Charles J. H. Nicolle Biography (1866-1936)


Born in 1866, in Rouen, France, Charles Jules Henri Nicolle was the son of physician Eugène Nicolle. Charles took his medical degree in 1893 in Paris, then returned to Rouen for a staff position in a hospital. Shortly thereafter, he married Alice Avice. Nicolle agreed in 1902 to assume the directorship of the Institute Pasteur in Tunis, Tunisia. Until his death in 1936, Nicolle lived and worked in Tunis with occasional lecturing in Paris.

Affiliated with the original Institute Pasteur (which was founded in Paris in1888), the institute in Tunis was basically an organization in name only. Over the years to come, however, Nicolle improved a run-down antirabies vaccination unit into a leading center for the study of North African and tropical diseases. It was in Tunis where Nicolle accomplished his groundbreaking work on typhus. He became intrigued by the observation that an outbreak of typhus did not seem to take hold in hospital wards as it did among the general populace of the city. Although the contagion infected workers who admitted patientsinto the hospital, it did not affect other patients or attendants in the actual wards. Those who collected or laundered the dirty clothes of newly admitted patients typically came down with the disease.

Realizing that the washing, shaving, and providing of clean clothes to the new patient was possibly the key to the pattern of infection, Nicolle initiateda series of experiments in 1909 to confirm his suspicion of the arthropod-borne nature of typhus. He theorized that lice, which attached themselves to the bodies and clothes of human beings, transmitted the disease, so he began his investigation by infusing a chimpanzee with human blood infected with typhus, then transferred the chimpanzee's blood to a healthy macaque monkey. Whenthe fever and rash of typhus was seen on the monkey, Nicolle placed twenty-nine human body lice obtained from healthy humans on the skin of the macaque. These lice were later placed on the skin of a number of healthy monkeys, whichall contracted the disease.

For his research into the cause of typhus, Nicolle was awarded the 1928 NobelPrize for physiology or medicine. Once Nicolle isolated the relationship between typhus and the louse, preventative measures were established to counterunsanitary conditions. The development of the insecticide DDT by Paul Müller in 1939 was the most effective prophylactic against typhus.

Nicolle is also responsible for other important contributions to the scienceof bacteriology. Stemming from his research into typhus was his recognition of a phenomenon known as "inapparent infection," a state in which a carrier ofa disease exhibits no symptoms. This theoretical discovery suggested how diseases survived from one epidemic to another.

Nicolle, along with a variety of other colleagues over time, also researchedAfrican infantile leishmaniasis, which affected humans, and a related diseasein dogs. Another significant discovery concerned the role of flies in the transmission of the blinding disease trachoma. For these and other works, Nicolle received the French Commander of the Legion of Honor and was named to theFrench Academy of Medicine. In 1932 he became a professor in the College de France.

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