Rene Dubos

René Dubos

[doo-bohs; Fr. dy-baws]

René Jules Dubos (February 20, 1901February 20, 1982), was a French-American microbiologist, experimental pathologist, environmentalist, humanist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book So Human An Animal. He is credited as an author of a maxim "Think globally, act locally". He devoted most of his professional life to the empirical study of microbial diseases and to the analysis of the environmental and social factors that affect the welfare of humans. His pioneering research in isolating antibacterial substances from certain soil microorganisms led to the discovery of major antibiotics. He performed groundbreaking research and wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including: tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the mechanisms of acquired immunity, natural susceptibility, and resistance to infection.

In later years, Dubos explored the interplay of environmental forces and the physical, mental and spiritual development of mankind. The main tenets of his humanistic philosophy were: global problems are conditioned by local circumstances and choices, social evolution enables us to rethink human actions and change direction to promote an ecologically balanced environment, the future is optimistic since human life and nature are resilient and we have become increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in natural forces and human activities, and we can benefit from our successes and apply the lessons learned to solving other contemporary environmental problems.


René Jules Dubos was born on February 20, 1901 in the French village of Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt in the farming countryside in the north of the Île-de-France (north of Paris). After graduating from the Institut national agronomique in Paris, he emigrated to the United States and earned his doctoral degree at Rutgers University in 1927. His dissertation focused on the manner in which different soil organisms living in different environments decompose cellulose. His observations regarding similar microbes' biological activity living in different environments would later be extended to the debate on global ecological issues. Dubos joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research where he spent his entire scientific career with the exception of a two-year period (1942-44) when he was professor of tropical medicine at Harvard University Medical School.

Dubos’ writings demonstrate how his interest in the environment evolved from a bacterial context to a humanistic and social perspective. His scientific contributions and environmental philosophy are embodied in such works as Bacterial and Mycotic Infections in Man (1948), Biochemical Determinants of Microbial Diseases (1954), Mirage of Health; Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change (1959), Pasteur and Modern Science (1960), Man, Medicine, Environment (1968), So Human an Animal (1968; Pulitizer Prize, 1969), Only One Earth (1972), Wooing of Earth (1980), and Celebrations of Life (1981).

René Dubos is an author of a popular maxim "Think Globally, Act Locally" that refers to the argument that global environmental problems can turn into action only by considering ecological, economic, and cultural differences of our local surroundings. This phrase was originated by Dubos as an advisor to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. In 1979, Dubos suggested that ecological consciousness should begin at home. He believed that there needed to be a creation of a World Order in which "natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications". In the 1980s, Dubos held to his thoughts on acting locally, and felt that issues involving the environment must be dealt with in their "unique physical, climatic, and cultural contexts."

He served as chairman of the trustees of the René Dubos Center for Human Environment, a non-profit education and research organization, which was dedicated in his honor in 1980. The mission of the Center which was co-founded by William and Ruth Eblen is to “assist the general public and decision-makers in formulating policies for the resolution of environmental problems and the creation of environmental values.” Dubos remained actively involved in the programs of the Centre and activities until his death in 1982.


  • In 1998, the René Dubos Center for Human Environments donated a large portion of its environmental library and archives to Pace University. The collection consists of works by Dubos as well as those of other leading environmental scholars, some of which have been annotated by Dubos himself. According to Robert Chapman, Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Pace’s Environmental Studies Program, “Pace now has many of Dubos’ own research books from the Rockefeller University and this means that we can not only look at his writing, but we can also do an analysis of where his ideas come from and what influenced him.”



  • Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science, 1950, 1960, Charles Scribner's Sons, Da Capo Press 1986 reprint of 1960 edition: ISBN 0306802627
  • The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, 1952, Little, Brown, and Company, Rutgers University Press 1987: ISBN 0813512247
  • Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress & Biological Change, 1959, Rutgers University Press 1987: ISBN 0813512603
  • Pasteur and Modern Science, 1960, Anchor Books, American Society of Microbiology edition with new chapter by Thomas D. Brock, 1998: ISBN 1555811442
  • The Dreams of Reason: Science and Utopias, 1961 George B. Pegram lectures, Columbia University Press
  • The Unseen World, 1962, The Rockefeller Institute Press
  • The Torch of Life: Continuity in Living Experience, 1962, Simon and Schuster, Touchstone 1970 reprint: ISBN 0671204696
  • Man Adapting, 1966, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300004370, enlarged edition 1980: ISBN 0300025815
  • So Human an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Surroundings and Events, 1968, Scribner Book Company, Transaction Publishers 1998 edition: ISBN 0765804298 (won the 1969 Pulitizer Prize for non-fiction)
  • Reason Awake, 1970, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231031815
  • Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, 1972, coauthored with Barbara Ward and United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, W W Norton & Co, ISBN 0393063917
  • A God Within, 1973, Scribner, ISBN 068413506X "towards an ecological ethic"
  • Of Human Diversity, 1974, Clark University Press, ISBN 0914206249
  • The Professor, the Institute, and DNA: Oswald T. Avery, His Life and Scientific Achievements, 1976, Paul & Company, ISBN 0874700221
  • The Wooing of Earth, 1980, Scribner, ISBN 0684165015
  • Quest: Reflections on Medicine, Science, and Humanity, 1980, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0151757054
  • Celebrations of Life, 1981, McGraw Hill, ISBN 0070178933
  • Beast or Angel: Choices That Make Us Human, 1982, Scribner, hardcover: ISBN 0684176084, paperback 1984: ISBN 0684144360
  • The World of Rene Dubos: A Collection from His Writings, 1990, Henry Holt & Co, ISBN 0805013601

As Editor

Collected papers

The collected papers of Dubos from 1927–1982 including correspondence, lecture notes, book and article drafts, laboratory notebooks, photographs, audio and video cassettes, and films, are stored at the Rockefeller Archive


  • Carol L. Moberg, René Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth: Microbiologist, Medical Scientist, Environmentalist, 2005. ASM Press, ISBN 1555813402
  • Frank Ryan, M.D., The Forgotten Plague: How the Battle Against Tuberculosis Was Won and Lost, 1992, Little Brown and Company, ISBN 0-316-76380-2 includes chapter on Dubos, puts his work in context of fight against TB.

Awards and Honors

Recipient of the International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.

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