to heat, found in all animal serums, which Bordet called "alexine" (later named "complement").

In a series of experiments conducted later, Bordet also learned that injecting red blood cells from one animal species (rabbit cells in the initial experiments) into another species (guinea pigs) caused the serum of the second species to quickly destroy the red cells of the first. And although the serum lost its power to kill the red cells when heated to 55 degrees centigrade, its potency was restored when alexine (or complement) was added. It became apparent to Bordet that hemolytic (red cell destroying) serums acted exactly as bacteriolytic serums; thus, he had uncovered the basic mechanism by which animal bodies defend or immunize themselves against the invasion of foreign elements. Eventually, Bordet and his colleagues found a way to implement their discoveries. They determined that alexine was bound or fixed to red blood cells or to bacteria during the immunizing process. When red cells were added to a normal serum mixed with a specific form of bacteria in a test tube, the bacteria remained active while the red cells were destroyed through the fixation of alexine. However, when serum containing the antibody specific to the bacteria was destroyed, the alexine and the solution separated into a layer of clear serum overlaying the intact red cells. Hence, it was possible to visually determine the presence of bacteria in a patient's blood serum. This process became known as a complement fixation test. Bordet and his associates applied these findings to various other infections, like typhoid fever , carbuncle, and hog cholera. August von Wasserman eventually used a form of the test (later known as the Wasserman test ) to determine the presence of syphilis bacteria in the human blood.

Already famous by the age of thirty-one, Bordet accepted the directorship of the newly created Anti-rabies and Bacteriological Institute in Brussels in 1901; two years later, the organization was renamed the Pasteur Institute of Brussels. From 1901, Bordet was obliged to divide his time between his research and the administration of the Institute. In 1907, he also began teaching following his appointment as professor of bacteriology in the faculty of medicine at the Free University of Brussels, a position that he held until 1935. Despite his other activities, he continued his research in immunology and bacteriology. In 1906, Bordet and Octave Gengou succeeded in isolating the bacillus that causes pertussis (whooping cough) in children and later developed a vaccine against the disease. Between 1901 and 1920, Bordet conducted important studies on the coagulation of blood. When research became impossible because of the German occupation of Belgium during World War I, Bordet devoted himself to the writing of Traité de l'immunité dans les maladies infectieuses (1920), a classic book in the field of immunology. He was in the United States to raise money for new medical facilities for the wardamaged Free University of Brussels when he received word that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. After 1920, he became interested in bacteriophage , the family of viruses that kill many types of bacteria, publishing several articles on the subject. In 1940, Bordet retired from the directorship of the Pasteur Institute of Brussels and was succeeded by his son, Paul. Bordet himself continued to take an active interest in the work of the Institute despite his failing eyesight and a second German occupation of Belgium during World War II. Many scientists, friends, and former students gathered in a celebration of his eightieth birthday at the great hall of the Free University of Brussels in 1950. He died in Brussels in 1961.

See also Antibody and antigen; B cells or B lymphocytes; Bacteria and bacterial infection; Bacteriophage and bacteriophage typing; Blood agar, hemolysis, and hemolytic reactions; Immune system; Immunity; Immunization; T cells or T lymphocytes

Bordet, Jules

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Bordet, Jules

(b. Soignies, Belgium, 13 June 1870; d. Brussels, Belgium, 6 April 1961)

bacteriology, immunology

Bordet established the basis of humoral immunity and founded serology. The second son of a school-teacher, he was an outstanding student at the Athenee Royal of Brussels and received the M.D. from the University of Brussels in 1892. He had begun his research even before finishing his medical studies.

In 1894, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the Belgian government, Bordet went to Paris to work in Elie Metchnikoff’s laboratory at the Institut Pasteur. It was there, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, that he made his principal discoveries in humoral immunity.

Married in 1899, he had two daughters and one son, Paul, who also worked in experimental medicine.

