Today, a president killed, and a Nobel Prize given.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The president of France, Sadi
Carnot, was fatally stabbed by an anarchist in
1894. (By the way, the Sadi Carnot who helped set
the foundations of thermodynamics was the
president's uncle. But, like his uncle, the
president had also been educated as an engineer at
the École Polytechnique in Paris.)
In any case, the vein leading to President Carnot's
liver had been severed, and he bled to death in the
hospital. But a young medical student in Lyon,
Alexis Carrel -- just shy of his twenty-first
birthday -- realized what this meant.
At the time, no one was able to do anything so
delicate as suturing a vein. But Lyon happened to
be the silk capital of France, and Carrel went to
an expert. She was Madame Leroidier, a silk
embroiderer. She taught him the use of tiny needles
and fine thread. Carrel developed a delicate
technique for sewing severed vessels together in
such a way that blood inside would never touch
Dr. Nicholas Tilney tells us how this discovery
played out. It was the first step toward
transplanting organs. Carrel and oth-ers soon
applied his suturing technique to transplants and,
eight-een years after Carnot was stabbed, Carrel
won the Nobel Prize for his work in
Hopes for doing radical surgical experimentation
were slim in rural France, so Carrel moved to
Chicago in 1904 to work with a doctor Charles
Guthrie. There they carried out some real
experiments -- like transferring the head of one
dog to the body of another. Of course they were
simultaneously perfecting techniques for
transplanting kidneys and other human organs. But
Guthrie grew fed up with Carrel's zeal for
self-promotion and they fell out in 1908.
Carrel moved to the Rockefeller Institute in New
York. One photograph from New York shows Carrel
with two greyhounds -- one black, the other tan.
The black dog has one tan leg, and the tan one, a
black leg! Very dramatic, but routine kidney
transplants would remain out of Carrel's reach
until after his death in 1944.
One lingering problem was supplying blood while a
transplant procedure halted its normal flow.
Charles Lindbergh heard about that, and he devised
a pump to circulate blood without doing serious
damage to it. In 1938 the famous pair, Lindbergh
and Carrel, were displayed with the pump on the
cover of Time Magazine.
Today, that photo carries sinister overtones.
Lindbergh was then far too friendly with the Nazis,
and Carrel was openly sympathetic. When WW-II
began, Carrel went back to the collaborationist
Vichy government in France. He became Director of
something with the ominous name, Foundation for
the Study of Human Problems.
Carrel died of a heart attack in the last days of
that evil empire. And, if you've survived kidney
failure, I expect you'd rather remember him as one
reason that you're alive and well today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
N. L. Tilney, Transplant: From Myth to
Reality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
For on-line Alexis Carrel biographies, see the
following two web sites:
And for more on Lindbergh's contributions, see:
The father of both thermodynamicist Sadi Carnot and
the prime minister's father, was mathematician Lazare
Carnot. (He turns out to have been a member of the
ruling body of France in the period between the Reign
of Terror and the rise of Napoleon.)
I am grateful to Sarah Fishman, UH History
Department, and Rob Zaretsky, UH Honors College for
very helpful counsel on this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.