Félix d'Herelle

Félix d'Herelle

Félix d'Herelle
Born April 25, 1873
Montreal, Quebec
Died February 22, 1949
Nationality French-Canadian
Fields microbiologist
Known for bacteriophages
Notable awards Leeuwenhoek Medal (1925)

Félix d'Herelle (April 25, 1873 – February 22, 1949) was a French-Canadian microbiologist, the co-discoverer of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) and experimented with the possibility of phage therapy.



Early years

D'Herelle was born in Montreal, Quebec, the son of French emigrants. His father, 30 years older than Felix's mother, died when Félix was 6 years old. Following his father's death, Félix, his mother and his younger brother Daniel, moved back to Paris. From 7 to 17 years of age, d'Herelle attended school in Paris, including the Lycée Condorcet and Lycée Louis-le-Grand high schools. In the fall of 1891, d'Herelle traveled to Bonn where he attended lectures at the University of Bonn "for several months." Thus, d'Herelle only obtained a high school education and was self-taught in the sciences. Between 16 and 24, d'Herelle traveled extensively via money given by his mother. When 16 years old, he started to travel through western Europe by bike. When 17, after finishing school, he traveled through South America. Afterwards, he continued his travels through Europe, including Turkey, where he, at 20 years of age, met his wife, Marie Caire.

At age 24, now father of a daughter, d'Herelle and his family moved back to Canada. He built a home laboratory and studied microbiology from books and his own experiments. Through the influence of a friend of his late father, he earned a commission from the Canadian government to study the fermentation and distillation of maple syrup to schnapps. His father's friend shrewdly pointed out that Pasteur "made a good beginning by studying fermentations, so it might be interesting to you, too." He also worked as a medic for a geological expedition, even though he had no medical degree or real experience. Together with his brother, he invested almost all his money in a chocolate factory, which soon went bankrupt.

During this period, d'Herelle published his first scientific paper, "De la formation du Carbone par les vegetaux" in the May 1901 issue of Le Naturaliste Canadien. The paper is noteworthy for two reasons: it shows an exceptional level of scientific development for a self-taught scientist and reveals a broad level of interest, namely the global balance of carbon in nature. However, the claims of the paper were in error, as d'Herelle contended that the results of his experiments indicated that carbon was a compound, not an element.

Guatemala and Mexico

With his money almost gone and his second daughter born, he took a contract with the government of Guatemala as a bacteriologist at the General Hospital in Guatemala City. Some of his work included organizing defenses against the dread diseases of the time: malaria and yellow fever. He also studied a local fungal infection of coffee plants, and discovered that acidifying the soil could serve as an effective treatment As a side job, he was asked to find a way to make whiskey from bananas. Life in the rough and dangerous environment of the country was hard on his family, but d'Herelle, always adventurer at heart, rather enjoyed working close to "real life", compared to the sterile environments of a "civilized" clinic. He later stated that his scientific path began on this occasion.

In 1907, he took an offer from the Mexican government to continue his studies on fermentation. He and his family moved to a sisal plantation near Mérida, Yucatán. Disease struck at him and his family, but in 1909, he had successfully established a method to produce sisal schnapps.

Return to France

Machines for mass production of sisal schnapps were ordered in Paris, where he oversaw the machines' construction. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he worked for free in a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. He was soon offered the job of running the new Mexican plant, but declined, considering it "too boring". He did, however, take the time to attempt stopping a locust plague at the plantation using their own diseases. He extracted bacteria pathogenic to locusts from their guts. This innovative approach to locust plagues anticipated modern biological pest control using Bacillus thuringiensis also known as Bt.

D'Herelle and his family finally moved to Paris in early 1911, where he worked again as an unpaid assistant in a lab at the Pasteur Institute. He got attention in the scientific community the same year, when the results of his successful attempt to counter the Mexican locust plague with Coccobacillus were published.


At the end of the year, restless d'Herelle was again on the road, this time in Argentina, where he was offered a chance to test these results on a much larger scale. Thus, in 1912 and 1913, he fought the Argentinian locust plagues with coccobacillus experiments. Even though Argentina claimed his success was inconsistent, he himself declared it a full success, and was subsequently invited to other countries to demonstrate the method.

