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Louis-Antoine Ranvier

Born 1835
Died 1922

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French anatomist and histologist/pathologist, born October 2, 1835, Lyon; died March 22, 1922, Vendranges, Loire.

Biography of Louis-Antoine Ranvier

Louis Antoine-Ranvier was the son of Jean-François-Victor Ranvier, a businessman who had retired early to devote himself to public administration. He began his medical studies in Lyon but changed to Paris, where he passed the examination in 1860 and then began working in the Paris hospitals. He obtained his doctorate in 1865.

With his close friend André-Victor Cornil (1837-1908), Ranvier established a private laboratory where they gave courses in histology for students. Here Cornil taught pathological anatomy while Ranvier taught normal anatomy. From this collaboration resulted in Manuel d’histologie pathologique, a unique work in France, where the leading pathological anatomists still disdained the microscope. The book was widely read by students throughout Europe and is considered a milestone in nineteenth-century medicine.

In 1867 the collaboration with Cornil ended when Ranvier became Claude Bernard's (1813-1878) preparateur and deputy director – directeur adjoint – of the newly founded laboratory of histology which had just been established at the Collège de France. Ranvier made his lodgings there into a small histology laboratory, which in 1872 was annexed to Bernard's chair of experimental medicine and given official recognition as the Laboratoire d’Histologie of the École des Hautes Études.

In 1875, Antoine Baron Portal’s (1742-1832) defunct chair of anatomy at the Collège de France was recreated specially for Ranvier as the chair of general anatomy; and for a time the histology laboratories at the École des Hautes Études and at the Collège de France were combined. But eventually the laboratories were separated, with Ranvier’s student Louis Malassez (1842-1909) becoming director of the laboratory at the École des Hautes Études.

In 1887 Ranvier became a member of the Academy of Sciences. In 1886 he was elected member of the academy of medicine, and in 1887 he became a member of the Institute.

A world centre
Ranvier's dynamic way of approaching the study of microscopic anatomy made his laboratories a world centre for students of histology. However, his teaching, which he conducted mainly in the laboratory, tended to be dryly technical and focused on his own research. He therefore attracted only a small audience, but his printed leçons were widely read. For several decades his Traité technique d’histologie (1875-1882) was a leading textbook in the field. At the beginning of his career, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852.-1934) took Ranvier’s text as his scientific “Bible.”

In 1897 Ranvier and Edouard-Gerard Balbiani (1823-1899) founded the Archives d’anatomie microscopique, the first journal in France devoted exclusively to microscopical studies.

By 1900 Ranvier retired to his estate in Thélys (or Roanne in Loire), where he spent the next twenty-two years almost totally removed from the scientific scene. He never married. On his death he left parts of his fortune to the town of Roanne for the establishment of a sanatorium for tuberculosis.

As a person Ranvier was always precise and accurate, he possessed the ideal personality for the painstaking histological research for which he became famous. His work was noted for its precision, thoroughness, and simple but effective techniques. He preferred disassociations (or fine dissections) to sectional cuts; and whenever possible he worked with thin membranes that were naturally dissociated. His few section cuts were usually made by hand rather than with the microtome. Osmic acid, alcohol, and bichromates were his usual fixing agents. Like Bernard, he had only contempt for statistics. Although he recognized the necessity for forming hypotheses in his experimental work, he disliked theorizing.

Because Ranvier rarely discussed the theoretical implications of his works, he is almost unknown to historians today. Independent, unsociable, often rude, and seemingly insensitive, he was admired and feared more often than loved by his students and colleagues.

Ranvier maintained the importance of learning the relation between structure and function: "Il faut étudier leurs propriétés et leurs fonctions à l'aide de l'expérimentation le plus delicate, il faut faire, en un mot, l'histologie expérimentale. Tel est le but suprême des nos recherches, telle est la base de la médecine future."
It is necessary to study their property and their function with the aid aid of the most delicate experimentation, it is necessary in a word to make histology experimental. Such is the supereme goral of our research, such is the basis of future medicine.

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