The Man Who Made Transplant Surgery Possible. The pioneering work of the French doctor Alexis Carrel made the replacement of human organs possible but his legacy is tainted by Nazi collaboration.
Born in Lyons in 1873, Alexis Carrel received his early education from his mother before going on to the University of Lyons for his doctor’s degree, which he received in 1900.
A Political Assassination Leads to Discoveries
In 1894, the French President Sadi Carnot was stabbed by an anarchist whose blade severed the politician’s abdominal veins. Medical science at the time thought it impossible to reconnect large blood vessels and the doctors had to stand by and watch Carnot bleed to death.
In his 2002 book Doctors and Discoveries: Lives that Created Today’s Medicine, John G. Simmons writes that the fact that doctors lacked the skills to save Carnot’s life prompted Carrel to “set about developing new techniques for suturing blood vessels.”
He learned from an embroiderer how to perform fine needlework and he was able “to reconnect arteries and veins with unprecedented success.” This was the start of vascular surgery.
His development of these techniques earned him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1912.
Dr. Carrel’s Medical Breakthroughs
Carrel then further pushed back the boundaries of what was known at the time and started experimenting with tissue and even whole organ transplants. None of his early transplant operations on animals were successful because little was known about immunology and the body’s need to reject foreign matter.
Along with the British chemist Henry Dakin he developed a way of keeping wounds from becoming septic; this saved countless lives among the continuous parade of mutilated bodies coming from World War I battlefields.
He collaborated with the aviator Charles Lindbergh to build what they called a “perfusion pump.” This kept organs alive outside the body during surgery, an innovation that would make transplants possible decades later.
Experiments Cause Suspicion
Carell’s experiments with animals caused suspicion to develop about what he was up to in his research facility, and this wasn’t helped by the doctor’s working environment.
A biography of the doctor at Britain’s Science Museum refers to “Carrel’s insistence on his research staff wearing black clothing and masks, combined with the black walls of his laboratory, only added to the air of mystery and menace and served to fuel the public’s interest.”
Little wonder that sensational stories described Dr. Carrel keeping the beating hearts of animals alive in glass jars.
Carrel Embraces Eugenics
In 1935, Carrel published a book entitled Man, The Unknown. It was a bestseller and it praised the theory of social improvement through eugenics. The selective breeding of humans with superior physical and intellectual characteristics would produce an improved race, the eugenicists believed.
The other side of that argument being that those judged to be of substandard quality could be discarded like so many defective machine parts.
Carrel wrote that “A euthanasia establishment, equipped with a suitable gas, would allow the humanitarian and economic disposal of those who have killed, committed armed robbery, kidnapped children, robbed the poor, or seriously betrayed public confidence.” He even suggested the same approach might be taken with “lunatics.”
Collaboration with Nazis
Carrel’s beliefs in notions of how to improve racial purity were akin to those of Nazi Germany. After the fall of France to Hitler’s invading panzers, he took a job with the Vichy government directing the Carrel Foundation for the Study of Human Problems.
As described by an article, The Genius of Alexis Carrel, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (November 1, 1984) this institution “was to conduct its experiments for 100 years and then make recommendations that would better the whole of mankind.”
But, Carrel was on the wrong side when the war ended. He died of a heart attack in 1944, and, as noted by Time Magazine in an obituary (November 13, 1944) “his final illness prevented his trial for collaboration with the Nazis.”