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Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran

Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran

1845-1922

French Physician, Military Surgeon and Parasitologist

Alphonse Laveran was a French surgeon who was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1907 for his discovery, and subsequent research, that disease could be spread by singlecell protozoa in the blood system. His continuing research following this breakthrough included diseases caused by other single-cell animals in the blood system.

Laveran was born in Paris in 1845. The son of an army surgeon, he moved with his family to Algeria in 1850; the family returned to Paris in 1855. Laveran was a bright student who attended two well-known medical schools in the city of Strasbourg. In 1867 he graduated with an M.D.; his doctoral dissertation concerned the regeneration of damaged nerves. Soon after, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, a war between Germany and France, Laveran followed his father's footsteps and went into the army as a surgeon.

Following the war in 1874, Laveran sat for a very competitive examination and was subsequently appointed Professor of Military Medicine at the Ecole du Val-de-Grâce. Between 1878 and 1883 he was stationed in Algeria, where he began to treat and observe patients suffering from the disease malaria. Malaria, also known as "marsh fever" at the time, had afflicted mankind for thousands of years, and the hypotheses regarding its causes were many. One of these was that bad air, especially air over swamps or marshes, caused the disease. This is where the term malaria originated (mal aria is the Latin term for bad air).

In 1880, through research done on his own, Laveran noticed that the black pigment in a malaria patient's blood contained an abundance of single-cell organisms with flagella, or whiplike tails that help them to move around. At the time, the medical community had made discoveries indicating that bacteria was the cause of disease and were beginning to see malaria as bacteria-related. However, this protozoan was not a bacterium, and it seemed to act as a parasite on the red blood cells of the patients. Laveran recorded that the protozoan would enter the blood cells, grow to almost the size of the cell itself and then divide into spores, reproductive cells produced by protozoa to make more cells. The spores, after destroying the blood cell, would invade unaffected cells, beginning the process again. The dark quality of the patient's blood turned out to be the waste produced by the protozoan.

Laveran's discovery that malaria was caused by these single-cell animals did not lead immediately to fame and fortune. Indeed, his military superiors did not acknowledge this achievement and overlooked him for promotion. In 1884 he served as Professor of Military Hygiene at Val-de-Grâce; he became chief surgeon in 1891 and director of the Eleventh Corp's medical service in 1894. Laveran left the military in 1896 to join with the Pasteur Institute, where his inquisitive mind and his desire to research were welcomed. While at the Institute, he carried out more research on parasitic blood diseases and finally in 1907 was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. The prize came with a substantial amount of money; Laveran used these funds to open a tropical medicine laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. The following year he organized the Societe de Pathologie Exotique and was its president until 1920. Laveran died in Paris, the place of his birth, in 1922. His work with malaria led a later scientist, Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932), to discover that the malaria parasite is transmitted by mosquito from human to human. This discovery provided the opportunity to control the disease.

MICHAEL T. YANCEY

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