Jules Bordet, M.D.

Jules Bordet

 Brief Bio

Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet was born in Soignies, Belgium, on June 13, 1870, Bordet grew up in Brussels, where his father, a teacher, relocated the family in 1874. Bordet developed an interest in chemistry while in secondary school and purportedly carried out dangerous chemical experiments in the makeshift laboratory he set up in the attic of the family home. At the age of 16, he entered the Free University of Brussels, where he earned his M.D. in 1892 after only four years of study rather than the customary five. Supported by a scholarship from the Belgian government, Bordet moved to Paris to work in Metchnikoff's laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. He returned to Brussels in 1901 to head the newly formed Anti-Rabies and Bacteriological Institute, which in 1903, with the blessing of Madame Pasteur, he renamed the Pasteur Institute in honor of its namesake in Paris.

For the next four decades, Bordet served as director of the Pasteur Institute in Brussels. From 1907 to 1937, he was also a professor of bacteriology at the University of Brussels. Bordet continued his experimental research throughout these years, pausing only from 1914 to 1918 when the German occupation of Belgium made research impossible. Even through this interruption, Bordet remained productive, writing a classic book on immunity and infectious disease, Traité de l'Immunité dans les Maladies Infectieuses. At the time of the Nobel announcement in October 1920, Bordet was in the United States on a lecture tour to raise funds for his institute; he did not return to Europe in time to attend the presentation ceremony

Bordet's pace slowed only in the late 1930s. He became professor emeritus at the University of Brussels in 1937, and, three years later, as Germany again occupied Belgium, he stepped down from his position at the Pasteur Institute, handing the directorship over to his son, Paul. Although deteriorating eyesight made lab work impossible, Bordet regularly visited the institute and attended scientific conferences well into his eighties.

Bordet died in his home in Brussels on April 6, 1961, at the age of 90.

 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1919 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries relating to immunity.”

 AAI Service History

Joined: 1960

 Nobel Prize in Science

Jules Bordet was awarded the 1919 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discoveries relating to immunity," including the discovery of complement, the development of complement fixation tests, and the identification of the bacterium that causes whooping cough.

Bordet conducted the experiments that led to his discovery of complement while working in the laboratory of Élie Metchnikoff at the Pasteur Institute in 1895. Bordet was studying the phenomenon known as bacteriolysis that Richard Pfeiffer had described the year before. Pfeiffer discovered the phenomenon when he injected cholera bacteria into the abdominal cavity of immunized guinea pigs. He had noted that bacteriolysis also occurred in nonimmunized guinea pigs if serum from immunized guinea pigs was injected along with the cholera bacteria. Because the antiserum did not kill the bacteria in vitro, Pfeiffer concluded that cells in the abdominal cavity of the guinea pigs must play a central role in bacteriolysis. Experimenting with different combinations of cholera bacteria, antiserum, and serum, Bordet discovered that antiserum would in fact induce bacteriolysis in vitro as long as it was fresh. Once antiserum had aged and reached a temperature of 55 degrees Celsius, it lost its bacteriolytic properties. Adding fresh serum from a nonimmunized animal restored the potency of the antiserum, however, leading Bordet to conclude that bacteriolysis was dependent on the presence of two distinct components: a specific antibody, which did not appear to be susceptible to fluctuations in temperature, and a second component that was heat sensitive. Bordet noted that this second component, now known as "complement" (he referred to it as "alexin"), is present in the blood of all animals, whether immunized or not.

Having already made a fundamental immunological discovery by the age of 25, Bordet continued to contribute to the field for another four decades. Three years after elucidating the role of complement in bacteriolysis, he began experimenting with red blood cells. Injecting the red cells of one species into another, he discovered the phenomenon of hemolysis, in which the immune system attacked the foreign red cells. Moreover, he found that complement performs the same function in hemolysis as it does in bacteriolysis. In 1901, with the help of his brother-in-law, Octave Gengou, he developed the complement fixation test, the diagnostic method upon which August Paul von Wassermann based his syphilis test. Five years later, when Bordet's son contracted whooping cough, Bordet and Gengou used samples of the boy's sputum to successfully isolate the causal agent of the disease, the eponymous bacterium, Bordetella pertussis. In the 1920s, Bordet turned his attention to the study of bacteriophage, which remained his primary research interest until his retirement in 1940.

Looking back on Bordet's remarkable career, Cyril L. Oakley, professor of bacteriology at the University of Leeds, noted that Bordet's work was "characterized by clear-cut crucial experiments, by a meticulous technique, and by a clear understanding of the need for proper controls, very unusual at the time." Despite this close attention to detail, Oakley observed, Bordet never lost view of the larger picture: he "was able to correlate one subject with another in a way that made all biological science his province."

 Awards and Honors

  • Prix de la Ville de Paris, 1911
  • Emile Chr. Hansen Prize, Swedish Medical Society, 1914
  • Pasteur Medal, Swedish Medical Association, 1920
  • Fellow, Royal Society (UK), 1916
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1919
  • Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, 1919
  • Foreign member, Academy of Medicine (France), 1921
  • Foreign member, Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1927
  • Grand Cordon de l'Ordre de la Couronne de Belgique, 1930
  • Foreign member, National Academy of Sciences, 1935
  • Grand Cordon de l'Ordre de Léopold, 1937
  • Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur, 1938

 Institutional/Biographical Links