René Jules Dubos

René Jules Dubos (1901-1982), the French-born American microbiologist, pioneered in the development of antibiotics and was an important writer on humanitarian and ecological subjects.

René Dubos was born on Feb. 20, 1901, at Saint-Brice, France. After receiving a scientific education, he went to Rome in 1922, where he was on the staff of the International Institute of Agriculture. Within 2 years he left to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey, from which he received his doctorate in microbiology in 1927. Dubos immediately began his long and distinguished association with the department of pathology and bacteriology at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Except for 2 years as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (1942-1944), he was continuously involved in research at the institute from 1927. In 1934 he married Marie Louise Bonnet, who died in 1942. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1938. In 1946, he married Letha Jean Porter.

Dubos was a pioneer in the development of antibiotic drugs. Shortly after joining the Rockefeller Institute, he began searching for an antibacterial substance that would destroy the microorganism causing pneumonia. In the 1930s he discovered a soil-dwelling bacterium that produced a chemical substance capable of weakening the outer capsule of pneumonia bacteria so that they would be vulnerable to the body's natural defenses. He later showed that this substance, the antibiotic tyrothricin, was composed of two chemicals—tyrocidin and gramicidin. His work paved the way for the eventual discovery of streptomycin. Upon completing his investigation of tyrothricin he turned to tuberculosis research and won new recognition in that field.

In the 1950s Dubos began writing books on scientific subjects for a more general audience. In these he touched upon the philosophical foundations and social implications of science, warned against the naive utopianism of many medical thinkers, and argued for a study of the effect of the total environment upon man. His wisdom, humanitarian outlook, and lucid writing made Dubos one of the most perceptive and popular contemporary science writers. He produced over 200 scientific papers and more than a dozen books, including Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science (1950), The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society (1952), The Mirage of Health (1959), The Dreams of Reason (1961), The Unseen World (1962), The Torch of Life (1962), So Human an Animal (1968), Man, Medicine, and Environment (1968), Reason Awake (1970), and Beast or Angel?: Choices That Make Us Human (1974).

In his dual role as scientist and author, Dubos accumulated numerous honors, including honorary degrees from European and American universities, awards from scientific and medical organizations, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Arches of Sciences Award for the popularization of science, and the Pulitzer Prize in letters (1969). In 1970 he became director of environmental studies at the State University of New York at Purchase, and in that same year President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. He died in 1982.

Further Reading on René Jules Dubos

Aside from the books listed, George Washington Corner's A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953: Origins and Growth (1965), recounts in detail Dubos's life and work. Dubos's place in the development of microbiology can be reviewed in Hubert A. Lechevalier and Morris Solotorovsky, Three Centuries of Microbiology (1965).

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