Alexis Carrel

[kuh-rel, kar-uhl; Fr. ka-rel]
Alexis Carrel (June 28, 1873 - November 5, 1944) was a French surgeon, biologist and eugenicist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912.


Born in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, Lyon, Carrel practiced in France and in the United States at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He developed new techniques in vascular sutures and was a pioneer in transplantology and thoracic surgery. Alexis Carrel was also a member of learned societies in the U.S., Spain, Russia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Vatican City, Germany, Italy and Greece and received honorary doctorates from Queen's University of Belfast, Princeton University, California, New York, Brown University and Columbia University. He collaborated with American physician Charles Claude Guthrie in work on vascular suture and the transplantation of blood vessels and organs as well as the head, and Carrel was awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for these efforts. Due to his close proximity with Jacques Doriot's fascist PPF during the 1930s and his role in implementing eugenics policies during Vichy France, he was accused after the Liberation of collaborationism, but died before the trial.

Contributions to science

Suturing blood vessels

During the First World War (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, 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 that all cells continued to grow indefinitely, and this became a dominant view in the early twentieth century. Carrel was especially famous for an experiment begun on January 17, 1912. To defend his idea, Carrel placed tissue cultured from an embryonic chicken heart in a stoppered Pyrex flask of his own design, and 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 famous experiment was never fully replicated (although other researchers obtained mutated "immortal" strains), and in the 1960s research by Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead proposed that earlier researchers were wrong, and 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.


In 1972, the Swedish Post Office honored Carrel with a stamp that was part of its Nobel stamp series. In 1979, the lunar crater Carrel was named after him as a tribute to his scientific breakthroughs.

In February 2002 the Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston, within the celebrations for the Lindbergh 100th birthday established the Lindbergh-Carrel Prize, given to major contributors to "development of perfusion and bioreactor technologies for organ preservation and growth". M. E. DeBakey and 9 other scientists received the prize, a bronze statuette espressly created for the event by the Italian artist C. Zoli and named "Elisabeth after Elisabeth Morrow, sister of Lindbergh's wife Anne Morrow, died due to heart disease. Lindbergh in fact was disappointed that contemporary medical technology could not provide an artificial heart pump which would allow for heart surgery on her and that gave the occasion for the first contact between Carrel and Lindbergh.

"Man, The Unknown" (1935)

In 1935, Carrel published a best-selling book titled L'Homme, cet inconnu (Man, The Unknown) which advocated, in part, that mankind could better itself by following the guidance of an elite group of intellectuals, and by implementing a regime of enforced eugenics. Sociologist Roger Caillois quoted and paraphrased L'Homme, cet inconnu in The Edge of Surrealism: " '(p)resent-day proletarians owe their status to inherited intellectual and physical defects' (sancta simplicitas). And he [Carrel] suggests that this state of affairs should be accentuated through appropriate measures, so as to correlate social and biological inequalities more precisely. Society would then be directed by a hereditary aristocracy composed of descendants from the Crusaders, the heroes of the Revolution, the great criminals, the financial and industrial magnates" (p. 360).

Carrel advocated the use of gas chambers to rid humanity of "inferior stock", thus endorsing the scientific racism discourse. His endorsement of this idea began in the mid-1930s, prior to the Nazi implementation of such practices in Germany. In the 1936 German introduction of his book, at the publishers request, he added the following praise of the Nazi regime which did not appear in the editions in other languages:

"(t)he German government has taken energetic measures against the propagation of the defective, the mentally diseased, and the criminal. The ideal solution would be the suppression of each of these individuals as soon as he has proven himself to be dangerous."

Carrel also wrote:

"(t)he conditioning of petty criminals with the whip, or some more scientific procedure, followed by a short stay in hospital, would probably suffice to insure order. Those who have murdered, robbed while armed with automatic pistol or machine gun, kidnapped children, despoiled the poor of their savings, misled the public in important matters, should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasic institutions supplied with proper gasses. A similar treatment could be advantageously applied to the insane, guilty of criminal acts.".

Alexis Carrel under Vichy

In 1937, Carrel joined Jean Coutrot’s Centre d’Etudes des Problèmes Humains - Coutrot’s aim was to develop what he called an "economic humanism" through "collective thinking." In 1941, through connections to the Pétain cabinet (specifically, French industrial physicians André Gros and Jacques Ménétrier) he went on to advocate for the creation of the Fondation Française pour l’Etude des Problèmes Humains (French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems) which was created by decree of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1941, and where he served as 'regent'. The foundation was at the origin of the October 11, 1946 law, enacted by the GPRF provisional government, which institutionalized the field of occupational medicine. It worked on demographics (Robert Gessain, Paul Vincent, Jean Bourgeois), on nutrition (Jean Sutter), on habitation (Jean Merlet) and on the first opinion polls (Jean Stoetzel). "The foundation was chartered as a public institution under the joint supervision of the ministries of finance and public health. It was given financial autonomy and a budget of forty million francs—roughly one franc per inhabitant—a true luxury considering the burdens imposed by the German Occupation on the nation’s resources. By way of comparison, the whole Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) was given a budget of fifty million francs.

