Bouin, Pol André

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Bouin, Pol André

(b. Vendresse, Ardennes, France, 11 June 1870; d. Vendresse, 5 February 1962)


Pol Bouin, the son and grandson of veterinary surgeons, grew up in the Ardennes, where at that time horse-breeding was a flourishing occupation. He would often tell how his interest in testicular physiology and pathology arose out of his father’s method of treating cryptorchism in horses and pigs. While a student at Nancy he was attracted to the study of histology by the the example of his teacher, Auguste Prenant. As early as 1895, he fixed his attention on phenomena of degeneration in the testes, to which problem he devoted what became a significant medical thesis in 1897. He began working with Paul Ancel in 1903, a collaboration which, developing through thirty years of close friendship and fruitful cooperation, laid the fundamental groundwork for the rapid development of reproductive endocrinology. Bouin and Ancel performed many types of operations on laboratory animals, and to test their experimental results relied on the morphology of the gonads, the genital tract, and secondary sexual characteristics. They were pioneers in the physiology of reproduction long before the isolation (around 1930) of sex hormones.

It will be useful to summarize here their essential discoveries, which continue to be valid. By employing convergent techniques, Bouin and Ancel elucidated the dual function of the testis: in the first place, gametogenesis (the production of semen) in the interior of the seminiferous tubules; and in the second place, the secretion of hormones in the interstitial gland located between the seminiferous tubules. They demonstrated that the interstitial gland controls the secondary sexual characterristics in the male. What used to be called the interstitial theory attracted few supporters at the outset, a large number of specialists remaining faithful to the old superstition about the importance of the “seed” in male potency. Violent controversies set in, reaching their peak between 1920 and 1925, which is to say on the eve of the discovery of male hormones. Some biologists, for example Champy in Paris and Stieve in Halle, bitterly resisted the demonstration that the interstitial gland is the source of male hormones. On the other side Steinach in Vienna and Lipschütz in Dorpat (currently living in Santiago de Chile) defended the theory ardently. Those extinct disputed are worth recalling as an essential chapter in the history of testicular endocrinology.

The same pattern appears in the work of Bouin and Ancel on ovarian physiology and especially on the corpus luteum. Among the original techniques they devised was that of using a male rabbit which had been rendered sterile (while remaining potent) by ligaturing of the ductus deferens. During sexual intercourse the rabbit was able to rupture the graafian follicle of the female, inducing ovulation. Between 1909 and 1911 the two colleagues demonstrated irrefutably that in the absence of fertilization the corpus luteum, through an internal secretion, controls the readying of the uterine mucosa for implantation of the ovum as well as the morphogenetic development of the mammary glands. The effect is particularly striking in female rabbits. These results gave rise to intensive discussion until progesterone, the hormone secreted by the corpus luteum, was isolated by the epoch-making work of George Corner and Willard Allen in 1929.

From time to time Bouin worked in the field of cytology, which he enjoyed enormously. His drawings of spermatogenesis in myriopods would in themselves have assured his distinguished reputation among cytologists in the early decades of the century.

Concern for teaching in the university played a great part in Bouin’s scientific life. From the outset he collaborated with his own teacher, Prenant, in the preparation of a Traité d’histologie (published in two volumes, 1904–1911). A very full work for the time, completely illustrated by the authors themselves, it continues to be valuable as a source of iconography. Bouin’s own Élements d’histologie (two volumes, 1929–1932), a sumptuously illustrated work, is now out of print, but the illustrations have been reproduced in more recent standard publications. In his textbooks Bouin laid down the main lines of the lectures in which he attempted to exhibit correlations between structure and function. As a professor he enjoyed enormous prestige. He spoke without notes in a quiet voice and in a manner both familiar and confidential, illustrating his account with drawings of great elegance. His course made an indelible impression on his audience and was the starting point of a significant number of scientific careers.

