Charles Robert Richet Biography (1850-1935)


Charles Richet was born on August 25, 1850, in Paris, the son of a professorof clinical surgery. As a student, Richet found himself drawn to both the humanities and the sciences. Swayed perhaps by family influence, he entered medical school at the University of Paris, although he continued to write poetryand drama on the side. While at medical school, Richet became involved in studies of hypnotism, of the gastric juices involved in digestion, and of the phenomenon of pain. Deciding on a career in physiology rather than surgery, Richet, after receiving his medical degree in 1877, earned his doctor of sciencedegree in 1878. Soon afterward, he was named a professor of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris and immediately began research on muscle contraction. By 1883, he had turned to studies on how warm-blooded animals maintain their constant body temperature, demonstrating that the larger the animal, the less heat it produces per unit of weight.

In 1880, Richet began investigating microbiology, the field in which he wouldmake his great contribution. He observed Louis Pasteur demonstrate the inoculation of chickens against the fatal fowl cholera with a weakened strain of the cholera bacteria. Richet was struck by the idea that microbes might causedisease by producing a toxin, and that immune animals might carry a substancein their blood that counteracts the toxin. Richet reasoned that, if blood from immune animals were injected into nonresistant animals, the transfused toxin-resistant substance might confer immunity on the blood recipient. His applications of this theory to produce an immune serum for tuberculosis, however,failed.

Nevertheless, Richet continued his studies of toxicity, and in 1900, at the request of Prince Albert of Monaco, he began investigating the toxicity of seaanemone poison. He discovered "an extraordinary fact" completely opposite towhat he had expected: when dogs that had been previously injected with toxinwere reinjected with small doses of that toxin, the animals quickly died. The initial dose, instead of conferring immunity, produced fatal hypersensitivity. Richet called this reaction anaphylaxis, and in subsequent investigations, he and others found that it could occur as the result of exposure to a number of substances. Richet summarized anaphylaxis research in a 1911 monograph.For his work on anaphylaxis, he earned the 1913 Nobel Prize.

During World War I, Richet investigated blood plasma transfusion. After the war, he continued research in a wide range of areas. During the 1890s, he tookpart in the design and construction of one of the early airplanes. He was deeply interested in psychic phenomena, and he was also a dedicated pacifist who wrote several histories showing the malevolent effects of war. In later life, Richet also continued writing poems, plays, and novels. He died in Paris on December 4, 1935.

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