Alexis Carrel

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Alexis Carrel : biography

June 28, 1873 – November 5, 1944

Contributions to science

Vascular suture

Carrel was a young surgeon in 1894 when the French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated with a knife. His large abdominal veins had been severed, and surgeons who treated the president felt that such veins were too large to 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", which was inspired by sewing lessons he took from an embroideress, 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.

Wound antisepsis

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.

Organ transplants

Carrel co-authored a book with famed pilot Charles A. Lindbergh, The Culture of Organs, and worked with Lindbergh in the mid-1930s to create the "perfusion pump," which allowed living organs to exist outside of the body during surgery. The advance is said to have been a crucial step in the development of open-heart surgery and organ transplants, and to have laid the groundwork for the artificial heart, which became a reality decades later. Some critics of Lindbergh claimed that Carrel overstated Lindbergh’s role to gain media attention,(Wallace, American Axis p. 101) but other sources say Lindbergh played an important role in developing the device. Both Lindbergh and Carrel appeared on the cover of Time magazine on June 13, 1938.

Cellular senescence

Carrel was also interested in the phenomenon of senescence, or aging. He claimed incorrectly that all cells continued to grow indefinitely, and this became a dominant view in the early 20th century.; page 24. Carrel started an experiment on January 17, 1912 where he placed tissue cultured from an embryonic chicken heart in a stoppered Pyrex flask of his own design. He maintained the living culture for over 20 years with regular supplies of nutrient. This was longer than a chicken’s normal lifespan. The experiment, which was conducted at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, attracted considerable popular and scientific attention.

Carrel’s experiment was never successfully replicated, and in the 1960s Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead proposed that differentiated cells can only undergo a limited number of divisions before dying. This is known as the Hayflick limit, and is now a pillar of biology.

It is not certain how Carrel obtained his anomalous results. Leonard Hayflick suggests that the daily feeding of nutrient was continually introducing new living cells to the alleged immortal culture. J. A. Witkowski has argued that, while "immortal" strains of visibly mutated cells have been obtained by other experimenters, a more likely explanation is deliberate introduction of new cells into the culture, possibly without Carrel’s knowledge.Witkowsky explanation is actually based on the account of a visiting medical researcher, Ralph Buchbaum, who reports being told by a technician in Carrel’s lab "Dr. Carrel would be so upset if we lost the strain, we just add a few embryo cells now and then". After the first six months, Carrel’s colleague Albert Ebeling had actually taken charge of the cultures and published several papers about their development, until they were eventually discarded in 1946. Witkowsky, in "Dr. Carrel’s immortal cells", op. cit., quotes Buchbaum’s account. At the end Buchbaum writes that "I told this story, of my visit to Carrel’s laboratory, to various people. Dr. Bloom (Buchbaum’s director of research in Chicago)refused to believe it. Others chuckled gleefully. Dr. Carrel was to blame only in that he did not keep on top of what was really going on in the laboratory (mostly, he wrote the papers). Dr. Parker and Dr. Ebeling probably suspected something, hence the "retirement". In the interest of truth and science, the incident should have been thoroughly investigated. If it had been, some heads might have rolled, sacrificed to devotion to a wrong hypothesis – immortality of cell strains.". Witkowsky also reports a Dr. Margaret Murray telling him that "one of Carrel’s technicians of that time was passionately anti-fascist and detested Carrel’s political and social ideas" and expressing her belief that "that this technician would willingly have discredited Carrel scientifically if possible.".