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Innovators & Pioneers

Alexis Carrel

Born: 1873
Died: 1944
Nationality: French
Occupation: medical scientist

Alexis Carrel was an innovative surgeon whose experiments with the transplantation and repair of body organs led to advances in the field of surgery and the art of tissue culture. An original and creative thinker, Carrel was the first to develop a successful technique for suturing blood vessels together. For his work with blood-vessel suturing and the transplantation of organs in animals, he received the 1912 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. Carrel's work with tissue culture also contributed significantly to the understanding of viruses and the preparation of vaccines. A member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research for thirty-three years, Carrel was the first scientist working in the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology.

Carrel was born on June 28, 1873, in Sainte-Foy-les-Lyon, a suburb of Lyons, France. He was the oldest of three children, two boys and a girl, in a Roman Catholic family. His mother, Anne-Marie Ricard, was the daughter of a linen merchant. His father, Alexis Carrel Billiard, was a textile manufacturer. Carrel dropped his baptismal names, Marie Joseph Auguste, and became known as Alexis Carrel upon his father's death when the boy was five years old. As a child, Carrel attended Jesuit schools. Before studying medicine, he earned two baccalaureate degrees, one in letters (1889) and one in science (1890). In 1891, Carrel began medical studies at the University of Lyons. For the next nine years, Carrel gained both academic knowledge and practical experience working in local hospitals. He served one year as an army surgeon with the Alpine Chasseurs, France's mountain troops. He also studied under Leo Testut, a famous anatomist. As an apprentice in Testut's laboratory, Carrel showed great talent at dissection and surgery. In 1900, he received his medical degree but continued on at the University of Lyons teaching medicine and conducting experiments in the hope of eventually receiving a permanent faculty position there.

Early Success with Blood Vessel Sutures

In 1894, the president of France bled to death after being fatally wounded by an assassin in Lyons. If doctors had known how to repair his damaged artery, his life may have been saved, but such surgical repair of blood vessels had never been done successfully. It is said that this tragic event captured Carrel's attention and prompted him to try and find a way to sew severed blood vessels back together. Carrel first taught himself how to sew with a small needle and very fine silk thread. He practiced on paper until he was satisfied with his expertise, then developed steps to reduce the risk of infection and maintain the flow of blood through the repaired vessels. Through his careful choice of materials and long practice at various techniques, Carrel found a way to suture blood vessels. He first published a description of his success in a French medical journal in 1902.

Despite Carrel's growing reputation as a surgeon, he failed to acquire a faculty position at the university. His colleagues seemed indifferent to his research, and Carrel, in turn, was critical of the French medical establishment. The final split between Carrel and his peers came when Carrel wrote a positive account of a miracle he apparently witnessed at Lourdes, a small town famous since 1858 for its Roman Catholic shrine and often visited by religious pilgrims. In his article, Carrel suggested that there may be medical cures that cannot be explained by science alone, and that further investigation into supernatural phenomena such as miracles was required. This conclusion pleased neither the scientists nor the churchmen of the day.

In June, 1904, Carrel left France for the French-speaking city of Montreal, Canada; an encounter with French missionaries who had worked in Canada had sparked Carrel's interest in that country several years earlier. Shortly after his arrival, Carrel accepted an assistantship in physiology from the Hull Physiology Laboratory of the University of Chicago, where he remained from 1904 to 1906. The university provided him with an opportunity to continue the experiments he had begun in France.

Blood transfusion and organ transplantation seemed within reach to Carrel, now that he had mastered the ability to suture blood vessels. In experiments with dogs, he performed successful kidney transplants. His bold investigations began to attract attention not only from other medical scientists but from the public as well. His work was reviewed in both medical journals and popular newspapers such as the NEW YORK HERALD. In the era of Ford, Edison, and the Wright Brothers, the public was easily able to imagine how work in a scientific laboratory could lead to major changes in daily life. Human organ transplantation and other revolutions in surgery did not seem far off.

Begins Lifetime Career at Rockefeller Institute

In 1906, the opportunity to work in a world-class laboratory came to Carrel. The new Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now named Rockefeller University) in New York City offered him a position. Devoted entirely to medical research, rather than teaching or patient care, the Rockefeller Institute was the first institution of its kind in the United States. Carrel would remain at the institute until 1939. At the Rockefeller Institute, Carrel continued to improve his methods of blood-vessel surgery. He knew that mastering those techniques would allow for great advances in the treatment of disorders of the circulatory system and wounds. It also made direct blood transfusions possible at a time when scientists did not know how to prevent blood from clotting. Without this knowledge, blood could not be stored or transported. In the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION in 1910, Carrel described connecting an artery from the arm of a father to the leg of an infant in order to treat the infant's intestinal bleeding. Although the experiment was a success, the discovery of anticoagulants soon made such direct transfer unnecessary. For his pioneering efforts, Carrel won the Nobel Prize in 1912.

Carrel's success with tissue cultures through animal experiments led him to wonder whether human tissues and even whole organs, might be kept alive artificially in the laboratory. If so, lab-raised organs might eventually be used as substitutes for diseased parts of the body. The art of keeping cells and tissue alive, and even growing, outside of the body is known as tissue culture. Successfully culturing tissue requires great technical skill. Carrel was particularly interested in perfusion -- a procedure of artificially pumping blood through an organ to keep it viable. Carrel's work with tissue culture contributed greatly to the understanding of normal and abnormal cell life. His techniques helped lay the groundwork for the study of viruses and the preparation of vaccines for polio, measles, and other diseases. Carrel's discoveries, in turn, built upon the successes of, among others, Ross G. Harrison, a contemporary anatomist at Yale who worked with frog tissue cultures and transplants.

One of Carrel's experiments in tissue culture became the subject of a sensationalized news story and was viewed as a monstrosity by the public. In 1912, Carrel took tissue from the heart of a chicken embryo to demonstrate that warm-blooded cells could be kept alive in the lab. This tissue, which was inaccurately depicted as a growing, throbbing chicken heart by some newspapers, was kept alive for thirty-four years -- outliving Carrel himself -- before it was deliberately terminated. The WORLD TELEGRAM, a New York newspaper, annually marked the so-called chicken heart's "birthday" each January.

Though working in the United States, Carrel had not bought a house there, and did not become a U.S. citizen. Rather, he spent each summer in France, and on December 26, 1913, Carrel married Anne-Marie Laure (Gourlez de la Motte) de Meyrie, a widow with one son, in a ceremony in Brittany. They had met at Lourdes, where Carrel made an annual pilgrimage each August. Eventually, the couple bought some property on the island of Saint Gildas off the coast of Brittany, and lived in a stone house there. They had no children together.

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.

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