In Metchnikoff’s laboratory Bordet studied the mechanics of bacteriolysis, a phenomenon consisting in the lysis of cholera vibrios injected into the peritoneum of immunized animals and recently discovered by R. Pfeiffer and Issaeff (1894). Bordet reached the conclusion that bacteriolysis was due to the action of two substances: a specific antibody that he called the sensibilizer, which was resistant to heat of 55°C. and present in serum from immunized animals, and a nonspecific, thermolabile substance, which is found in serum from both unvaccinated and vaccinated animals. He identified this substance as Buchner’s “alexin,” which later became known as “complement.” Bordet then demonstrated that the mode of action of the hemolytic serums is absolutely analogous to that of the bacteriolytic ones.

As early as 1895 Bordet underscored the specific character of the agglutination of the Vibriocomma (Asiatic cholera bacillus) through anticholeric immunoserum. By using hemolytic serums, he extended the idea of antigenic specificity to the constitution of the cells, and by using precipitating serums, to the proteins of the various animal species.

Famous at thirty, Bordet in 1901 accepted the directorship of the Institut Antirabique et Bacteriologique, which had just been founded in Brussels and which in 1903 was renamed the Institut Pasteur du Brabant. There he continued his research on immunity and demonstrated that if an antibpody has the ability to unite with an antigen, the alexin can be absorbed only by the complex antigen-antibody, that is, the antigen “sensitized” by the antibody. This complex antigen-antibody can bring about the fixation of the alexin of fresh serum, and because of this, the alexin can no longer cause the lysis of red corpuscles sensitized by the hemolysin. This is the alexin-fixation reaction (the complement-fixation reaction), which Bordet and his brother-in-law Octave Gengou applied in 1901 to the serodiagnosis of typhoid fever, carbuncle, hog cholera, and other diseases and which makes it possible to trace the antibody in the patient’s serum. This reaction was taken up again by Wassermann in the diagnosis of syphilis, and more recently has been used in the diagnosis of virus infections.

In his interpretation of the mechanism of the union of antigen and antibody, Bordet compared this union to adsorption phenomenon, while Ehrlich defended the theory of a union by definite proportions. The further work of Heidelberger and his school confirmed Bordet’s concept.

In 1906, while carrying out research in different directions, Bordet and Gengou discovered the whooping cough bacillus and extracted an endotoxin, prepared a vaccine, and, with Sleeswijk, studied the antigenic variability of the bacillus. In 1909 Bordet isolated the germ of bovine peripneumonia and that of avian diphtheria. From 1901 to 1920 he studied blood coagulation and, from 1920 on, bacteriophages.

All of his research was conducted while Bordet bore the heavy duties of directing the Institut Pasteur du Brabant (until 1940, when his son Paul succeeded him) and teaching at the Faculty of Medicine of the Free University of Brussels, where he occupied the chair of bacteriology from 1907 to 1935. Besides this, he went to Paris every year to lecture on immunity in the microbiology course at the Institut Pasteur, where he was made president of the Conseil Scientifique in 1935.

Bordet’s work on humoral immunity, which made possible the application of serological techniques to diagnosis and control of infectious diseases, brought him many international awards, including the Nobel Prize in medicine for 1919, as well as the highest academic distinctions and honors.


I. Original Works. Most of Bordet’s papers were published in Annales de l’Institut Pasteur. His major work is Traité de l’immunite dans les maladies infectieuses (Paris, 1920, 1939). Many documents, such as laboratory notebooks, are preservedin the Musée Jules Bordet, at the Institut Pasteur du Brabant, in Brussels.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bordet are J. Beumer, “Jules Bordet 1870–1961,” in Journal of General Microbiology, 29 (1962), 1–13; Paul Bordet, “Jules Bordet,” in Florilége des sciences en Belgique pendant le XIX siécle et le début du XXe (Brussels, 1968), pp. 1036–1067; A. M. Dalcq, “Notice biographique sur J. Bordet,” in Bulletin de l’Académie royale de médecine de Belgique, 1 (1961), 352 365; and “Jules Jean Vincent Bordet,” in Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary, N. L. Hoerr and Arthur Osol, eds., 2nd ed. (New York-Toronto-London, 1956). Also of value is the “Volume jubilaire de Jules Bordet,” Annales l’Institut Pasteur, 79 , no.5 (1950), 479–520.

Jean Vieuchange