- God’s Eugenicist: Alexis Carrel and the Sociobiology of Decline
In this exemplary biography of the Nobel prize–winning surgeon Alexis Carrel, Andrés Reggiani manages to provide a balanced account of a man whose life had much about it that was unsavory. A lifelong misanthrope and cultural pessimist, Carrel (1873–1945) was a strange and apparently anachronistic character: an anti-democrat in a democratic century, a scientist hostile to the mainstream of modern materialistic medicine, and a mystically religious man who fervently believed in the biological regeneration of humankind. Along with combing the [End Page 751] archives and providing a clear account of Carrel’s life and work, Reggiani has given a full account of Carrel as an exemplar of the peculiar blend of spiritualism and scientific utopianism that was remarkably widespread in the era after 1870 in scientific and medical milieus throughout Europe and North America. But whereas most scientists attracted to the spiritual dimension were fascinated by spiritism, telepathy, and mediums, Carrel’s spiritualism was deeply influenced by mystical Catholicism, miracles, prayer, and healing.
Carrel was raised in a deeply Catholic family in the French Lyonnais. Trained as a surgeon at the Lyon Medical School, he showed an early gift for imaginative surgical procedures, inventing a revolutionary method for suturing blood vessels before the age of thirty. Despite this early success, he was unable to pass the medical exams for hospital practice and eventually migrated to North America, where he worked in medical labs in Montreal, Chicago, and eventually at the newly founded Rockefeller Institution in New York, where he spent his career until World War II. Carrel’s own explanation for this singular professional trajectory was discrimination on the part of the French medical elite, who failed to understand his youthful interest in the scientific validity of the healing miracles that occurred at the Catholic shrine at Lourdes. He thereafter nourished a hatred of the Republican political and medical elite that led him eventually into a professional and scientific collaboration with Vichy.
While working at the Rockefeller Institute, Carrel adapted his vessel-suturing techniques to the more ambitious problem of organ transplants. Though his work proved difficult for others to reproduce, Carrel became expert at providing ultra-sterile environments for performing these surgeries and addressed himself as well to the biology of tissue rejection, which he found to be directly related to the biological differences between donors and receptors. Because he was able to keep tissues alive for considerable periods outside the human body, he was praised as a kind of medical magician and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1912. Though he later co-invented (with Charles Lindbergh, a lifelong friend) a perfusion pump that enabled him to keep organ tissue alive for considerable periods of time, Carrel’s real interests lay elsewhere.
In 1935 he published L’Homme cet inconnu (Man the Unknown in English), a book whose premise was that humans were degenerating both physically and morally in the urban, industrial, and secular environment of modern civilization. Natural selection no longer operated to reject the weak, the imbecile, or the deviant; the emerging welfare states not only kept them alive but recognized them as full citizens, which Carrel believed was a defect typical of democratic societies. In a vision reminiscent of Auguste Comte, Carrel wrote of “scientist-monks” who would intervene to biologically regenerate humanity and reintegrate the lost spiritual dimension of human life into the improved organism. His scheme for accomplishing this task would be an intensive testing and differentiation of human beings to whom a series of voluntary eugenic solutions would be applied. Carrel’s models for this perfecting of humankind were drawn from racial norms of health and fitness that inspired many of the fascist and racial movements in twentieth-century Europe and North America. [End Page 752]
In the last chapters of the book Reggiani shows us how Carrel was led to return to France...