Jules Bordet Biography (1870-1961)

physician, bacteriologist, immunologist

Jules Bordet was an important pioneer in the field of immunology. It was hisresearch that made clear the exact manner by which serums and antiserums actto destroy bacteria and foreign blood cells in the body, thus explaining howhuman and animal bodies defend themselves against the invasion of foreign elements. Bordet was also responsible for developing complement fixation tests,which made possible the early detection of many disease-causing bacteria in human and animal blood. For his various discoveries in the field of biology Bordet was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for 1919.

Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet was born on June 13, 1870, in Soignies, Belgium, a small town situated twenty-three miles southwest of Brussels. He wasthe second son of Charles Bordet, a schoolteacher, and Célestine Vandenabeele Bordet. The family moved to Brussels in 1874, when his father received an appointment to the École Moyenne, a primary school. Jules and his older brother Charles attended this school and then received their secondary education at the Athénée Royal of Brussels. It was at this time that Bordet became interested in chemistry and began working in a small laboratory which he constructed at home. He entered the medical program at theFree University of Brussels at the age of sixteen, receiving his doctorate ofmedicine in 1892. Bordet began his research career while still in medical school, and in 1892 he published a paper on the adaptation of viruses to vaccinated organisms in the Annales de l'Institut Pasteur of Paris. For this work, the Belgian government awarded him a scholarship to the Pasteur Institute, and from 1894 to 1901 he stayed in Paris at the laboratory of the Ukrainian-born scientist Eacute lie Metchnikoff term="Élie ^Metchnikoff" project="ntcs" type="index">. In 1899 Bordet married Marthe Levoz; they eventually had two daughters and a son, Paul, who also became a medical scientist.

During his seven years at the Pasteur Institute, Bordet made most of the basic discoveries that led to his Nobel Prize of 1919. Soon after his arrival atthe Institute, he began work on a problem in immunology. In 1894 Richard Pfeiffer, a German scientist, had discovered that when cholera bacteria was injected into the peritoneum of a guinea pig immunized against the infection, thepig would rapidly die. This bacteriolysis, Bordet discovered, did not occur when the bacteria was injected into a non-immunized guinea pig, but did so when the same animal received the antiserum from an immunized animal. Moreover,the bacteriolysis did not take place when the bacteria and the antiserum weremixed in a test tube unless fresh antiserum was used. However, when Bordet heated the antiserum to 55 degrees centigrade, it lost its power to kill bacteria. Finding that he could restore the bacteriolytic power of the antiserum if he added a little fresh serum from a non-immunized animal, Bordet concludedthat the bacteria-killing phenomenon was due to the combined action of two distinct substances: an antibody in the antiserum, which specifically acted against a particular kind of bacterium; and a non-specific substance, sensitiveto heat, found in all animal serums, which Bordet called "alexine" (later named "complement").

In a series of experiments conducted later, Bordet also learned that injecting red blood cells from one animal species (rabbit cells in the initial experiments) into another species (guinea pigs) caused the serum of the second species to quickly destroy the red cells of the first. And although the serum lost its power to kill the red cells when heated to 55 degrees centigrade, its potency was restored when alexine (or complement) was added. It became apparent to Bordet that hemolytic (red cell destroying) serums acted exactly as bacteriolytic serums; thus, he had uncovered the basic mechanism by which animalbodies defend or immunize themselves against the invasion of foreign elements. Eventually, Bordet and his colleagues found a way to implement their discoveries. They determined that alexine was bound or fixed to red blood cells orto bacteria during the immunizing process. When red cells were added to a normal serum mixed with a specific form of bacteria in a test tube, the bacteriaremained active while the red cells were destroyed through the fixation of alexine. However, when serum containing the antibody specific to the bacteriawas destroyed, the alexine and the solution separated into a layer of clear serum overlaying the intact red cells. Hence, it was possible to visually determine the presence of bacteria in a patient's blood serum. This process became known as a complement fixation test. Bordet and his associates applied these findings to various other infections, like typhoid fever, carbuncle, and hog cholera. August von Wasserman eventually used a form of the test (later known as the Wasserman test) to determine the presence of syphilis bacteria in the human blood.

Already famous by the age of thirty-one, Bordet accepted the directorship ofthe newly created Anti-rabies and Bacteriological Institute in Brussels in 1901; two years later, the organization was renamed the Pasteur Institute of Brussels. From 1901, Bordet was obliged to divide his time between his researchand the administration of the Institute. In 1907 he also began teaching following his appointment as professor of bacteriology in the faculty of medicineat the Free University of Brussels, a position which he held until 1935. Despite his other activities, he continued his research in immunology and bacteriology. In 1906 Bordet and Octave Gengou succeeded in isolating the bacillusthat causes whooping cough in children and later developed a vaccine againstthe disease. Between 1901 and 1920, Bordet conducted important studies on thecoagulation of blood. When research became impossible because of the Germanoccupation of Belgium during World War I, Bordet devoted himself to the writing of Traité de l'immunité dans les maladies infectieuses (1920), a classic book in the field of immunology. He was in the United States to raise money for new medical facilities for the war-damaged Free University of Brussels when he received word that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. After 1920, he became interested in bacteriophage, the family of viruseswhich kill many types of bacteria, publishing several articles on the subject. In 1940 Bordet retired from the directorship of the Pasteur Institute of Brussels and was succeeded by his son, Paul. Bordet himself continued to takean active interest in the work of the Institute despite his failing eyesightand a second German occupation of Belgium during World War II. Many scientists, friends, and former students gathered in a celebration of his eightieth birthday at the great hall of the Free University of Brussels in 1950. He diedin Brussels on April 6, 1961.

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