According to Gwen Terrenoire, writing in Eugenics in France (1913-1941) : a review of research findings, "The foundation was a pluridisciplinary centre that employed around 300 researchers (mainly statisticians, psychologists, physicians) from the summer of 1942 to the end of the autumn of 1944. After the liberation of Paris, Carrel was suspended by the Minister of Health; he died in November 1944, but the Foundation itself was "purged", only to reappear in a short time as the Institut national d’études démographiques (INED) that is still active. Although Carrel himself died on November 5, 1944, most members of his team did move to the INED, which was led by famous demographist Alfred Sauvy, who coined the expression "Third World". Others joined Robert Debré's "Institut national d'hygiène" (National Hygiene Institute), which later became the INSERM.

1990s-2000s debates concerning Carrel

Some scholars, such as Lucien Bonnafé, Patrick Tort and Max Lafont have accused Carrel of responsibility for the execution of thousands of mentally ill or impaired patients under Vichy. They argue that this policy was inspired by Carrel's advocacy of eugenics.

Carrel's association with Vichy, and the harshness of his advocacy for eugenics, has led to his descent from fame to obscurity. In recent years, Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party ("National Front"), has become an advocate for Carrel, referring to him as "the first environmentalist, or, if you will, the first modern ecologist, precisely because he committed himself to defining the relationships of natural harmony.". His writings on eugenics are studied "avidly in the training camps of the National Front".

In the 1990s, the attention the National Front's support brought to Carrel's fascist associations and controversial views created a series of controversies with respect to streets and institutions named in honor of Carrel. Over 20 French cities and towns, including Paris, renamed streets previously named for Carrel. The controversy came to a head in Lyon, the city next to his birthplace, where he studied medicine. One of the four medicine faculties of the university Claude Bernard - Lyon I had been named in his honor in 1968. Lyon libération questioned the wisdom of this. In response to this, in May 1995, the Palais des Congrès of Lyon hosted a conference on Carrel and scientific racism at which several of the participants accused the inquiry commission of whitewashing the controversial scientist. In early 1996, after five years of embarrassing publicity, the governing board of the University of Lyon decided to rename its school of medicine after René Laënnec, inventor of the stethoscope."

In the United States as well as in France, the 1990s were not kind to Carrel's reputation. In an interview for PBS' The American Experience, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. blamed Carrel for Charles Lindbergh's increasing racism in the 1930s. Schlesinger stated in response to a question concerning the source of Lindbergh's beliefs on this subject: "I suppose he got a lot of it from Alexis Carrel, the French biologist who had a kind of racial mysticism of a sort.

Alexis Carrel and Lourdes

Alexis Carrel went from being a skeptic of the visions and miracles reported at Lourdes to being a believer after experiencing a healing he could not explain. To the detriment of his career and reputation among his fellow doctors, he steadfastly reiterated his beliefs, and even wrote a book describing his experience.

See also

External links


  • Carrel, Alexis. Man, The Unknown. New York and London: Harper and Brothers. 1935.
  • Feuerwerker, Elie. Alexis Carrel et l'eugénisme. Le Monde, 1er Juillet 1986.
  • Andrés Horacio Reggiani. Alexis Carrel, the Unknown: Eugenics and Population Research under Vichy (FRENCH HISTORICAL STUDIES 25:2 SPRING 2002)
  • Wallace, Max. The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich St. Martin's Press, New York, 2003.
  • Szasz, Thomas. The Theology of Medicine New York: Syracuse University Press, 1977.
  • Ali, Tariq. Clash of Fundamentalisms Verso, London, 2002
  • Choueiri, Youssef. Islamic Fundamentalism Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2002.
  • Walther, Rudolph. Die seltsamen Lehren des Doktor Carrel, DIE ZEIT 31.07.2003 Nr.32
  • Bonnafé, Lucien and Tort, Patrick. L'Homme, cet inconnu? Alexis Carrel, Jean-Marie le Pen et les chambres a gaz Editions Syllepse, 1996. ISBN 2907993143
  • Abu-Rabi, Ibrahim M. Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence, SUNY Press, Albany, 1996
  • Azmeh, Aziz (Aziz Al-Azmeh). Islams and Modernities Verso, London, 1993.
  • Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism W. W. Norton, 2003
  • David Zane Mairowitz. "Fascism à la mode: in France, the far right presses for national purity", Harper's Magazine; 10/1/1997
  • Pioneers of Islamic Revival (edited by Ali Rahnema), Zed Books, London 1994
  • Schneider, William. Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France, Cambridge Studies in the History of Medicine (chap. 7 French eugenics in the thirties; and 10 Vichy and after)
  • Terrenoire, Gwen, CNRS. Eugenics in France (1913-1941) : a review of research findings Joint Programmatic Commission UNESCO-ONG Science and Ethics, March 24, 2003


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