It was in laboratory work, however, which he always followed closely, that Bouin picked out his future disciples, in the course of conversations back and forth across the microscope. Having no confidence in selecting talent by competitions, he preferred to choose his collaborators directly. He encouraged students with a flair for research to begin work in his laboratory at as youthful an age as possible. There he watched over them, particularly at the outset, with paternal solicitude. Bouin thus trained numerous disciples who have made their mark on various levels of the university structure. The full list would be excessively long, but a few may be named: Rémy Collin at Nancy, Max Aron at Strasbourg, Robert Courrier (permanent secretary of the Academy of Science in Paris) at the Collège de France, Jacques Benoit of the Collège de France, and the author of the present article at Strasbourg.

Bouin’s laboratory was for many years, and particularly during his time at Strasbourg, the starting point of a number of significant discoveries: Counter’s work on folliculin (estrone) in the female and on the physiology of periodic sexual activity in the testicle; the discovery by Strieker and Gruter in 1928 of the lactogenic hormone produced by the anterior pituitary; and the numerous works of Max Aron on comparative endocrinology. From 1925 on, the pace of Bouin’s personal work slowed, but he continued to participate with undiminished vigilance in the work of his students, though without adding his signature to theirs except in very rare instances. More and more he effaced himself in the work of his collaborators while continuing to give them the benefit of his illuminating advice almost to the day of his death. His involvement in teaching reached far beyond the institute of which he was director. In consequence of a number of trips abroad he had developed very definite views on the way to recruit talent for scientific research, particularly in biology. The Rockefeller Foundation showed him great confidence through the years, especially in nominating candidates for fellowships. In 1927 the Foundation made him an extremely important grant for the construction of an entirely up-to-date Institute of Histology. Around 1930 Bouin was one of the promoters of the Caisse Nationale des Sciences, forerunner of the present Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

Bouin’s gentle nature and surpassing kindness remained alive in the memory of all who knew him. Severe in his judgment of himself and of his collaborators when it came to the publication of scientific results, he liked to converse at length on the progress of an experiment when it was under way and, if need be, to defend its results with his authority. Having done his duty in every respect during the war of 1914–1918 and again throughout the black years from 1939 to 1945, his tolerance in political and religious matters was as complete as it was uncommon. He became a world-famous scientist during his years at Strasbourg, from 1919 to 1939 and then lost all his possessions in the course of World War II. Thereupon, he retired to his native village and devoted himself to forestry, a subject of great interest to him and one in which he had attained considerable reputation.

During the years of his retirement, from 1945 to 1962, Bouin remained continually in touch with the progress of biology, partly by keeping up with the journals and partly by correcting in a manner both kindly and precise the manuscripts that his former students continued to submit to his judgment. The example he gave of a scientist entirely devoted to disinterested research and the compassionate nature that led him to participate in the personal life of all his acquaintanceship remain a vivid memory among the numerous disciples who count themselves among the school of Bouin.

Bouin’s academic career was distinguished. He was préparateur d’histologie in the Faculty of Medicine in Nancy in 1892 and received the docteur en médecine there in 1897 (when he also served as chef des travaux d’histologie). becoming professeur-agrégé of anatomy (histology) in 1898. He was professeur titulaire of histology and pathological anatomy at the medical school of Algiers in 1907, professeur titulaire of histology of the Faculty of Medicine in Nancy in 1908, and held the same position at Strasbourg in 1918.

Bouin received many honors. He was a commander of the Legion of Honor; membre titulaire of the Academy of Sciences of Paris and of the Académie Nalionale de Médecine, Paris; and honorary foreign member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Medicine of Brussels. He won a number of prizes, including the Prince Albert I of Monaco award of the Academy of Medicine (which he shared with Paul Ancel) in 1937, the Prix de la Fondation Singer-Polignac (again with Paul Ancel) in 1951, and the gold medal of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, in 1961.


R. Courrier’s Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Pol Bouin (Paris, 1962) contains a complete list of Bouin’s scientific writings, in addition to extensive biographical information, a list of biographical sources, and a portrait.

Marc Klein

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Bouin, Pol André

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