Rene Jules Dubos

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(b. Saint-Brice-sousForêt, France, 20 February 1901;

d. New York City, 20 February 1982), microbiologist, disease ecologist, environmentalist.

As a microbiologist and environmentalist, Dubos demonstrated a distinctively French fascination with terroir and milieu, prompted perhaps by his nostalgia for the imagined harmonies of rural existence. His life in biomedical research offers many paradoxes. French in sentiment and intellectual heritage, he lived and worked in the United States. A meticulous laboratory researcher, he abjured reductionism in modern biomedical science. Ecologically minded, he gave little heed to the science of ecology. A pioneer in discovering antibiotics, he discounted their value in medical practice. A frail man, afflicted with rheumatic heart disease, he asserted a sort of “despairing optimism.” Shy and reserved, he became in the 1960s and 1970s a leading environmentalist and a dramatic, passionate public speaker. Temperamentally reclusive, he showed a knack for coining slogans such as “Think Globally, Act Locally” (c. 1978). His words provoked and galvanized millions of people.

Early Years . Dubos grew up in the village of Hénonville, in Île-de-France, one of three children of Georges Alexandre Dubos, a butcher, and Madeleine Adéline (née de Bloedt), a former seamstress who assisted her husband in his shop. Once a boisterous child, Dubos suffered a bout of rheumatic fever at eight years of age, which left him with permanent damage to his heart valves. He remained sickly, unable to participate in sport, but he found plenty of time to read widely and excelled at school. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Paris, where he attended high school at the Collège Chaptal on a scholarship. A reserved, myopic adolescent, Dubos spent most of the war years longing to return to the French countryside. In 1919 his father died suddenly, soon after coming home from war service. The family moved to the Paris suburbs, where his mother ran a small épicerie, or grocer’s shop.

After obtaining his baccalaureate, Dubos enrolled in the Institut National Agronomique to train as an agricultural expert. Although microbiology and chemistry bored him, he displayed some interest in rural sociology and economics. On receiving his diploma, Dubos took courses at the Institut National d’Agronomie Coloniale in Nogent-sur-Marne, hoping to work as a colonial administrator in Indochina. His heart disease and poor eyesight, however, excluded him from such a career. In 1923 Dubos used his ability to review and abstract technical articles in several languages to secure a position in Rome as associate editor of the Journal of International Agricultural Intelligence. But these routine tasks left him listless and uninspired.

Travel to the United States . Visiting American scientists urged Dubos to travel to the United States. On the passage across the Atlantic he met Selman Waksman, who offered the charming young Frenchman a position in the PhD program at Rutgers University. A Russian émigré, Waksman was a soil microbiologist at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station who later became interested in microorganisms that produced substances antagonistic to their competitors. He encouraged his graduate students to employ the experimental techniques of Sergei Winogradsky, a scientist at the Institut Pasteur who advocated “dynamic” soil microbiology. That is, rather than study microorganisms in isolation, Winogradsky wanted to examine their life cycles and interactions in soil under natural conditions. Years later, Dubos would come to recognize the “ecological” underpinnings of this approach. In 1927 Dubos completed his dissertation identifying the microbes responsible for the decomposition of cellulose in various circumstances. His conclusions emphasized the interaction of these organisms and their dependence on the particular character of the soil.

Unsure of what to do next, Dubos made contact with his compatriot Alexis Carrel, a scientist at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, the leading medical research center in the United States. They lunched with Carrel’s colleague Oswald T. Avery, who impressed on Dubos that he might possess the skills to decompose the polysaccharide capsule of the pneumococcus, the major cause of pneumonia. Appointed to Avery’s laboratory of biochemical bacteriology, Dubos found soils in which organic materials decomposed then cleverly enriched them with the purified capsular polysaccharide of type III pneumococcus to see which microorganisms thrived on this nutrient. Having cultivated the responsive microbe from soil in a New Jersey cranberry bog, he extracted and purified the enzyme active against the capsular material. But tests in animals proved disappointing and the development of sulfa drugs in the 1930s seemed to make further investigation of this “antibacterial” enzyme unnecessary.

Through working with Avery, Dubos came to experience the thrill of scientific investigation. In his memoir of Avery (1976), he recalled, surprisingly, that the scientist observed biological phenomena as a naturalist, sensitive to the interplay between the life processes of parasite and host. His example confirmed Dubos’s general biological orientation to the study of microbes.

Despite the satisfactions of laboratory studies, Dubos during the early 1930s remained unwell, poor, and homesick. He supplemented his wages teaching French to Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia University. In 1934 Dubos married Marie Louise Bonnet, another French immigrant with severe rheumatic heart disease, who was studying French symbolist poetry at Columbia. She died in 1942 from tuberculosis. In 1946 he married (Letha) Jean Porter, his research assistant, who also developed tuberculosis but survived. They acquired a farm in the Hudson River valley and spent a large part of each year there, enjoying country life and planting trees.

