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d'Héeelle, Félix (1873-1949)

d'HÉrelle, FÉlix (1873-1949)

Canadian bacteriologist

Félix d'Hérelle's major contribution to science was the discovery of the bacteriophage , a microscopic agent that appears in conjunction with and destroys disease-producing bacteria in a living organism. Like many researchers, d'Hérelle spent much of his life exploring the effects of his major discovery. He was also well-traveled; in the course of his life he lived for long or short periods of time in Canada, France, the Netherlands, Guatemala, Mexico, Indochina, Egypt, India, the United States, and the former Soviet Union.

D'Hérelle was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His father, Félix d'Hérellea member of a well-established French Canadian family, died when the young Félix was six years old. After his father's death, he moved with his mother, Augustine Meert d'Hérelle, a Dutch woman, to Paris, France. In Paris, d'Hérelle received his secondary education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and began his medical studies. He completed his medical program at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He married Mary Kerr, of France, in 1893, and the couple eventually had two daughters. In 1901, d'Hérelle moved to Guatemala City, Guatemala, to become the director of the bacteriology laboratory at the general hospital and to teach microbiology at the local medical school. In 1907, he moved to Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, to study the fermentation of sisal hemp, and in 1908, the Mexican government sent him back to Paris to further his microbiological studies. D'Hérelle became an assistant at Paris's Pasteur Institute in 1909, became chief of its laboratory in 1914, and remained at the Institute until 1921.

During his time at the Pasteur Institute, d'Hérelle studied a bacterium called Coccobacillus acridiorum, which caused enteritis (inflammation of the intestines) in locusts and grasshoppers of the acrididae family of insects, with a view toward using the microbe to destroy locusts. In growing the bacteria on culture plates, d'Hérelle observed empty spots on the plates and theorized that these spots resulted from a virus that grew along with and killed the bacteria. He surmised that this phenomenon might have great medical significance as an example of an organism fighting diseases of the digestive tract. In 1916, he extended his investigation to cultures of the bacillus that caused dysentery and again observed spots free of the microbe on the surface of the cultures. He was able to filter out a substance from the feces of dysentery victims that consumed in a few hours a culture broth of the bacillus. On September 10, 1917, he presented to the French Academy of Sciences a paper announcing his discovery entitled "Sur un microbe invisible, antagoniste du bacille dysentérique." He named the bacteriadestroying substance bacteriophage (literally, "eater of bacteria"). He devoted most of his research and writing for the rest of his life to the various types of bacterio-phage which appeared in conjunction with specific types of bacteria. He published several books dealing with his findings.

From 1920 to the late 1930s, d'Hérelle traveled and lived in many parts of the world. In 1920, he went to French Indochina under the auspices of the Pasteur Institute to study human dysentery and septic pleuropneumonia in buffaloes. It was during the course of this expedition that he perfected his techniques for isolating bacteriophage. From 1922 to 1923, he served as an assistant professor at the University of Leiden. In 1924, he moved to Alexandria, Egypt, to direct the Bacteriological Service of the Egyptian Council on Health and Quarantine. In 1927, he went to India at the invitation of the Indian Medical Service to attempt to cure cholera through the use of the bacteriophage associated with that disease. D'Hérelle served as professor of bacteriology at Yale University from 1928 to 1933, and in 1935 the government of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia requested that d'Hérelle establish institutes dedicated to the study of bacteriophage in Tiflis, Kiev, and Kharkov. However, unstable civil conditions forced d'Hérelle's departure from the Soviet Union in 1937, and he returned to Paris, where he lived, continuing his study of bacteriophage, for the remainder of his life.

D'Hérelle attempted to make use of bacteriophage in the treatment of many human and animal diseases, including dysentery, cholera, plague, and staphylococcus and streptococcus infections. Such treatment was widespread for a time, especially in the Soviet Union. However, use of bacteriophage for this purpose was superseded by the use of chemical drugs and antibiotics even within d'Hérelle's lifetime. Today bacteriophage is employed primarily as a diagnostic ultravirus. Of the many honors d'Hérelle received, his perhaps most notable is the Leeuwenhoek Medal given to him by the Amsterdam Academy of Science in 1925; before d'Hérelle, Louis Pasteur had been the only other French scientist to receive the award. D'Hérelle was presented with honorary degrees from the University of Leiden and from Yale, Montreal, and Laval Universities. He died after surgery in Paris at the age of 75.

See also Bacteriophage and bacteriophage typing

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