France and phages

During World War I, d'Herelle and assistants (his wife and daughters among them) produced over 12 million doses of medication for the allied military. At this point in history, medical treatments were primitive, compared to today's standards. The smallpox vaccine, developed by Edward Jenner, was one of the few vaccines available. The primary antibiotic was the arsenic-based salvarsan against syphilis, with severe side effects. Common treatments were based mercury, strychnine, and cocaine. As a result, in 1900, the average life span was 45 years, and WWI did not change that to the better.

In 1915, British bacteriologist Frederick W. Twort discovered a small agent that infects and kills bacteria, but did not pursue the issue further. Independently, the discovery of "an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus" by d'Herelle was announced on September 3, 1917. The isolation of phages by d'Herelle works like this:

  1. Nutritional medium is infected with bacteria; the medium turns opaque.
  2. The bacteria are infected with phages and die, producing new phages; the medium clears up.
  3. The medium is filtered through porcelain filter, holding back bacteria and larger objects; only the smaller phages pass through.

In early 1919, d'Herelle isolated phages from chicken feces, successfully treating a plague of chicken typhus with them. After this successful experiment on chicken, he felt ready for the first trial on humans. The first patient was healed of dysentery using phage therapy in August 1919. Many more followed.

At the time, none, not even d'Herelle, knew exactly what a phage was. D'Herelle claimed that it was a biological organism that reproduces, somehow feeding off bacteria. Others, the Nobelist Jules Bordet chief among them, theorized that phages were inanimate chemicals, enzymes specifically, that were already present in bacteria, and only trigger the release of similar proteins, killing the bacteria in the process. Due to this uncertainty, and d'Herelle using phages without much hesitation on humans, his work was under constant attack from many other scientists. It was not until the first phage was observed under an electron microscope by Helmut Ruska in 1939 that its true nature was established.

In 1920, d'Herelle travelled to Indochina, pursuing studies of cholera and the plague, from where he returned at the end of the year. D'Herelle, officially still an unpaid assistant, found himself without a lab; d'Herelle later claimed this was a result of a quarrel with the assistant director of the Pasteur Institute, Albert Calmette. The biologist Edouard Pozerski had mercy on d'Herelle and lent him a stool (literally) in his laboratory. In 1921, he managed to publish a monograph, The Bacteriophage: Its Role in Immunity about his works as an official Institute publication, by tricking Calmette. During the following year, doctors and scientists across western Europe took a heightened interest in phage therapy, successfully testing it against a variety of diseases. Since, on rare occasions, bacteria become resistant against a single phage, d'Herelle suggested using "phage cocktails" containing different phage strains.

Phage therapy soon became a boom, and a great hope in medicine. In 1925, d'Herelle received the honorary doctorate of the University of Leiden, as well as the Leeuwenhoek medal, which is only awarded once every ten years. The latter was especially important to him, as his idol Louis Pasteur received the same medal in 1895). The next year, he was nominated eight times for the Nobel prize, though he was never awarded one.

Egypt and India

After holding a temporary position at the University of Leiden, d'Herelle got a position with the Conseil Sanitaire, Maritime et Quarantenaire d'Egypte in Alexandria. The Conseil was put in place to prevent plague and cholera spreading to Europe, with special emphasis on the sanitary concerns about muslim pilgrim groups returning from Mecca and Medina. D'Herelle used phages he collected from plague-infected rats during his 1920 visit to Indochina on human plague patients, with claimed success. The British Empire initiated a vast campaign against plague based on his results. 1927, d'Herelle himself changed his focus to new targets: India and cholera.

D'Herelle isolated phages from cholera victims in India. As usual, he did not choose a hospital run by European standards, but rather sought out a medical tent in a slum. According to his theory, one had to leave the sterile hospitals and study and defeat illness in its "natural" environment. His team then dropped phage solution in the wells of villages with cholera patients; the death toll went down from 60% to 8%. The whole India enterprise took less than seven months.

