Bernardo Alberto Houssay
Biography of Bernardo Alberto Houssay
Bernardo Alberto Houssay was one of the most prominent and influential Latin American Scientists of the twentieth century. His total dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and his untiring efforts to foster scientific and technical training among his compatriots received worldwide recognition. For more than twenty-five years his Institute of Physiology at the University of Buenos
Aires was the scientific beacon for all of Latin America, and from its laboratories emerged disciples who were to occupy prominent positions in scientific research and training throughout the continent.
Bernardo Alberto Houssay was one of the eight children of Dr. Albert and Clara (née Laffont) Houssay, who had come to Argentina from France. His father was a barrister. Bernardo Alberto was a precocious child who by the age of thirteen had already received his baccalaureate degree with honours from the Colegio Británico, a private school. Thus in 1901, aged 14, he was able to enter the School of Pharmacy at the University of Buenos Aires, from which he graduated first in his class in 1904, seventeen years of age. Houssay subsequently studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires between 1904 and 1910. In 1907, before completing his studies, he took up a post in the Department of Physiology. He began here his research on the physiological activities of pituitary extracts, resulting in a M.D.-thesis published in 1911 which earned him a University prize. To pay for his education and personal expenses, Houssay was working as a hospital pharmacist, working in the hospital Alvear.
In 1908 he was named an assistant in the department of physiology of the Medical School, and 1910 he was appointed Professor of Physiology in the University's School of Veterinary Medicine.
A measure of Houssay’s versatility and capacity for work can be seen in his activities after graduating from medical school. He established a private practice and became chief of a municipal hospital service while continuing as full professor in the School of Veterinary Science and part-time substitute professor in physiology at the Medical School. In 1913 he became Chief Physician at the Alvear Hospital. Beginning in 1915, Houssay took on the additional duties of chief of the section of experimental pathology at the National Public Health Laboratories in Buenos Aires. In the latter capacity he studied the action of snake and insect bites on coagulation, and developed a protective serum against certain spider toxins.
In 1919 Houssay was appointed to the chair of physiology at the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine, and promptly converted the department into a full-fledged Institute of Physiology capable of engaging in experimental investigations. For the next twenty-five years he developed the Institute into one of the most prestigious world centres of physiological research. He remained Professor and Director of the Institute until 1943.
Houssay’s devotion to academic and political freedom collided with the military dictatorship ruling Argentina after the 1943 revolution – Houssay voiced the opinion that there should be effective democracy in the country. Consequently, with 150 other Argentinean academics, he was stripped of his university posts and forced to continue his research in a private laboratory especially organized for him and his collaborators with the support of funds contributed by the Sauberán Foundation and other bodies. This was the Instituto de Biología y Medicina Experimental, where he still remains as Director.
A short-lived restoration of Houssay’s academic position after the general amnesty of 1945 was followed by a second dismissal, ordered by the new government of Juan Perón. Despite numerous offers from other countries, Houssay remained in Argentina and was officially reinstated as director of the Institute of physiology in 1955. He spent his last years directing the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, which he had conceived and founded in 1957. This government organization sought to create new scientific careers, support research institutes, and stem the emigration of technical personnel.
Houssay was an outstanding, largely self-taught scientist who has worked in almost every field of physiology. In the beginning of his career he was influenced by Claude Bernard’s (1813-1878) applications of the scientific method to medical problems. His early interest in the physiology of the pituitary gland and systematic studied regarding the action of insulin eventually led to a recognition of the role played by the anterior lobe of the hypophysis in carbohydrate metabolism. For this work Houssay shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) and Carl Ferdinand Cory (1896-1984) in 1947. Before Houssay’s research, it was commonly accepted that the posterior lobe of the hypophysis played a role in carbohydrate metabolism. After the discovery of insulin Houssay systematically studied the influence of endocrine glands on its activity. He soon discovered that hypophysectomised dogs were very sensitive to the hypoglycaemic action of insulin.
Among the many topics he investigated are also the physiology of circulation and respiration, the processes of immunity, the nervous system, digestion, and snake and spider venoms.
By 1930, Houssay had proved the diabetogenic effect of extracts from the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Conversely, there was a remarkable decrease in the symptomatic severity of pancreatic diabetes after removal of the anterior pituitary lobe. The new vistas in endocrinological research opened by Houssay’s attention to the anterior portion of the pituitary gland were momentous, leading to the discovery of a number of hormonal feedback mechanisms involving the thyroid, adrenals, and gonads.
With his disciples Houssay also studied the pancreatic secretion of insulin, the hormonal control of fat metabolism, and the factors regulating arterial blood pressure. Over 600 scientific papers and several books attest to the breadth as well as the depth of his research.
Houssay’s activities were widely admired and recognized. A long-time member of the Argentine Academy of Medicine and founder of the Argentine Association for the Advancement of Science and the Argentine Biological Society, Houssay received many honours, including degrees from Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard. In addition he was an associate foreign member of many scientific societies in the Unites States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, as well as honorary professor of 15 universities.
In 1947 Houssay was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. That year the prize was divided, one half being awarded jointly to Carl Ferdinand Cory and Gerty Theresa Cori, née Radnitz, "for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen". The other half went to Bernardo Alberto Houssay, "for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar".
For more than five decades most of Houssay’s research papers were published in leading Argentine journals such as Revista de la Sociedad argentina de biologia, Revista da la Associación médico argentina, Boletin de la Academia nacional de medicina de Buenos Aires, and Prensa médica argentina. Others appeared in foreign publications, such as Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de biologie (Paris) and American Journal of Physiology.
Dr. Houssay is the author of over 500 papers and of several books. He has won many prizes ranging in time from that of the National Academy of Sciences, Buenos Aires, in 1923, to the Dale Medal of the Society of Endocrinology (London) in 1960.
Apart from his research, Houssay has been active in promoting the advancement of university and medical education, and of scientific research, in Argentina.
His wife was Dr. Maria Angelica Catan, a chemist, who died in 1962. They left three sons, Alberto, Hector, and Raul.