Daniel Bovet Biography (1907-1992)


Daniel Bovet had the distinction of making basic contributions in at least three distinct areas of pharmacology , the science of drugs. His research madepossible the commercial development of sulfa drugs, antihistamines, and muscle relaxants. For his accomplishments in pharmacology he was awarded the NobelPrize in physiology or medicine in 1957.

Bovet was born on March 23, 1907, in Neuchatel, Switzerland, the only son among the four children of Pierre Bovet and Amy Babut Bovet. Pierre Bovet was aprofessor of experimental education at the University of Geneva and the founder of the Institut J. J. Rousseau. His son later recalled in Time that he and his sisters were "guinea pigs" for testing his father's educationaltheories. Daniel Bovet received his primary and secondary school education in Neuchatel, then studied biology at the University of Geneva, from which hereceived his license in 1927. He did his graduate study in physiology and zoology at the same institution and earned his doctor of science degreein 1929.

Bovet went to Paris in 1929 to become an assistant in the Laboratory of Therapeutic Chemistry at the Pasteur Institute, working under the direction of Ernest Fourneau . In his 1965 article "Role of the Scientist in Modern Society,"Bovet declared that being Fourneau's "pupil and collaborator ... for nearlytwenty years... was the greatest good fortune of my life." Bovet succeeded Fourneau as director of the Laboratory of Therapeutic Chemistry in 1939. It wasthere that he met Filomena Nitti, a fellow researcher and the daughter of Francesco Saverio Nitti, a former prime minister of Italy who had been driven into exile to Paris following Benito Mussolini's rise to power. Bovet and Filomena Bovet-Nitti , wife and collaborator (as she thereafter identified herself), were married in 1938 and she became his collaborator in nearly all of hisresearch, as well as the coauthor of many of his scientific books and articles. They had two daughters and one son, Danièle Bovet, who became a professor of information science at the University of Rome.

In the early 1930s, the German scientist Gerhard Domagk discovered that Prontosil, a dye product, effectively combated streptococcal infections. Prontosilwas a complex chemical, however, and expensive to produce. Bovet and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute reasoned that the therapeutic action of thesubstance was probably due to some part of the drug's molecule that was onlyreleased when the molecule broke down in the body. After months of work and many experiments, they discovered that the active therapeutic agent was sulfanilamide. This product was much cheaper to produce than Prontosil and was soonbeing manufactured in quantity, becoming the first of the so-called "wonderdrugs." Over the next several years Bovet and his associates went on to synthesize many other sulfanamide derivatives that together formed the group of sulfa drugs that were to save millions of lives during World War II and afterward. Domagk was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1939 forhis discovery of the therapeutic action of Prontosil, but it was the work ofBovet and his team that had made sulfa drugs a practical reality.

In 1937 Bovet turned his attention to histamine, a hormone that occurs naturally in all body tissues. When an irritant is introduced, an overproduction offree histamine can occur in some localized area of the body. The free histamine in turn causes swelling or an allergic reaction that often leads to severe discomfort, damage to body tissues, or--in extreme cases--to fatal shock. Bovet was struck by the fact that there was no natural product in the human body that would counteract the negative effects of free histamine; he believedthat what was needed was an artificial substance which would block them. Bovet and his assistants soon synthesized the first antihistamine, although it had too many problems to be a viable commercial product. Between 1937 and 1941,Bovet and others performed some three thousand experiments to find a practical substitute. Eventually several were developed, including Bovet's own discovery, pyrilamine. These were the first of the many antihistamines now used inmodern medicine.

In 1947 Bovet and his family left Paris for Rome, where he was to organize and direct the Laboratory of Therapeutic Chemistry at the Istituto Superiore diSanità. He also became an Italian citizen. It was about this time that he began to study the muscle relaxant properties of curare, the poison certain South American Indians had long used on their arrows. A chemically pure form of curare had been produced earlier and was used to relax body muscles before surgery, thus allowing the surgeon to use much smaller doses of potentially dangerous anesthetics. However, the effects of the curare itself were very unpredictable, and it was also expensive. Bovet set himself the task of finding a synthetic form of the drug that would have the advantages of predictability and low cost. During eight years of work he produced over four hundredsynthetic forms of curare, including gallamine and succinylcholine, the latter becoming widely used. During his research on curare, Bovet spent some timewith the Indians of South America to learn how they produced and used the drug. He later remarked humorously that he had done so out of a spirit of adventure; curare was only the pretext.

Bovet left Rome in 1964 to become professor of pharmacology at the Universityof Sassari on the Italian island of Sardinia. He returned to Rome as director of the Laboratory of Psychobiology and Psychopharmacology of the Italian national research council in 1969. He became professor of psychobiology at theUniversity of Rome in 1971 and remained there as an honorary professor following his retirement in 1982. The positions in Rome reflected still another shift in the focus of his research, indicating an interest in the complex area of mental illness and its treatment through the use of chemicals.

As early as 1957, Time had reported Bovet's belief that the key to mental illness lay in chemistry. His studies centered on the effect of variouschemical compounds on the central nervous system of the human body. While his work did not produce the kind of dramatic practical breakthroughs that he had achieved in sulfa drugs, antihistamines, and muscle relaxants, he did contribute much important basic research to this field.

Frequently collaborating with his wife, Bovet produced several books and overfour hundred articles in the course of his professional life. Before 1947 most of his writings were in French; afterward many appeared in Italian and some in English. However, even this large output does not fully reveal the breadth of his intellectual interests. He was concerned with the impact of scientific discovery on political, social, and economic affairs and with the equallystrong impact of those affairs on science. He illustrated this in "Role of the Scientist in Modern Society." "Unfortunately, in our century," he wrote, "two-thirds of the global population are illiterate and walk barefooted, ten to fifteen per cent suffer from hunger, thirty-three per cent to forty per cent do not have an adequate diet, seventy per cent are not provided with sufficient water supply, and eighty per cent lack adequate hygienic conveniences. Even the best drugs are ineffective for people living in very poor hygienic conditions." Science, he concluded, could not solve all of the world's problems. Personally, Bovet was a humble, enthusiastic man who single-mindedly pursued his quest for scientific progress without personal gain in mind. As Time noted when he received the Nobel Prize in 1957, Bovet had never takenout a patent in his own name and never made any money from his scientific discoveries. He was the recipient of numerous international awards in addition to the Nobel Prize. He died of cancer in Rome on April 8, 1992.

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