Pierre Lépine, virus explorer

Known for discovering a poliomyelitis vaccine, this researcher with a keen interest in the history of medicine also furthered use of the microscope and worked on health for Paris City Council.


From a family of physicians in Lyon, Pierre Lépine began his medical career as an intern at Hôpitaux de Lyon. Sent to Central America during his studies, he met bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, who asked him to accompany him to Honduras on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Major responsibilities in his early career

Aged just 24, he was appointed Professor at the American University of Beirut but, quickly realizing he was more interested in research, he decided to focus on that area. On his return to Paris, he accepted an invitation to work alongside Constantin Poitiers at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, a position he left in 1930 to head up the Hellenic Pasteur Institute for nearly five years. He then returned to the Institut Pasteur in Paris as head of the rabies department.

Discovery of the poliomyelitis vaccine

After studying how the virus was transmitted and its resistance in the external environment, he worked on a vaccine, exchanging information with fellow scientist Jonas Salk, who was working on a different strain. The Lépine poliomyelitis vaccine, which was rapidly rolled out and became mandatory in 1964, ensured that infantile paralysis virtually disappeared in France.


Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor, Commander of the Academic Palms, recipient of the Gold Medal from the Academies and of the Special Medal of the City of Paris, Pierre Lépine also served as deputy mayor and municipal councilor in charge of public hygiene, hospital sanitation and drug abuse, from his retirement in 1971 until his death.


An innovative vision of virology

Pierre Lépine’s research into smallpox and his poliomyelitis vaccine were to be the starting point of modern studies of viruses. He introduced formalin and then beta-propiolactone to inactivate the rabies virus, meaning the vaccine could be lyophilized and stored for the first time. Using various techniques, many of which he himself devised, he studied the structure of many viruses and the cellular lesions they caused. His research led him to assert that viruses contained only one nucleic acid. Although initially criticized, this view is now accepted.


Timeline of the life of Pierre Lépine:

> August 15, 1901

Born in Lyon to a father who was a clinical professor in psychiatry.

> 1924-1926

Works on yellow fever at the Hospital of Tela, in Honduras.

> 1925

Defends his M.D. on Sanitary conditions in tropical America.

> 1925-1926

Professor of general pathology and pathological anatomy at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

> 1928-1931

Becomes head of laboratory under Constantin Levaditi at the Institut Pasteur, where he first works on poliomyelitis.

> 1930

Completes a field study on multiple sclerosis in London.

> 1931-1935

Becomes director of the Institut Pasteur and professor of bacteriology at the Athens School of Hygiene.

> 1932

Becomes a corresponding member of the French Biology Society.

> 1935-1939

Heads the rabies department and takes part in the Institut Pasteur's course on viruses.

> 1938

Co-founds the French Microbiology Society and works with Constantin Levaditi on the book Les ultravirus des maladies humaines.

> 1950-1957

Develops what will be called the Lépine vaccine against poliomyelitis.

> 1957

Director of the virology course at the Institut Pasteur.

> 1961

Becomes a member of the human biology and medical sciences section at the French Academy of Sciences in Paris.

> 1971

Municipal councilor of the 16th arrondissement of Paris in charge of public hygiene, hospital sanitation and drug abuse.

> 1979

Heads a delegation to Asia to prepare for the arrival of 1,500 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

> 1989

Dies in Boulogne-Billancourt.


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