Geek Of The Week: Felix d’Herelle

Geek Of The Week: Felix d’Herelle

Félix d’Hérelle was a FrenchCanadian microbiologist. He was co-discoverer of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) and experimented with the possibility of phage therapy.  D’Herelle has also been credited for his contributions to the larger concept of applied microbiology. So why is this important enough to warrant Geek of the Week? Read on for the full story…but basically because of the problems we are having with antibiotic resistance. In this case what is old is new again.

During World War I, d’Hérelle and assistants (his wife and daughters among them) produced over 12 million doses of medication for the allied military. At this point in history, medical treatments were primitive, compared to today’s standards. The smallpox vaccine, developed by Edward Jenner, was one of the few vaccines available. The primary antibiotic was the arsenic-based salvarsan against syphilis, with severe side effects. Common treatments were based mercury, strychnine, and cocaine. As a result, in 1900, the average life span was 45 years, and World War I did not change that to the better.

In 1915, British bacteriologist Frederick W. Twort discovered a small agent that infects and kills bacteria, but did not pursue the issue further. Independently, the discovery of “an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus” by d’Herelle was announced on 3 September 1917. The isolation of phages by d’Herelle works like this:

  1. Nutritional medium is infected with bacteria; the medium turns opaque.
  2. The bacteria are infected with phages and die, producing new phages; the medium clears up.
  3. The medium is filtered through porcelain filter, holding back bacteria and larger objects; only the smaller phages pass through.

In early 1919, d’Hérelle isolated phages from chicken feces, successfully treating a plague of chicken typhus with them. After this successful experiment on chicken, he felt ready for the first trial on humans. The first patient was healed of dysentery using phage therapy in August 1919. Many more followed.

At the time, none, not even d’Hérelle, knew exactly what a phage was. D’Hérelle claimed that it was a biological organism that reproduces, somehow feeding off bacteria. Others, the Nobelist Jules Bordet chief among them, theorized that phages were inanimate chemicals, enzymes specifically, that were already present in bacteria, and only trigger the release of similar proteins, killing the bacteria in the process. Due to this uncertainty, and d’Herelle using phages without much hesitation on humans, his work was under constant attack from many other scientists. It was not until the first phage was observed under an electron microscope by Helmut Ruska in 1939 that its true nature was established.

In 1920, d’Hérelle travelled to Indochina, pursuing studies of cholera and the plague, from where he returned at the end of the year. D’Hérelle, officially still an unpaid assistant, found himself without a lab; d’Hérelle later claimed this was a result of a quarrel with the assistant director of the Pasteur Institute, Albert Calmette. The biologist Edouard Pozerski had mercy on d’Herelle and lent him a stool (literally) in his laboratory. In 1921, he managed to publish a monograph, The Bacteriophage: Its Role in Immunity about his works as an official Institute publication, by tricking Calmette. During the following year, doctors and scientists across western Europe took a heightened interest in phage therapy, successfully testing it against a variety of diseases. Since bacteria become resistant against a single phage, d’Herelle suggested using “phage cocktails” containing different phage strains.

Phage therapy soon became a boom, and a great hope in medicine. In 1924, 25 January, d’Hérelle received the honorary doctorate of the University of Leiden,[4] as well as the Leeuwenhoek medal, which is only awarded once every ten years. The latter was especially important to him, as his idol Louis Pasteur received the same medal in 1895). The next year, he was nominated eight times for the Nobel prize, though he was never awarded one.

About the Author

avatar MIKE: A geek who currently works as a Biologist and has an extensive science background. He is an avid user of HPC systems used for scientific research in the Washington DC area. Mike's working knowledge of using computers to solve problems brings a unique viewpoint to the podcast.