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Charles Robert Richet

Born 1850
Died 1935

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French physiologist, born August 26, 1850, Paris; died December 4, 1935, Paris.

Biography of Charles Robert Richet

Charles Robert Richet Charles Robert Richet was the 1913 recipient of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, "in recognition of his work on anaphylaxis", his term for the some times deadly reaction in a sensitised individual against a second injection of an antigen.

Richet was the son of the surgeon Louis Dominique Alfred Richet (1816-1891). He entered medical school but was bored with anatomy and surgery, and wrote poetry and drama to divert himself.

Already while a student, Richet assisted the surgeons Léon Clément le Fort (1829-1893) and Aristide Auguste Stanislas Verneuil (1823–1895). However, serving as an interne des hôpitaux in 1872, he was placed in charge of a female ward, where he witnessed a hypnotic experiment. Over the next two years he produced numerous hypnotic trances in his patients. He coined the term "metapsychism" for parapyschological research. This experience probably influenced him to abandon surgery and devote himself to physiology.

From 1876 and 1882 Richet worked in the laboratories of Étienne Jules Marey (1830-1904) and Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907) at the Collège de France, and of Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian (1826-1887) at the Faculty of Medicine. He also made histological examinations in the laboratory of Charles Philippe Robin (1821-1885), and studied digestion in fish at a marine biological station directed by Paul Bert (1830-1886). In 1878 Richet passed his agrégation examinations and was named professeur agrégé at the Faculty of Medicine.

In his doctoral thesis, Richet demonstrated that sensory nerves deprived of their blood supply die gradually from the periphery toward the centre. Subjecting normal humans to electrical stimuli, he found that stimuli too weak to be perceived if widely separated were felt if they were closer together. Repeating William Beaumont’s (1785-1853) famous experiments on digestion, Richet showed that an organic acid with a partition coefficient approaching that of an isomer of lactic acid forms during digestion, and suggested that the lactic acid derived from the fermentations of certain digesting aliments. For many years his main body of work was on body heat and the role of the central nervous system in controlling temperature.

The work leading to the elucidation of the phenomenon of anaphylaxis began when Richet and Jules Héricourt in 1888 discovered a new type of staphylococcus bacterium in an epithelial tumor of a dog. Adopting the strategy that had become standard since Pasteur’s investigation of fowl cholera, they grew a pure culture of the bacteria. Rabbits inoculated from the culture died, but in dogs the injection produced only a large abscess. After years of extensive investigations, Richet in 1902 described the phenomenon and coined the term anaphylaxis in 1902. In 1907 he began to construct a general theory of anaphylaxis based on his accumulating observations and those of his colleagues.

Richet was professor at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, from 1887 to 1927.

Richet was a man of many talents and interests beyond physiological research and writing. He was attracted to aviation through Étienne-Jules Marey’s (1830-1904) experiments on bird flight, and in the 1890s collaborated with Victor Tatin (1843-1913), a pioneer of aviation. He encouraged and financed Louis Charles Bréguet (1880-1955) with whom he created the first helicopter, the "gyroplane Bréguet-Richet" who took the air in 1907.

Richet was a dedicated pacifist and a number of general history books in order to demonstrate the malevolent effects of war. Some of these were published under the name Charles Epheyre. He also wrote philosophical works, poetry, novels, and drama. He spent part of World War I at the front investigating problems in the transfusion of blood plasma. In 1926 he received the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

From 1878 Richet headed the journal Revue scientifique, and from 1917 with Eugène Gley and Tessier published Journal de physiologie et de pathologie générale.

    "Metaphysics is not yet officially a science, recognized as such. But it is going to be. . . . At Edinburgh, I was able to affirm before 100 physiologists that our five senses are not our only means of knowledge and that a fragment of reality sometimes reaches the intelligence in other ways. . . . Because a fact is rare is no reason that it does not exist. Because a study is difficult, is that a reason for not understanding it? . . . Those who have railed at metaphysics as an occult science will be as ashamed of themselves as those who railed at chemistry on the ground that pursuit of the philosopher's stone was illusory. . . . In the matter of principles there are only those of Lavoisier, Claude Bernard, and Pasteur—the experimental everywhere and always. Greetings, then, to the new science which is going to change the orientation of human thought."

We thank C. Picard for information submitted. Charles Robert Richet was her great-grandfather.

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