Who is Alexis Carrel?
Alexis Carrel (French: [alɛksi kaʁɛl]; 28 June 1873 – 5 November 1944) was a French surgeon and biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for pioneering vascular suturing techniques. He invented the first perfusion pump with Charles A. Lindbergh opening the way to organ transplantation. His positive description of a miraculous healing he witnessed during a pilgrimage earned him scorn of some of his colleagues. This prompted him to relocate to the United States, where he lived most of his life. He had a leading role in implementing eugenic policies in Vichy France.
A Nobel Prize laureate in 1912, Alexis Carrel was also elected twice, in 1924 and 1927, as an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
In 1902 Alexis Carrel went from being a skeptic of the visions and miracles reported at Lourdes to being a believer in spiritual cures after experiencing a healing of Marie Bailly that he could not explain. The Catholic journal Le nouvelliste reported that she named him as the prime witness of her cure. Alexis Carrel refused to discount a supernatural explanation and steadfastly reiterated his beliefs, even writing the book The Voyage to Lourdes describing his experience, although it was not published until four years after his death. This was a detriment to his career and reputation among his fellow doctors, and feeling he had no future in academic medicine in France, he emigrated to Canada with the intention of farming and raising cattle. After a brief period, he accepted an appointment at the University of Chicago and, two years later, at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research.
Carrel was a young surgeon in 1894, when the French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated with a knife. Carnot bled to death due to severing of his portal vein, and surgeons who treated the president felt that the vein could not be successfully reconnected. This left a deep impression on Carrel, and he set about developing new techniques for suturing blood vessels. The technique of “triangulation”, using three stay-sutures as traction points in order to minimize damage to the vascular wall during suturing, was inspired by sewing lessons he took from an embroideress and is still used today. Julius Comroe wrote: “Between 1901 and 1910, Alexis Carrel, using experimental animals, performed every feat and developed every technique known to vascular surgery today.” He had great success in reconnecting arteries and veins, and performing surgical grafts, and this led to his Nobel Prize in 1912.
During World War I (1914–1918), Carrel and the English chemist Henry Drysdale Dakin developed the Carrel–Dakin method of treating wounds based on chlorine (Dakin’s solution) which, preceding the development of antibiotics, was a major medical advance in the care of traumatic wounds. For this, Carrel was awarded the Légion d’honneur. Carrel also advocated the use of wound debridement (cutting away necrotic or otherwise damaged tissue) and irrigation of wounds. His method of wound irrigation involved flushing the tissues with a high volume of antiseptic fluid so that dirt and other contaminants would be washed away (this is known today as “mechanical irrigation.”) The World War I era Rockefeller War Demonstration Hospital (United States Army Auxiliary Hospital No. 1) was created, in part, to promote the Carrel–Dakin method
Due to his close proximity with Jacques Doriot‘s fascist Parti Populaire Français (PPF) during the 1930s and his role in implementing eugenics policies during Vichy France, he was accused after the Liberation of collaboration, but died before the trial.
In his later life he returned to his Catholic roots. In 1939 he met with Trappist monk Alexis Presse on a recommendation. Although Carrel was skeptical about meeting with a priest, Presse ended up having a profound influence on the rest of Carrel’s life. In 1942, he said “I believe in the existence of God, in the immortality of the soul, in Revelation and in all the Catholic Church teaches.” He summoned Presse to administer the Catholic Sacraments on his death bed in November 1944.
Sometimes I read a biography and am reminded that there can be a fine line between genius and madness.