United States

D'Herelle refused next year's request by the British government to work in India, as he had been offered a professorship at Yale University, which he accepted. Meanwhile, European and US pharmaceutical companies had taken up the production of own phage medicine, and were promising impossible effects. To counteract this, d'Herelle agreed to co-found a French phage-producing company, piping the money back into phage research. All of the companies suffered from production problems as results from commercial phage medicine were erratic. This was most likely due to the attempt to mass-produce something that was barely understood, leading to damaged phages in the product, or to insufficient amounts thereof. Another possibility is that wrong diagnoses lead to the use of the wrong type of phages, which are specific in the choice of their "victims". Furthermore, many studies on the healing effects of phages were badly conducted. All this led to important parts of the scientific community turning against d'Herelle, who, known for his temper, had made not a few enemies.


But he was already on the move again. In or around 1934, he went to Tbilisi, Georgia. D'Herelle was welcomed to the Soviet Union as a hero, bringing the knowledge of salvation from diseases ravaging the eastern states all the way to Russia. He accepted Stalin's invitation for two reasons: it was said he was enamored of communism, and he was happy to be working with his friend, Prof. George Eliava, founder of the Tbilisi Institute, in 1923. Eliava had become friendly with d'Herelle during a visit to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he had learned about phages in 1926.

D'Herelle worked at the Tbilisi Institute off and on for about a year - and even dedicated one of his books, "The Bacteriophage and the Phenomenon of Recovery," written and published in Tbilisi in 1935, to Comrade Stalin. He had planned to take up permanent residence in Tbililsi and had already started to build a cottage on the grounds of the Institute (it would later house the KGB's Georgian headquarters). But just then, his friend Eliava fell in love with the woman with whom the head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria also happened to be in love, and Eliava's fate was sealed. He was executed and denounced as an enemy of the people during one of Stalin's purges. D'Herelle ran for his life and never returned to Tbilisi. His book was banned from distribution. Then, World War II began. The Georgian period in d'Herelle's career has been investigated on site by the author and medical scientist David Shrayer-Petrov.

France for good

Phage therapy boomed, despite all problems, driven by the military on both sides in an effort to keep the troops safe, at least from infections. D'Herelle could not really enjoy this development; he was kept under house arrest by the German "Wehrmacht" in Vichy, France. He used the time to write his book "The Value of Experiment", as well as his memoirs, the latter cointaining 800 pages.

After D-Day, the new antibiotic drug penicillin became public knowledge and found its way into the hospitals in the west. As it was more reliable and easier to use than phage therapy, it soon became the method of choice, despite side effects and problems with resistant bacteria. Phage therapy remained a common treatment in the states of the USSR, though, until its deconstruction.

Félix d'Herelle was striken with pancreatic cancer and died a forgotten man in Paris in 1949. He was buried in Saint-Mards-en-Othe in the department of the Aube in France.

In the 1960s Félix d’Hérelle's name appeared on a list published by the Nobel Foundation of scientists who had been worthy of receiving the Nobel Prize but did not, for one reason or another. It is believed that d'Herelle was nominated for the prize eight times.

However, France has not completely forgotten Félix d'Herelle. There is an avenue that bears his name in the 16th arrondissement in Paris.


D'Herelle became widely known for his imaginative approaches to important problems in theoretical, as well as applied, microbiology. At the same time, he was widely reviled for his self-advertisement, his exaggerated claims of success and his sharp financial practices. He also had a talent for making enemies among powerful senior scientists.

D'Herelle's main legacy lies in the use of phage in the molecular revolution in biology. Max Delbruck and the "phage group" used bacteriophages to make the discoveries that led to the origins of molecular biology. Much of the initial work on the nature of genetic expression and its regulation was performed with bacteriophages by Francois Jacob, Andre Lwoff and Jacques Monod. In fact, immediately before his studies of the structure of DNA, James Watson had earned his Ph.D. by working on a bacteriophage-related project in Salvador Luria's laboratory. A more detailed account of the use of phage in major biological discoveries can be found on the page, bacteriophage.

Yet d'Herelle himself had scant interest in the field of molecular biology, for he was a life-long Lamarckian, and he clung to his own theory of elementary living "micellae," which would seem hopelessly old-fashioned after proteins were shown to be giant molecules.

