Georges Fernand Isidore Widal

Born 1862-03-09
Died 1929-01-14

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French physician and bacteriologist, born March 9, 1862, Dellys, Algeria; died January 14, 1929, Paris.

Biography of Georges Fernand Isidore Widal

Georges Fernand Isidore Widal was born in Dellys, Algeria, the son of an army surgeon. He studied medicine in Paris, became an intern in 1884 and doctor of medicine in 1889, and remained in that city for all his professional life. He became médecin des hôpitaux in 1893, agrégé in 1894. He was appointed professor of internal pathology in 1911, in 1918 for clinical medicine, remaining in office until 1929. He was a member of the Académie de médecine from 1906, from 1919 the Académie des sciences.

Widal was a brilliant speaker and lecturer who took great trouble in preparation. He was described as a precise man who was not self centred and greatly admired his colleagues’ abilities. Together with G. H. Roger and P. J. Teissier he edited 22 volumes of a medical textbook.

The story is told by Clovis Vincent (1879-1947), the famous French neurosurgeon, that he approached Widal with the intention of spending a year with him when he was an intern at the Salpêtrière. The reply he got was “Not until you have won the gold medal”. Vincent won the medal but when he was asked whether he still wished to work with Widal replied, “Oh, no, they say you are too much of a rabbit doctor. I want to get a job where I can learn something of general medicine, the neurologists just talk and do nothing.”

In 1896 Widal developed a procedure for diagnosing typhoid fever based on the fact that antibodies in the blood of an infected individual cause the bacteria to bind together into clumps (the Widal reaction). He also recognized (1906) the body's retention of sodium chloride as a feature of nephritis (inflammation of the kidney) and cardiac oedema (accumulation of excessive fluid in tissues as a result of heart disease), recommending salt deprivation in the treatment of both diseases. He demonstrated the increased fragility of red blood cells in cases of haemolytic jaundice and, with the French physician Georges Hayem, described the acquired form of the disease (the Hayem-Widal type, 1907). During World War I, Widal prepared an antityphoid-paratyphoid vaccine that appreciably reduced typhoid contagion among the allied armies.

He died of a cerebral haemorrhage after an acute attack of gout.

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