Hélène Sparrow: microbe hunter

A Polish-born French physician and biologist, Hélène Sparrow lived through wars and revolution, moving between soldiers’ bedsides and her research laboratory.


In 1915, Hélène Sparrow, a young physician raised in Kiev, joined the Russian army to combat epidemics on the eastern front and later joined the Kiev Institute of Bacteriology. This was where she started to work on a disease that caused more deaths than weapons during World War I: typhus. She wrote her PhD thesis on the topic at the Warsaw Hygiene Institute, in her native Poland, where she fled during the Russian revolution.

Training in the Pasteur network

In 1923, she left to train with Institut Pasteur scientists. In Lille, she assisted with the first BCG preparations by Calmette and Guérin. She then left for Strasbourg, Brabant, and then the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where she took the microbiology course. She next trained at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis with the scientist who was to become her mentor: Charles Nicolle, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1928 for his typhus research.

Uncovering the mystery and combating bacteria

On her return to Poland, she organized a vaccination campaign against scarlet fever. She became Professor at Warsaw University, where she held the chair in bacteriology. Alongside her research activity, she was also involved in combating cholera and in organizing health monitoring for Poles repatriated from Russia. In 1931, she traveled to Mexico and Guatemala with Charles Nicolle, who two years later hired her at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis.

During World War II, she continued her scientific work in the city of Tunis, then under bombardment. She sheltered French refugees such as André Gide, and hid Polish resistance fighters and deserters from the German army. She continued her research on typhus and other diseases well into old age, traveling to Ethiopia at 67 to study outbreaks of fever for the WHO. "One of the best-known personalities in international epidemiological circles of the past 25 years.” On her death in 1970, her obituary in the British Medical Journal read: “Her scientific brilliance, phenomenal energy and enthusiasm (…) matched her great beauty and enormous charm.”


When Hélène Sparrow was her own guinea pig

In 1921, Hélène Sparrow did something that made the headlines at the time. The famous pediatrician Robert Debré, her admirer and friend, wrote: “She hoped to attenuate the agent responsible [for typhus] (…) and turn the pathogen into a vaccine product as was being attempted by researchers in various laboratories around the world. To verify her hypothesis, Hélène Sparrow injected herself with her own preparation, but the pathogenic agent was not attenuated enough and she became extremely ill. Her terrified friends and family wondered what this illness could be. It was only then that Hélène Sparrow revealed what she had done. She was lucky to survive...” Robert Debré saw this as an episode that clearly demonstrated "Hélène Sparrow’s strength of character, providing a more eloquent portrayal than any words of praise.


Timeline of the life of Hélène Sparrow

> June 5, 1891
Born near Kiev (Russia) to Polish parents.

> 1915
Becomes a physician in the medical services of the Russian army.

> 1918-1920
Joins the university clinic in Dorpat (Estonia), then moving to the Kiev Institute of Bacteriology.

> 1920
Appointed head of the department of preventive vaccinations at the State Institute of Hygiene in Warsaw. Travels to Grodno (Belarus) to work on cholera.

> 1921-1933
Works on epidemic typhus at the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research in Lwów (Poland) and organizes health monitoring for Poles repatriated from Russia (1922).

> 1923-1924
Takes internships in the Institut Pasteur in Lille and Brussels and at the Strasbourg Institute of Hygiene. Studies microbiology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.

> 1925
Takes an internship on typhus at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis with Charles Nicolle.

> 1925
Sent by the League of Nations to conduct mass vaccination campaigns against scarlet fever in Poland, helped by Robert Debré.

> 1928
PhD thesis topic: The problems of vaccinations against epidemic typhus. Appointed associate professor of the Faculty of Medicine at Warsaw University and then professor, Chair of Bacteriology.

> 1930-1933
Organizes diphtheria vaccinations in Poland.

> 1931
Completes a field study on typhus in Mexico and Guatemala with Charles Nicolle.

> 1933
Becomes head of laboratory at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis and obtains French citizenship.

> 1940
Develops the “Durand-Sparrow” anti-typhoid vaccine.

> 1945-1960
Teaches American and English bacteriologists.

> 1949
Becomes head of the BCG department at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis.

> 1958
Travels to Ethiopia to work on relapsing fever for the WHO.

> November 13, 1970
Dies in Corsica.

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