Corneille Jean-François Heymans Biography (1892-1968)

physiologist, pharmacologist

Born in Ghent, Belgium on March 28, 1892, Corneille Jean François Heymans was the eldest of six sons of Jan-Frans Heymans, a noted pharmacologist who founded the J. F. Heymans Institute of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Ghent. He and his father were to become a scientific team ofconsiderable reputation--one of the few father-son scientific teams in history.

Heymans' career was delayed by four years of service as a field artillery officer in the Belgian Army during World War I. His performance won him the Belgian War Cross and the Order of the Crown of Leopold, among other decorationsfor valor.

After the war, Heymans received his medical degree from the University of Ghent in 1920. His father was his principal teacher and later would become his primary co-researcher in the experiments that ultimately led to the Nobel Prize in 1938. Had his father not died in 1932, he most likely would have sharedthe award with his son.

The year following his graduation from the university, Heymans married BertheMay, an ophthalmologist. The young couple studied abroad for several years,permitting Heymans to establish valuable contacts with some of the leading scientists of the day in his field, among them Eugène Gley at the Collège de France, Maurice Arthus at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Ernest H. Starling at University College in London, and Carl Wiggers at Western Reserve University's medical school in Cleveland, Ohio.

Heymans returned to the University of Ghent in 1922 to become a lecturer in pharmacodynamics, the study of the action of drugs in the body. He succeeded his father as professor of pharmacology and director of the Institute in 1930,but father and son continued to collaborate on many projects, including respiratory experiments that revealed previously unknown facts about how breathing is regulated in human beings and animals.

At that time, it had been well known for half a century that changes in bloodpressure were associated with changes in the rate and the depth of breathing. The mechanism enforcing these changes in respiration was not known. It wasbelieved, however, that alterations of breathing rates were the result of thedirect action of blood pressure on the brain's respiratory center, the medulla. It was assumed that the medulla was able to detect changes in the blood circulating through it and regulate the rate of breathing accordingly.

Another scientist, Heinrich E. Hering, however, had noted a reflex action inthe carotid artery (two major arteries on each side of the neck) that appeared to influence the heart beat. Through a series of experiments originally intended to refute Hering's contention, Heymans instead demonstrated that the reflex in the artery also exerted control over breathing.

The effort to determine this fact involved what became known as the "isolatedhead" technique. The head of an anesthetized dog, attached to its body onlyby the vagus aortic nerves, was kept alive by the shared circulation of bloodof a second anesthetized dog. The Heymans found that when they induced hypertension (increased blood pressure) in the isolated body of the first dog itsmedullary respiratory center was stimulated or inhibited appropriately. But when the aortic nerves were severed, all respiratory response to changes in the blood pressure ceased. This experiment enabled the Heymans team to demonstrate conclusively that the aortic nerves were the reflex mechanism's sole sensory pathway.

The experiment thus disproved the classical theory of the blood's direct action on the brain and provided the evidence for an alternative explanation. TheHeymans later determined the sites at which changes in the blood were detected. They discovered that the reflex in the carotid artery contains pressure-sensitive areas, or presso-receptors, that can detect even slight changes in blood pressure. They also found small structures on the inside walls of the carotid artery and the aorta. These chemoreceptors responded to changes in thechemical composition of the blood. By making clear why certain drugs affectedrespiration and circulation, Heymans' discovery opened the way for improvements in the treatment of many diseases.

Heymans' colleagues appreciated the thoroughness and accuracy of his work, which he documented in over eight hundred articles and papers published duringhis career. Heymans also won great recognition as a gifted teacher.

Many scientific honors came to him. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Alvarenga Prize of the (Belgian) Académie Royale de Medécine, the Prix Quinquennal de Medécine of the Belgian government, the Pius XI Prize of the Pontificia Academia Scientiarum and the Monthyon Prize of the Institut de France. Heymans held sixteen honorary degrees and belonged to more than forty scientific and medical societies.

Throughout his career, he traveled widely both as a lecturer and a tourist. He lectured at several major American universities, including Harvard and theUniversity of Chicago. He was fluent in many languages and conducted seminarsin Montevideo, Chile, to help organize scientific exchange programs betweenthat country and his own. He visited India on behalf of the World Health organization. During World War II, he helped organize relief efforts to provide food for Belgian children. In so doing, he made several trips to Berlin to obtain the cooperation of German officials in getting Red Cross food shipments into Belgium.

Heymans and his wife had four children: Marie-Henriette, Pierre, Joan and Berthe. In 1963, upon his retirement from the Heymans Institute, he was designated professor emeritus. He continued to visit the institute several times a week until his death following a stroke in Knokke, Belgium on July 18, 1968.

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