Literary note

The novel Arrowsmith written by Sinclair Lewis with scientific help from Paul de Kruif was based to a certain extent on the life of d'Herelle. The novel The French Cottage (Russ. Frantsuzskii kottedzh) by David Shrayer-Petrov deals at length with d'Herelle's experience in Soviet Georgia.

Published works

This is a list of his published books, not papers and minor publications.

  • 1946. L’étude d’une maladie: Le Choléra. French. F. Rouge & Cie S. A., Lausanne. OCLC 11221115
  • 1938. Le Phénomène de la Guérison dans les Maladies Infectieuses. Masson et cie, Paris. OCLC 5784382
    • Russian translation with G. Eliava. 1935. Bakteriofag i fenomen vyzdorovlenija Tiflis Gos. Univ. (Tbilisi National University, Tbilisi, Georgia). OCLC 163085972
    • Georgian translation with G. Eliava. 1935. (cf Summers WC, 1999, page 165)
  • 1933. Le Bactériophage et ses Applications Thérapeutiques. Doin, Paris. OCLC 14749145
    • English translation. with G. H. Smith. 1930. The Bacteriophage and its Clinical Application. p. 165-243. Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Springfield, Illinois. OCLC 347451
  • 1929. Études sur le Choléra. Impr. A. Serafini, Alexandrie. OCLC 15864352
    • English translation, with R. H. Malone, and M. N. Lahiri. 1930. Studies on Asiatic Cholera. Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta. OCLC 25936856
  • 1926. Le Bactériophage et son Comportement. Masson et Cie, Paris. OCLC 11981307
    • English translation, with G. H. Smith. 1926. The Bacteriophage and Its Behavior. The Williams &Wilkins Co., Baltimore. OCLC 2394374
  • with G. H. Smith. 1924. Immunity in Natural Infectious Disease. Williams & Wilkins Co., Baltimore. OCLC 586303
  • 1923. Les Défenses de l'Organisme. Flammarion, Paris. OCLC 11127665
  • 1921. Le Bactériophage: Son Rôle dans l'Immunité. Masson et cie, Paris. OCLC 14794182
    • German translation, 1922. Der Bakteriophage und seine Bedeutung für die Immunität. F. Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig. OCLC 36920828
    • English translation, 1922 The Bacteriophage: Its Role in Immunity. Williams and Wilkins Co./Waverly Press, Baltimore. OCLC 14789160


This article incorporates material from the Citizendium article "Félix d'Herelle", which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License but not under the GFDL.
  • Summers, William C. (1999). Félix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07127-2. 
  • Häusler, T. (2006). Viruses vs. Superbugs.  includes excerpts from his unpublished autobiography Macmillan.[citation needed]
  • D'herelle (2007). "On an invisible microbe antagonistic toward dysenteric bacilli: brief note by Mr. F. D'Herelle, presented by Mr. Roux. 1917". Research in microbiology 158 (7): 553–4. doi:10.1016/j.resmic.2007.07.005. PMID 17855060. 
  • Shrayer David P. (1996). "Felix d’Hérelle in Russia." Bull Inst Pasteur. 94:91–6.
  • Summers (1991). "On the origins of the science in Arrowsmith: Paul de Kruif, Felix d'Herelle, and phage". Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences 46 (3): 315–32. doi:10.1093/jhmas/46.3.315. PMID 1918921. 
  • Duckworth (1976). ""Who discovered bacteriophage?"". Bacteriological reviews 40 (4): 793–802. PMC 413985. PMID 795414. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pmcentrez&artid=413985. 
  • Peitzman (1969). "Felix d'Herelle and bacteriophage therapy". Transactions & studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia 37 (2): 115–23. PMID 4900376. 
  • Lipska (1950). "In memory of Prof. D'Herelle". Medycyna doswiadczalna i mikrobiologia 2 (2): 254–5. PMID 14815355. 

Further reading

  • William C. Summers, Felix d'Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Shrayer David P. Felix d’Hérelle in Russia. Bull Inst Pasteur. 1996;94:91–6.

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