Bernardo A. Houssay Biography (1887-1971)


Bernardo Alberto Houssay was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 10, 1887; his parents had emigrated from France before his birth. His father was Albert Houssay, a lawyer who also taught literature at the National College ofBuenos Aires, and his mother was the former Clara Laffont.

Houssay completed his secondary education at the Colegio Británico atthe age of 14. Three years later he earned his degree in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, receiving the highest honors in hisclass. He then enrolled in the school of medicine at the university and wasgranted his M.D. at the age of 23. Houssay's medical studies took somewhat longer to complete than might have been expected, given his previous academic record, because he simultaneously worked as a hospital pharmacist in order tohelp pay for his expenses.

Having completed his studies, Houssay was appointed provisional professor, and, in 1912, full professor of physiology at the university's school of veterinary science. In 1913, he became chief physician at Alvear Hospital as well as a laboratory director in the newly created National Public Health Laboratories. Houssay's 1919 return to the university as chair of physiology marked the beginning of his greatest impact in the field. It was at the university that he established and became director of the Institute of Physiology, a research center that was to attain worldwide distinction. At its peak, the Institute was home to 135 graduate students from every part of the world, extending Houssay's influence far beyond the borders of Argentina. In 1920 Houssay married María Angélica Catán, a chemist. All three of their children, Alberto Bernardo, Héctor Emilio José, and RaúlHoracio, earned medical degrees.

In spite of his many administrative responsibilities, Houssay continued to bevery active in research throughout his life. He was intensely interested inevery aspect of physiology, from the cardiovascular to the respiratory to thegastrointestinal systems. But his major accomplishments resulted from his studies of the endocrine system, studies that dated to research begun while hewas still a medical student. That research received an important impetus in 1921 when Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best and Scottish physiologist John Macleod discovered the role of insulin in the development of diabetes.

From 1923 to 1937, Houssay studied the interaction between the pancreas and insulin, on the one hand, and the pituitary gland (then called the hypophysis)and its secretions, on the other. One of his first major discoveries was therole of the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland in the metabolism of carbohydrates. A more important discovery was that the oxidation of sugars in the body depends not simply on the presence or absence of insulin, but on a complex interaction between insulin and other hormones, such as prolactin and somatotropin, produced in the pituitary gland. For his unraveling of this process,Houssay received a share of the 1947 Nobel Prize for physiology.

The political turmoil that swept Argentina in the 1940s altered Houssay's career. During the uprisings of 1943, he signed a petition calling for the democratization of the Argentine government. As a result, he was dismissed from his post at the university. Two years later, the dismissal was voided, and Houssay returned to the university. He was there only briefly, however, before hewas asked to retire, which he did in 1946. In the meantime, he and some colleagues had founded the independent Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine in order to continue with their research. Even when Houssay was yet again reinstated to his old post at the university in 1955, he continued to serveas director of the Institute.

Houssay was a major leader of Argentine science for many years. He founded, assisted in the establishment of, or served as head of nearly every major scientific organization in the country between 1920 and 1970. He was honored notonly by his own nation, but by scientific societies all over the world. He was given honorary doctorates by more than 25 universities and was elected to membership in scientific societies in Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Houssay died in Buenos Aires on September 21, 1971.

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