Calmette, Albert

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Calmette, Albert

(b. Nice, France, 12 July, 1863; d. Paris, France, 29 October 1933),


Calmette entered the Naval Medical Corps at the age of twenty and made several voyages. In 1889 he attended one of the first courses in microbiology given by Émile Roux at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and shortly afterward accepted, at Pasteur’s request, the directorship of a research laboratory in Saigon. In that post he immediately revealed his great talent, particularly through his study of snake poisons.

Calmette returned to France in 1895 to become director of the Pasteur Institute that had just been founded in Lille; he held the post for nearly twenty-five years. During this period he continued his research on venoms and showed—just after Behring and Roux had perfected serotherapy—that with these substances one could give animals an immunity similar to that produced by an injection of microbic toxins. In this regard Calmette appears to have been one of the very first to prepare antivenin serums. Equally interested in problems of public health, he studied the purification of sewage, entered the battle against ancylostomiasis, and made several improvements in fermentation techniques. While still in Lille, Calmette and his associate Camille Gúrin made an intensive study of tuberculosis that led to the preparation of the antituberculosis vaccine BCG (Bacillus CalmetteGuérin). In 1917 he was appointed assistant director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris but was unable to leave northern France, which was occupied by the Germans (Mme. Calmette had been deported). At the Pasteur Institute in Paris he founded the tuberculosis department. His studies and those of his many students—among whom were Negère and Boquet—drew the attention of the entire world.

The perfection of BCG remains Calmette’s greatest contribution. This vaccine contains a strain of Koch’s bovine bacillus that has been subjected to repeated culture on a nutritive medium mixed with bile. It is effective for both animals and man because tubercle bacilli of the bovine and human types are sufficiently related that they can produce cross-immunity. In addition, BCG is a safe vaccine because the live bacilli it contains remain at low virulence.

The first clinical trials were made in 1922. In 1930, the death of many children at Lübeck after a BCG vaccination caused a stir; however, it was quickly established that the sole cause—as the parties responsible admitted—was a serious error made during the preparation of the vaccine. Originally BCG was administered orally shortly after birth, but today, following Nègre and Bretey, it is administered by injection. This may cause local lesions, but they are always minor; and the insignificant annoyance they represent is largely compensated for by the high degree of protection.

Calmette died suddenly in the midst of his scientific work. The wish that he had expressed in his youth had been thus realized—to be able to devote himself to his work until his death.


I. Original Works. Calmette’s writings were published for the most part, in the Annales de l’ Institut Pasteur (1892–1933). Two of his books are Les venins, les animaux venimeux et la sérothérapie anti–venimeuse (Paris. 1907); and L’infection hacillaire et la tuherculose chez 1’homme et chezles animaux (Paris, 1920; 4th ed., rev. by A. Boquet and L. Nègre, Paris, 1936).

II. Secondary Literature. On Calmette and his work, see Noel Bernard. La vie et l’oeuvre d’ Albert Calmette (Paris,1962); 1961); and Roger Kervran, Albert Calmette et le BCG (Paris,1962).

Albert Delaunay