Lab Work . The isolation of gramicidin in the late 1930s became Dubos’s major laboratory achievement. In a series of experiments, he “fed” soil samples a nutrient broth containing intact bacteria associated with various common infections. Eventually he found a microbe, Bacillus brevis, which secreted a substance that killed some of the harmful bacteria. With Rollin Hotchkiss he refined the substance, tyrothricin, into two separate materials. One proved effective only in laboratory cultures and was toxic to animals. The other, gramicidin, was bacteriostatic, inhibiting growth of some bacteria, and safe to apply to skin infections. From 1941, it was used commonly as a topical antibiotic. Dubos’s investigations inspired others to search systematically for antibacterial substances.

Dubos’s reputation as an experimentalist reached its peak in the 1940s. In 1940 he received the John Phillips Memorial Award from the American College of Physicians; and the following year, the E. Mead Johnson Award of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and made a full member of the Rockefeller Institute in 1941. With Waksman he shared the 1948 Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, for the discovery of soil antibiotics. Yet his success in the laboratory during this period was meager. Using common detergents, Dubos developed a more convenient growth medium for the tubercle bacillus, the cause of tuberculosis, but his efforts to find a flaw in its capsular armor failed.

Move to Harvard . In 1942 Dubos became George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mourning his first wife, he never fully adjusted to his new environment. He did, however, become immersed in the study of infectious disease from evolutionary and ecological perspectives, especially through his reading of the work of Theobald Smith and Frank Macfarlane Burnet. It was Dubos who recommended Burnet as the 1944 Dunham lecturer at Harvard, thus beginning a lifelong association. That same year Dubos delivered the Lowell Lectures, which became the core of his first book, The Bacterial Cell(1945). Dubos sought to abandon the implicit anthropocentrism of contemporary microbiology, urging instead the investigation of the bacterium as a functioning cell, as an independent organism, in relation to its environment. That is, rather than focus solely on the implications for human disease, he wanted to view parasite and host in broader ecological perspective. Deploying “classical biology,” he would, like Burnet, determine the “natural history” of infectious disease agents and so derive a more complex epidemiology. His musings on bacterial variability and natural selection also led him to restate carefully his warning, first improvised in 1942, of the likelihood of resistance emerging to new antibiotics.

Science Writing . Returning to the Rockefeller Institute in 1944, Dubos began gradually to move away from laboratory investigation and refashion himself as a popular writer and commentator. First he wrote Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science (1950), in which he distinguished the man of scientific sensibility and insight (such as himself and Pasteur) from the mere researcher. Dubos and his wife Jean then worked together on The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society (1952), writing the biography of a disease they knew intimately. In this book they argued that microbes require a fertile soil for infection to grow into disease. They described the social and economic setting of tuberculosis, seeking to identify the forces that disturbed the equilibrium between parasite and host, giving rise to illness. Skeptical of antibiotics, they advocated avoidance of social environments promoting infection and return to a “physiological” way of living.

Inspired by the popular success of these books, Dubos wrote prolifically for the next thirty years. In Mirage of Health (1959), he recommended peaceful coexistence of humans and microbes, decrying technological fixes and medical utopias, including efforts to eradicate specific diseases. He deplored recourse to military metaphors such as the notion of a fight against disease agents, suggesting scientists might focus instead on mutualism and symbiosis. He condemned narrow physicochemical reductionism and favored an integrative, and sometimes even holistic, biological approach. But the emphasis on the harmony of the organism and its environment was now more Hippocratic than Darwinian in tone. He sought, above all, a balance between people and their environment in other to preserve the health and values of humanity.

In Man Adapting (1965), Dubos continued his exploration of microbial virulence and host resistance, the balance between parasitism and predation, but increasingly he also recognized direct environmental dangers to human health, following the attention given to toxins and pollutants in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). His appreciation of threats to “human values” became ever more acute. Dubos warned that adaptation to civilized life—for him epitomized in overcrowding, urban life, pollution, and stress—might prove hazardous to humanity. Humanistic value judgments thus often supplemented ecological analysis, perhaps making his observations more popularly appealing during this period. So Human an Animal(1968), a hyperbolic elaboration on Man Adapting, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

By the time Dubos retired from Rockefeller University in 1971 he was giving some forty public lectures each year. With his French accent, his taste for drama, and his charm and enthusiasm, he was a strikingly effective speaker. In the last decade of his life, before his death from pancreatic cancer, Dubos asserted that the simple survival or sustainability of humanity is not enough. Humans must intervene to improve on nature, to humanize Earth. His land ethic, a term picked up from the environmentalist Aldo Leopold, implied stewardship of Earth, not detachment from it. Moreover, Dubos increasingly envisioned more creative adaptation of humans to their environments, which meant making conscious choices and new associations, the active transformation of selves. Other disease ecologists, such as Burnet, regarded this revival of the ideas of philosophers Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) as a romantic’s retreat from fundamental biological principles. All the same, Dubos, tirelessly writing and speaking, did perhaps more than anyone else to encourage the public to think in broad ecological terms about health and disease, and to recognize above all that the seed depends on the soil.


