Thérèse and Jacques Tréfouël, an inseparable pair

Near the Institut Pasteur in Paris, at the exit for Pasteur metro station is Place Jacques et Thérèse Tréfouël. A couple about town, these two great chemists put their first names and surnames to discoveries that helped save countless human lives.

They met in 1917 when, having both enrolled late for a practical lab class during their studies at the faculty of sciences in Paris, they were put working together. From this chance arrangement, the pair became remarkably close-knit, cemented by marriage and shared scientific careers. They joined the Institut Pasteur in the early 1920s, working in the laboratory of Ernest Fourneau, the founder of French medicinal chemistry. They developed active compounds to fight syphilis, sleeping sickness and malaria before discovering a new class of antibacterial agent, sulfonamides, which brought them worldwide renown. Jacques Tréfouël became head of the laboratory where they worked in 1938 and Thérèse gradually took over the running of the laboratory in 1940, when her husband became Director of the Institut Pasteur, a position he was to hold for 24 years. Working in the greatest secrecy, he set up the Resistance medical service, stockpiling equipment parachuted in from London in the Institut Pasteur's basement. This period earned the Institut Pasteur the name "the underground pharmacy". Jacques continued his research as a chemist with Thérèse and their team discovered the effect of dapsone in treating tuberculosis and leprosy. Near the end of their lives in their house near Fontainebleau, Jacques Tréfouël, an enthusiast of wood and wrought iron work, crafted reproductions of antique furniture while Thérèse, a skilled upholsterer, complemented her husband's work. The husband and wife team worked together till the end.

The sulfonamide revolution

In 1935, the Tréfouëls developed new compounds called sulfonamides, which were active against numerous bacteria. “This paved the way for a new therapy against infectious diseases across the world with unrivaled efficacy compared to all conventional drugs. It was the dawning of a new era in the field of medicine,” reads a tribute to the Tréfouëls in 1980 at the French Academy of Sciences. “The first two medical triumphs were at Pasteur Hospital (…) Two children – one of whom was in a coma – were saved. They had purulent streptococcal meningitis, which was almost always fatal.” One of these children later became a physician and wrote to the Academy: “I would certainly like to add my thoughts to your eulogy of Mr. and Mrs. Tréfouël, who saved my life.” It is impossible to put a figure on the number of lives that have since been saved by sulfonamides, which are still in use today.

Timeline of the life of the Trefouëls

> June 19, 1892

Thérèse Boyer is born.

> November 9, 1897

Jacques Tréfouël is born.

> 1913-1919

They study chemistry at the faculty of sciences in Paris. Jacques is mobilized in 1915 (awarded the Croix de guerre in 1918).

> 1921

They marry and start working at the Institut Pasteur, in the medicinal chemistry laboratory, on compounds that were to prove active in syphilis (Stovarsol), trypanosomiasis (Orsanine) and malaria (Rodoquine).

> 1927-1932

Initial accolades: Parkin prize awarded by the Institut de France, Louis prize and Paultre prize awarded by the French Academy of Medicine.

> 1935

With Daniel Bovet and Frederico Nitti, they demonstrate the role of sulfonamides, the first effective anti-bacterial agent (on streptococcus, meningococcus, pneumococcus, gonococcus, etc.).

> 1940-1964

Head of the medicinal chemistry laboratory, Jacques is appointed Director of the Institut Pasteur. Continues his scientific work with Thérèse, who gradually takes over the running of the laboratory (succeeding him as head in 1955). In 1954, the Tréfouëls discover a substance that is active against tuberculosis and which will also be used to treat leprosy. In 1963, Jacques is awarded the title of Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor by General de Gaulle himself. Thérèse retires.

> 1965-67

Jacques is elected President of the French Academy of Sciences and then the French Academy of Medicine.

> July 11, 1977

Jacques dies in Paris.

> November 9, 1978

Thérèse dies on her husband’s birthday.


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