Albert Calmette, pioneering social medicine

From Nice to Lille, via Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, many schools, hospitals and streets are named after Calmette. And for good reason, as all of these were places where Albert Calmette worked to improve hygiene and healthcare. A pioneer of social medicine, his work on tuberculosis focused on both research and health education.


After taking Émile Roux’s course at the Institut Pasteur, because of his experience as a sailor, Albert Calmette was sent by Louis Pasteur in 1890 to open the first Institut Pasteur outside mainland France, in Saigon. Very soon, patients from Cochinchina, the Malay States, Hong Kong and Shanghai were arriving for rabies treatment.

Treatment for cobra bites

At the time, smallpox was raging in Indochina. Albert Calmette organized the production of vaccines adapted to the local climate. He also developed a serotherapy treatment for venomous snake bites. At the time, cobras were killing 21,000 people in India and many in Cochinchina as cobras took shelter in houses during floods.

Contribution to urban hygiene

On his return to France, Émile Roux and Louis Pasteur tasked him with opening an Institut Pasteur in Lille. This was inaugurated in 1899 and he was to stay there for 25 years. His work on public hygiene (sanitation in laborers’ housing, slum prevention, wastewater treatment systems) helped bring sanitation to the city. He also opened dispensaries for laborers. Albert Calmette was a pioneer in social medicine. His work on tuberculosis involved researching the disease itself as well as health education. In 1921, along with Camille Guérin, he developed a tuberculosis vaccine from an attenuated bovine bacillus discovered in 1908, Bacillus Calmette-Guérin or BCG. The BCG vaccine spread worldwide, significantly helping curb the disease. 

Albert Calmette, a trailblazer in an international network dedicated to human health

Émile Roux paid tribute to Albert Calmette in these terms: “It was through his extraordinarily hard work, during his two and a half years in Indochina that Calmette was to show the huge service that microbiology could provide in the country. Calmette’s foundation served as a model for the institutes that have since been set up in all overseas territories, under the influence of our country.

After that, many Institut Pasteur scientists would go on to set up institutes throughout the world: Turkey in 1893, China in 1895, India in 1896, Senegal in 1896, Brazil in 1901, Algeria in 1902, Congo in 1906… This network now has around thirty members and is called the Pasteur Network.

Timeline of the life of Albert Calmette

> July 12, 1863
Born in Nice (Alpes-Maritimes)

> 1881-1887
Studies at the school of naval medicine in Brest. Serves in the French Navy medical corps and takes part in the Chinese campaign and then in the Gabon-Congo campaign.

> 1886
M.D. on malaria.

> 1890-1893
Works as a bacteriology intern under Émile Roux at the Institut Pasteur. Sets up an Institut Pasteur in Saigon in 1891, where he organizes the production of rabies and smallpox vaccines. Dedicates himself to toxicology, studies snake venom and develops an effective serum against all snake bites.

> 1893-1895
Returns to France, where he continues his research at the Institut Pasteur into antivenom serotherapy and a bubonic plague serum (in collaboration with Yersin).

> 1895-1920
Founds and heads the Institut Pasteur de Lille, inaugurated in 1899. An advocate of social medicine. In charge of organizing auxiliary military hospitals during the war.

> 1909 and 1920
Takes part in the foundation of the Algiers branch and the Athens branch.

> 1919 and 1927
Elected to France's Academy of Medicine and Academy of Sciences.

> 1919-1933
In Paris, rebuilds a team to work on the tuberculosis bacillus and BCG.

> 1921
Guérin and Calmette develop the BCG vaccine (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin).

> 1933
Dies in Paris.

Photo: The young Albert Calmette. Copyright: Institut Pasteur/Musée Pasteur

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