Dubos’s manuscripts are in the Rockefeller University Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York. The transcript of interviews Saul Benison conducted with Dubos in 1956 is in the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City.


The Bacterial Cell in Relation to Problems of Virulence, Immunity, and Chemotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950. With Jean Dubos. The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.

Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change. Planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

The Dreams of Reason: Science and Utopias. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Man Adapting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

So Human an Animal. New York: Scribner, 1968.

Reason Awake: Science for Man. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

With Barbara Ward. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. New York: Norton, 1972.

The Professor, the Institute, and DNA: Oswald T. Avery, His Life and Scientific Achievements. New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1976.

The Wooing of the Earth. New York: Scribner, 1980.


Davis, Bernard D. “Two Perspectives: On René Dubos, and on Antibiotic Actions.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 35 (1991): 37–48.

Litsios, Socrates. “René Dubos and Fred L. Soper: Their Contrasting Views on Vector and Disease Eradication.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 41 (1997): 138–149.

Moberg, Carol F. René Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth: Microbiologist, Medical Scientist, Environmentalist. Washington, DC: ASM, 2005.

Rosenkrantz, Barbara Gutmann. “Dubos and Tuberculosis, Master Teachers.” In The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, by René Dubos and Jean Dubos. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

———. “René Jules Dubos.” American National Biography Online. Available from

Warwick Anderson

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René Jules Dubos

René Jules Dubos (1901-1982), the French-born American microbiologist, pioneered in the development of antibiotics and was an important writer on humanitarian and ecological subjects.

René Dubos was born on Feb. 20, 1901, at Saint-Brice, France. After receiving a scientific education, he went to Rome in 1922, where he was on the staff of the International Institute of Agriculture. Within 2 years he left to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey, from which he received his doctorate in microbiology in 1927. Dubos immediately began his long and distinguished association with the department of pathology and bacteriology at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Except for 2 years as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (1942-1944), he was continuously involved in research at the institute from 1927. In 1934 he married Marie Louise Bonnet, who died in 1942. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1938. In 1946, he married Letha Jean Porter.

Dubos was a pioneer in the development of antibiotic drugs. Shortly after joining the Rockefeller Institute, he began searching for an antibacterial substance that would destroy the microorganism causing pneumonia. In the 1930s he discovered a soil-dwelling bacterium that produced a chemical substance capable of weakening the outer capsule of pneumonia bacteria so that they would be vulnerable to the body's natural defenses. He later showed that this substance, the antibiotic tyrothricin, was composed of two chemicals—tyrocidin and gramicidin. His work paved the way for the eventual discovery of streptomycin. Upon completing his investigation of tyrothricin he turned to tuberculosis research and won new recognition in that field.

In the 1950s Dubos began writing books on scientific subjects for a more general audience. In these he touched upon the philosophical foundations and social implications of science, warned against the naive utopianism of many medical thinkers, and argued for a study of the effect of the total environment upon man. His wisdom, humanitarian outlook, and lucid writing made Dubos one of the most perceptive and popular contemporary science writers. He produced over 200 scientific papers and more than a dozen books, including Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science (1950), The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society (1952), The Mirage of Health (1959), The Dreams of Reason (1961), The Unseen World (1962), The Torch of Life (1962), So Human an Animal (1968), Man, Medicine, and Environment (1968), Reason Awake (1970), and Beast or Angel?: Choices That Make Us Human (1974).

In his dual role as scientist and author, Dubos accumulated numerous honors, including honorary degrees from European and American universities, awards from scientific and medical organizations, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Arches of Sciences Award for the popularization of science, and the Pulitzer Prize in letters (1969). In 1970 he became director of environmental studies at the State University of New York at Purchase, and in that same year President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. He died in 1982.

Further Reading

Aside from the books listed, George Washington Corner's A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953: Origins and Growth (1965), recounts in detail Dubos's life and work. Dubos's place in the development of microbiology can be reviewed in Hubert A. Lechevalier and Morris Solotorovsky, Three Centuries of Microbiology (1965). □