Alexis Carrel (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. He faced constant media attacks towards the end of his life over his alleged involvement with the Nazis.
Born in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, Rhône, Carrel was raised in a devout Catholic family and was educated by Jesuits, though he had become an agnostic by the time he became a university student. He 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.
In 1902 he witnessed the miraculous cure of Marie Bailly at Lourdes, made famous in part because she named Carrel as a witness of her cure. After the fame surrounding the event, Carrel could not obtain a hospital appointment because of the pervasive anticlericalism in the French university system at the time.
In 1903 he emigrated to Montreal, Canada, but soon relocated to Chicago, Illinois to work for Hull Laboratory. While there 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.
In 1906 he joined the newly formed Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York where he spent the rest of his career. In the 1930s, Carrel and Charles Lindbergh became close friends not only because of the years they worked together but also because they shared personal, political, and social views. Lindbergh initially sought out Carrel to see if his sister-in-law’s heart, damaged by rheumatic fever, could be repaired.
When Lindbergh saw the crudeness of Carrel’s machinery, he offered to build new equipment for the scientist. Eventually they built the first perfusion pump, an invention instrumental to the development of organ transplantation and open heart surgery. Lindbergh considered Carrel his closest friend, and said he would preserve and promote Carrel’s ideals after his death.
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.
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 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 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.
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. 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 undergo only 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.