Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Alexis Carrel: the sunshine and the shadow

Philip R. Liebson
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Alexis Carrel. Unknown photographer. 1912. From Popular Science Monthly Volume 81, on the Internet Archive. Via Wikimedia.

Dr. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) was as complex as his glass perfusion pump apparatus. A brilliant research surgeon, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine before his fortieth birthday for his work on vascular suture and the transplantation of blood vessels and organs, and later developed techniques that were predecessors of organ transplantation. He was also a strong supporter of eugenic theories and endorsed euthanasia of the criminal and insane in a book that was published in the mid-1930s before the implementation of death camps and gas chambers in Nazi Germany. In the 1936 German introduction of his book, at the publisher’s request, he added praise for the Nazi regime, which did not appear in the editions in other languages.

He was not alone in the United States in his support of eugenics. The idea of a superior Anglo-Saxon race (although Carrel was French) was proposed by such renowned scientists as the biologist Charles B. Davenport, the psychologist Henry Goddard, and the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1933, who all believed in Nordic superiority. Osborn opined in an International Conference on Eugenics in 1921 that “science has enlightened government in the prevention and spread if disease . . . it must also enlighten government in the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society.”1

Carrel was raised in Lyon, France and trained in surgery there. He did experimental research in physiology at the University of Chicago for two years until in 1906 he became one of the first members of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. He remained at the Institute, now Rockefeller University, until returning to France in the late 1930s where he joined the Center of Studies of Human Problems. In 1941 under the Vichy government, this became the French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems and Carrel, as one of the founders, became regent. The Foundation produced some beneficial activities, but because of his position there, Carrel would have been a candidate for arrest when Paris was liberated in August 1944; however, he died that November.

The assassination of French president Sadi Carnot in 1894 may have been partially responsible for Carrel’s Nobel Prize in 1912. Carnot sustained a knife wound and bled to death because his portal vein could not be reconnected by surgeons. This led Carrel to investigate and develop techniques for suturing blood vessels after he took lessons in sewing and embroidery. Over the next two decades he developed vascular suturing techniques that are still used today.

Early in his career at Rockefeller, he devised approaches to transplantation of organs. In addition, he devised techniques for tissue culture. He was interested in senescence of tissue and for over twenty years from 1912 he maintained tissue from an embryonic chicken heart with supporting nutrients. Parenthetically, in the 1940s radio mystery Lights Out, one episode portrayed the effect of a scientist making a chicken heart grow until it consumed the world.9 However, Carrel’s embryonic tissue remained in its Pyrex flask for the duration of its viability. He was also successful in growing sarcoma cells in tissue culture.

During World War I he returned to France and with the English chemist Henry Dakin developed a technique of treating wounds with the use of a chlorine solution (Carrel-Dakin solution). This was a great advance in wound treatment, since antibiotics were not yet available. The Rockefeller Institute opened an Army auxiliary hospital in part to promote this wound irrigation method to military surgeons.

In order to study organ transplantation, he collaborated with Charles Lindbergh in 1935. Lindbergh sought Carrel’s help in determining whether his sister-in-law’s heart, damaged by rheumatic heart disease, could be repaired by valvotomy. Carrel, being a thoracic surgeon, would have been interested in such a procedure. Working together, they produced the first perfusion pump, which allowed for the development of open-heart surgery and organ transplantation. Apparently Lindbergh, with his mechanical skills from airplane repair, was able to develop a machine that was more practical than the one that Carrel had been working on. Lindbergh and Carrel became close friends and shared political and social views, especially concepts of racial superiority. From their work they co-authored the book The Culture of Organs. It would seem they were interested in “culture” in every sense of the word.

In the mid-thirties, Carrel published Man the Unknown, which had a wide circulation. It was essentially a study of the metaphysics of the knowledge of the human body in relation to developing knowledge of the sciences. Accordingly, he indicated that there were natural laws that man should follow so that humanity did not degenerate, instead of the current course of civilization. The work dealt not so subtly with racial theories in regard to propagation of the superior man and eugenics in society. Thus, mankind would evolve to a higher plane with the leadership of elite intellectuals.

Carrel’s work with the French Foundation for Human Studies during the Vichy period included initiating a prenuptial certification that ensured the good health of spouses, especially involving sexually transmitted diseases, and the classification of French secondary school students for selection of future education based upon scholastic performance.

Although Carrel was a scientist and physician, he was involved in one episode that may have been responsible for his leaving France in the early 1900s because of the approbation of his fellow physicians. He was named as a prime witness by someone who had experienced healing at Lourdes, which was detrimental to his reputation. A book written by him about his involvement, The Voyage to Lourdes, which was published after his death, indicated a possible supernatural explanation.

Despite notoriety in some circles because of his racial beliefs, Carrel was honored throughout the scientific world. Aside from his early Nobel Prize in Medicine, he received honorary doctorates from institutions such as Columbia, Princeton, and Brown as well as membership in international scientific societies. France awarded him the Legion of Honor and similar awards were awarded in other European countries and by the Holy See. A lunar crater was named after him as a tribute to his scientific breakthroughs. In 2002 the Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston established the Lindbergh-Carrel Prize, which is given to major contributors to “development of perfusion and bioreactor technologies for organ preservation and growth.”

His accomplishments in medicine were immense. On the other hand, his racial or eugenic theories, which were widely believed at the time by scientists and social philosophers, led to efforts to sterilize so-called inferior persons in Europe and the United States.



  1. Karabel J. The Chosen. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston New York, 2005, p. 83.
  2. www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1912/carrel/biographical
  3. Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967.
  4. Dutkowski P, de Rougemont O, Clavien PA. Alexis Carrel: genius, innovator and ideologist. Am. J. Transplant. 2008; 8: 1998– 2003.
  5. Toledo-Pereyra LH. Classics of modern surgery: the unknown man of Alexis Carrel – father of transplantation. J. Invest. Surg. 2003; 16: 243– 246.
  6. Dente CJ, Feliciano DV. Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) Nobel Laureate, 1912. Arch. Surg. 2005; 140: 609– 610.
  7. Limjoco UR, Landon CW, Ragland JJ. The contributions of Alexis Carrel to the management of contaminated wounds. Can. J. Surg. 1995; 38: 183– 187.
  8. Comroe JH. Who was Alexis Carrel. Cardiovasc. Dis. 1979; 6: 251– 270.
  9. Dunning J. The Encyclopedia of Radio. Oxford University Press, 1998 p.400



PHILIP R. LIEBSON, MD, received his cardiology training at Bellevue Hospital and the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center, where he served on the faculty for several years. A professor of medicine and preventive medicine, he has been on the faculty of Rush Medical College since 1972 and held the McMullan-Eybel Chair of Excellence in Clinical Cardiology.


Fall 2021  |  Sections  |  Surgery

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