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Felix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology.

Felix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, by William C. Summers. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1999. xii, 230 pp. $35.00 U.S. (cloth).

This is the biography of a great Canadian scientist, whose discoveries were all the more extraordinary because he was largely self-educated in science. Felix d'Herelle is honored as the principle discoverer of bacteriophage, because although F. W. Twort in England had briefly reported in 1915 that bacteria were destroyed by something that might be a virus, it was d'Herelle's exhaustive studies, starting in 1917, that proved the agent to be a living particle. The term "bacteriophage" is d'Herelle's, and all his life he believed these viruses would be useful in the fight against disease. He also championed the concept that the smallest bits of life should be useful in research on the fundamental organic processes. His research was purposive and skillful, his subject important, and, but for some well-placed enemies, he likely would have won a Nobel Prize.

The path leading from d'Herelle's work to molecular biology is direct only in retrospect, for he was the chief pioneer in cultivating the organisms which turned out to be essential to the founding researchers into DNA, who used the phage virus that infects the bacterium Escherichia coli. Yet d'Herelle himself had scant interest in the field, for he was a life-long Lamarckian, and he clung to his own theory of elementary living "micellae," which would seem hopelessly old-fashioned after proteins were shown to be giant molecules. His connection to Canada was also limited. Born in Montreal, son of a French Canadian, d'Herelle left this country at the age of six, when his widowed mother returned to Europe. He returned in 1894 with his young French wife. One of his first jobs as a microbiologist was to see if maple syrup could be profitably fermented. After buying a chocolate factory in Beauceville, Quebec, which failed, the d'Herelles left Canada for good in 1901.

Like his hero Pasteur, d'Herelle pursued two goals: to combat disease and to uncover the fundamental nature of life. Hired by the government of Guatamala in 1901, his challenges ranged from fermenting bananas into whiskey to identifying the fungus causing disease in coffee beans. In 1907 the Mexican government asked him to look into fermentation of sisal. While in the Yucatan, he looked for, and found, a disease of locusts, confirming his belief that biological means could be developed to control biological enemies of mankind. In 1911 he was invited to Argentina to mount an anti-locust campaign.

D'Herelle's enthusiasm for controlling unwanted species by introducing disease-causing microbes was clearly what equipped him to recognize the nature and potential of bacteriophage when chance presented him with them. Loosely associated with the Pasteur Institute in Paris, in 1915 he was asked to investigate a severe strain of dysentery that was killing soldiers; in the course of culturing the dysentery bacterium he noticed the existence of something capable of killing it. Summers appends a translation of d'Herelle's 1917 paper, a classic of microbiology. Immediately he tried to use bacteriophage to cure dysentery, with promising results. He recognized, however, the great disadvantage of using humans for fundamental research, where control groups are problematical and numbers are often small. D'Herelle also saw that it was better to look for diseases endemic to each species rather than to infect laboratory animals with a human disease not adapted to that animal.

1920 found d'Herelle in French Indochina, looking for phages specific to cholera, and collaborating in a study of a bacterial disease of domestic water buffalo. In 1922-24 he joined a research institute in Leiden, and from there he went for three years to Alexandria. Early in 1927 he arrived in India for a massive project against plague and cholera. During this time of political uprising, d'Herelle experimented, with considerable success, on the use of a bacteriophage against cholera. In 1928, he accepted a professorship at Yale, but instead of settling in to his comfortable laboratory there, d'Herelle disappointed his employers by his frequent absences. Five years later he resigned from Yale to join an institute in Soviet Georgia where his friend Georgiy Eliava was extending the medical applications of bacteriophage. D'Herelle was visiting France in 1937 when Eliava was executed in Stalin's purge. He remained in France, untouched by the Vichy government, and wrote his memoirs and reflections on science. He died in 1949 at the age of seventy-five.

The story of d'Herelle's remarkable career in science is well worth telling, and Summers brings to the task the high level of technical competence, historical skill, and honest prose necessary to do it justice.
Mary Pickard Winsor
University of Toronto
COPYRIGHT 2001 Canadian Journal of History
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Winsor, Mary Pickard
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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