Friday, June 8, 2007

This Week's Citation Classic

d'Herelle, F. 1917. On an invisible microbe antagonistic to the dysentery bacillus. Comptes rendus Acad. Sci. Paris 165: 373-375.

Credit for the discovery of bacteriophages is usually given to Frederick Twort and Felix d'Herelle. I somewhat disagree. While Twort's report preceded d'Herelle's by a year and a half, he was thoroughly misguided about its nature (he thought it was an enzyme and persisted in this view for an unseemly length of time). Moreover, Twort failed to pursue his discovery, did little work of any serious import, and spent much of his career trying to grow viruses on artificial media.

By contrast, d'Herelle understood immediately what he observed, comprehended its implications and set forth a far reaching research program to explore its practical use.

d'Herelle is also a far more interesting character. A high school graduate, self-taught in microbiology, d'Herelle would have been noteworthy for another reason besides discovering bacteriophages: d'Herelle can be credited with originating modern biological pest control through his use of bacterial diseases to control locust infestations.

Here are some of d'Herelle's notable achievements:

-made whiskey from maple syrup
-built a chocolate factory but went out of business
-1st scientific paper "proved" carbon was not an element, but a compound
-made liquor from bananas
-cured coffee rot in Guatemala
-made schnapps from sisal
-destroyed a locust plague in Argentina
-initiated the field of phage therapy

d'Herelle discovered phage while employed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. In the course of studying bacteria in fecal samples from dysentery patients, he observed that a filterable (i.e. able to pass through a fine filter) microbe caused the complete lysis of of dysentery bacilli cultures. Almost singlehandedly, d'Herelle developed new experimental approaches to study this new microbe and elaborated theories about its nature and role in infectious diseases.

The citation classic I have cited is a marvel of clear thinking, able writing and concise form. It served as the basis not only for d'Herelle's entire subsequent career, but also for much of the 20th century's phage research. d'Herelle's work also presaged experimental evolution, originated Luria and Delbruck's famous Fluctuation Test and anticipated the importance of adaptive evolution. d'Herelle most certainly deserved a Nobel Prize for his discovery. Alexander Fleming received one for discovering penicillin, and that finding did not have a fraction of the import on science as did the discovery of phage. Etienne Wolff, professor on the faculty at Strasbourg, argued that "the existence of a destructive principle of bacteria, which was revealed to be a filterable virus, is very much more important from the general point of view than the discovery of penicillin, a bactericidal substance extracted from an organism....Bacteriophage represent a scientific revolution, while penicillin is a particular case of chemotherapy."

In the 1960s Félix d’Hérelle's name appeared on a list published by the Nobel Foundation of scientists who had been worthy of receiving the Nobel Prize, but did not.

Photo: (left to right) Elena Makashvili, Felix d'Herelle, Georgiy Eliava.


  1. Is it me or is there a fermentation theme running through the list of accomplishments.

  2. It's kind of funny, really, that d'Herelle's first real job (converting maple syrup to alcohol) was offered to him by an old friend of his father, who convinced d'Herelle by remarking, "Pasteur made a good beginning by studying fermentations, so it might be interesting to you, too."

    I think William Sealy Gosset, the Student in Student's t-test, got his start in fermentation too, at Guinness brewery.

    I'm sure there are other examples.

  3. The citation classic I have cited is a marvel of clear thinking....

    Obviously not written while "studying" the results of certain of his other experiments ;-).