Dubos, René (1901–1982)
René Dubos transformed the understanding of soil microorganisms by studying them in their natural state, as opposed to the practice common in his time of studying them in laboratory conditions. Following the logic of the Russian bacteriologist Sergei Winogradsky, Dubos believed that the microorganisms themselves were transformed under lab conditions. Dubos isolated several antibacterial substances from soil microorganisms, which led to the discovery of important antibiotics. Later in his career Dubos focused increasingly on ecology, stressing the importance of a holistic view to problem solving, taking into account the complex relationships between humans and the environment.
Dubos was born on February 20, 1901, in Saint- Brice, France. He was the only child of Georges-Alexandre Dubos and Adeline Madeleine de Bloedt. When Dubos was 13 his father moved the family to Paris to set up a butcher shop that Dubos and his mother ran while his father fought in World War I. Dubos's father died of injuries sustained in the war. Dubos married Marie Louise Bonnet, and before her death of tuberculosis in 1942, the couple collaborated on The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, which was published in 1952. In 1938 Dubos became a U.S. citizen.
In 1921 Dubos graduated with a B.S. in agricultural science from the Institut National Agronomique in Paris. He then moved to Rome to take on the position of assistant editor of the International Agriculture Intelligence, an academic journal published by the International Institute of Agriculture, which was part of the League of Nations. The soil microbiologist Selman Waksman convinced Dubos to pursue graduate study in soil microbiology at Rutgers University, helping to secure the French student a research assistantship at the university's State Agricultural Experiment Station. Dubos also served as an instructor in bacteriology while he composed his dissertation on the decomposition of cellulose in paper by soil microorganisms. Rutgers granted him a Ph.D. in 1927.
Dubos jumped at the opportunity to join the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City with a fellowship in the department of pathology and bacteriology, where he worked enthusiastically under the bacteriologist Oswald Avery. Except for a two-year stint in the early 1940s at Harvard Medical School as a professor of tropical medicine Dubos spent most of his career at the Rockefeller Institute, which promoted him to professor in 1957 and to professor emeritus in 1971. That year the State University of New York at Purchase named him director of environmental studies.
While at the Rockefeller Institute Dubos made the discoveries that established his scientific significance. In 1930 he isolated an enzyme in a soil microorganism that could decompose the part of the bacillum that causes lobar pneumonia in humans. Nine years later he isolated from Bacillus brevis another antibacterial substance that he named tyrothricin, which became the first commercial antibiotic; it later proved too toxic for mainstream use as it killed red blood cells. This discovery proved more important, in paving the way for other antibiotics.
In 1968 Dubos published his most important book, So Human an Animal, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. He also won the 1963 Phi Beta Kappa Award for The Unseen World, as well as the 1961 Modern Medicine Award and the 1976 Tyler Ecology Award. In 1980 his name graced the René Dubos Center for Human Environments in New York City, which extended his support of grass-roots environmentalism. Dubos died of heart failure on February 20, 1982, in New York City.