History: Rene Dubos finds life in the earth

In 1939, scientist/philosopher Rene Dubos discovered gramicidin, an agent that inhibits the growth of certain types of bacteria. It was the first antibiotic to be clinically tested, and it was used to treat wounds and ulcers in topical form during World War II.

In an article about Dubos, New York’s Rockefeller University Hospital explains that “illnesses such as pneumonia, diphtheria, scarlet fever, anthrax, and streptococcal and staphylococcal infections are caused by gram-positive bacteria – bacteria whose cell walls take up a violet stain known as Gram stain”.

Gramicidin, the article says, inhibits the growth of gram-positive bacteria. “More effective antibiotics soon superseded gramicidin, but Dubos’ discovery launched the antibiotic era and prompted other scientists to renew their stalled investigations into penicillin.”

Along with his vital work as a bacteriologist, Dubos was also a pioneering environmentalist. In an interview cited in a 1982 New York Times article, he said: “I have been reading predictions of the future by those who believe they can predict what the world of tomorrow is going to be like. In all cases, the future of which they speak is merely a grotesque extension of the present – simply more and more loading of our environment with the waste products of technological civilisation.

“In my opinion, there is no chance of solving the problem of pollution – or the other threats to human life – if we accept the idea that technology is to rule our future.”

Dubos was born in Saint-Brice, in northern France, on 20 February 1901. His interest in soil and the environment began early, as he attended high school at the National Institute of Agronomy in Paris.

His studies took him to the US and in 1927 he received his doctorate from the State University of New Jersey, better known as Rutgers University; he spent the rest of his life in the US, becoming a citizen in 1938.

Writing in the February 2006 edition of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Heather Van Epps repeats the idea that Dubos’ discovery of gramicidin “helped revive the stalled interest in penicillin and launched the era of antibiotics”.

As Cosmos recounted in January 2019, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered a “mould juice” he called penicillin in 1928 and published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929. But it was generally ignored until 1940, when Australian researcher Howard Florey and German-born British biochemist Ernst Chain, working at Oxford University, became interested in penicillin and were able to mass-produce it.

Van Epps says the theory that microbes can inhibit other microbes dates to the late 1800s and Louis Pasteur, who “showed that anthrax cultures were robbed of their virulence when exposed to aerobic microbes”.

“Dubos based his early experiments on this principle of antibiosis,” she says, and, she quotes the Carol Moberg biography Rene Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth, “the supremely simple working hypothesis that soil as a self-purifying environment could supply an agent to destroy disease-causing bacteria”.

Dubos died in New York on 20 February 1982. In an obituary, the New York Times says he “brought a profound humanity to the study of man’s harm to himself through environmental pollution”.

It says he “had given up his laboratory work in bacteria and other human pathogens to devote full time to lecturing and writing on behalf of the human environment. He was the author of 20 books, including So Human an Animal, which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1969”.

“Dr. Dubos was of that breed of scientist, more common in Europe than in the United States, who believe that a researcher must reach outside his specialty to make his work and particular view of life accessible to educated people. He was tireless in books, essays, interviews and speeches in setting down what he liked to call his theology of life on earth.”

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