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Alexis Carrel


When World War I began, Carrel was in France. The French government called him to service with the army, assigning him to run a special hospital near the front lines for the study and prompt treatment of severely infected wounds. There, Madame Carrel, his wife of less than one year and a trained surgical nurse, assisted him. In collaboration with biochemist Henry D. Dakin, Carrel developed an elaborate method of cleansing deep wounds to prevent infection. The method was especially effective in preventing gangrene, and was credited with saving thousands of lives and limbs. The Carrel-Dakin method, however, was too complicated for widespread use, and has since been replaced by the use of antibiotic drugs.

After an honorable discharge in 1919, Carrel returned to the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. He resumed his work in tissue culture, and began an investigation into the causes of cancer. In one experiment, he built a huge mouse colony to test his theories about the relationship between nutrition and cancer. But the experiment produced inconclusive results, and the Institute ceased funding it after 1933. Nevertheless, Carrel's tissue culture research was successful enough to earn him the Nordhoff-Jung Cancer Prize in 1931 for his contribution to the study of malignant tumors.

Artificial Heart Collaboration with Charles A. Lindbergh

In the early 1930s, Carrel returned again to the challenge of keeping organs alive outside the body. With the engineering expertise of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Carrel designed a special sterilizing glass pump that could be used to circulate nutrient fluid around large organs kept in the lab. This perfusion pump, a so-called artificial heart, was germ-free and was successful in keeping animal organs alive for several days or weeks, but this was not considered long enough for practical application in surgery. Still, the experiment laid the groundwork for future developments in heart-lung machines and other devices. To describe the use of the perfusion pump, Carrel and Lindbergh jointly published THE CULTURE OF ORGANS in 1938. Lindbergh was a frequent sight at the Rockefeller Institute for several years, and the Lindberghs and the Carrels became close friends socially. They appear together on the July 1, 1935, cover of TIME magazine with their "mechanical heart."

Carrel's mystical bent, publicly revealed after his visit to Lourdes as a young man, was displayed again in 1935. That year Carrel published MAN, THE UNKNOWN, a work written upon the recommendation of a loose-knit group of intellectuals that he often dined with at the Century Club. In MAN, THE UNKNOWN, Carrel posed highly philosophical questions about mankind, and theorized that mankind could reach perfection through selective reproduction and the leadership of an intellectual aristocracy. The book, a worldwide best-seller and translated into nineteen languages, brought Carrel international attention. Carrel's speculations about the need for a council of superior individuals to guide the future of mankind was seen by many as anti-democratic. Others thought that it was inappropriate for a renowned scientist to lecture on fields outside his own.

Unfortunately, one of those who disliked Carrel's habit of discussing issues outside the realm of medicine was the new director of the Rockefeller Institute. Herbert S. Gasser had replaced Carrel's friend and mentor, Simon Flexner, in 1935. Suddenly Carrel found himself approaching the mandatory age of retirement with a director who had no desire to bend the rules and keep him aboard. On July 1, 1939, Carrel retired. His laboratories and the Division of Experimental Surgery were closed.

Carrel's retirement coincided with the beginning of World War II in September, 1939. Carrel and his wife were in France at the time and Carrel immediately approached the French Ministry of Public Health and offered to organize a field laboratory, much like the one he had run during World War I. When the government was slow to respond, Carrel grew frustrated. In May, 1940, he returned to New York alone. As his steamship was crossing the Atlantic, Hitler invaded France.

Creates New Scientific Institute in Occupied Paris

Carrel made the difficult return to war-torn Europe as soon as he was able, arriving in France via Spain in February, 1941. Paris was under the control of the Vichy government, a puppet administration installed by the German military command. Although Carrel declined to serve as director of public health in the Vichy government, he stayed in Paris to direct the Foundation for the Study of Human Problems. The Foundation, supported by the Vichy government and the German military command, brought young scientists, physicians, lawyers, and engineers together to study economics, political science, and nutrition. When the Allied forces reoccupied France in August, 1944, the newly restored French government immediately suspended Carrel from his directorship of the Foundation and accused him of collaborating with the Germans. Mercifully, perhaps, a serious heart attack forestalled any further prosecution. Attended by French and American physicians, and nursed by his wife, Carrel died of heart failure in Paris on November 5, 1944. After his death, his body was buried in St. Yves chapel near his home on the island of Saint Gildas, Cotes-du-Nord.

Carrel's reputation remains that of a brilliant, yet temperamental man. His motivations for his involvement with the Nazi-dominated Vichy government remain the subject of debate. Yet there is no question that his achievements ushered in a new era in medical science. His pioneering techniques paved the way for successful organ transplants and modern heart surgery, including grafting procedures and bypasses.


  • MAN, THE UNKNOWN, Harper & Brothers, 1935.

  • THE CULTURE OF ORGANS, Hoeber, 1938.

  • PRAYER, Morehouse-Gorham, 1948.

  • VOYAGE TO LOURDES, translated by Virgilia Peterson, Harper, 1950.

  • REFLECTIONS ON LIFE, translated by Antonia White, H. Hamilton, 1952.

Further Readings


  • Edwards, William Sterling, ALEXIS CARREL: VISIONARY SURGEON, Thomas, 1974.


  • Poole, Lynn, and Gray Poole, DOCTORS WHO SAVED LIVES, Dodd, 1966, pp. 110-118.

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Source: From NOTABLE TWENTIETH-CENTURY SCIENTISTS, edited by Emily J. McMurray. Gale Group, 1995. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.


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