Childhood & Early Years
Charles Jules Henry Nicolle was born on 21 September 1866 in Rouen, France. His father, Eugène Nicolle, was a doctor at the local hospital and a lecturer in natural medical science. His mother was the daughter of a watchmaker in Bayeux.
Charles was born second of his parent’s three sons. His elder brother Maurice grew up to be a physician. He later became a Professor at the Pasteur Institute, Paris and the Director of the Bacteriological Institute of Constantinople. His younger brother Marcel became an artist.
Young Charles started his education at Lycée Pierre-Corneille de Rouen, where he received classical education and was drawn towards literature, history and arts. Concurrently, he had private tuition in biology from his father at home.
In 1884, in order to fulfill his father’s wish, Charles enrolled at the Medical School of Rouen. Unfortunately, Eugène Nicolle died in the same year. So in 1887, Charles followed his elder brother to Paris and continued his study at the Medical School of Paris.
Charles acquired his medical degree in 1889 and obtained medical internship at Hospice d'Ivry. Next in 1890, Nicolle entered Pasteur Institute and started working on his doctoral thesis under the guidance of Pierre Paul Émile Roux. Concurrently, he worked as a demonstrator in the microbiological section.
In 1892, Nicolle attended a course on microbiology and on its completion he was promoted to the post of an assistant. Finally he received his M. D. degree in 1893. His doctoral dissertation paper was titled ‘Recherches sur la chancre mou’ (Researches on the soft chancre).
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On receiving his M.D. degree Nicolle went back to Rouen in 1893. In the same year, he received appointment as the ‘Professeur suppléant’ in pathology and clinical medicine at the Medical School of Rouen.
He remained at Rouen until 1902. In 1896, he became the head of the bacteriology laboratory at the Medical School. Although he tried to convert it into an eminent center for teaching and research on microbiology on the model of Pasteur Institute, he was not very successful.
It was also his ambition to try and create a center for production of anti-diphteria serum at the Medical School of Rouen. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in that also. However, on personal level, he made certain progress towards this goal and also undertook research work on cancer.
His research on the control of venereal diseases was another of his major works at Rouen. He successfully inoculated syphilis and chancroid agents into lower monkeys. Creating the first sanatorium around Rouen, in Oissel with A. Halipré was another of his important works.
In 1902, he was invited to become the Director of Pasteur Institute at Tunis, North Africa. He took up the position in 1903 and served in that capacity until his death in 1936.
During his tenure as Director of Pasteur Institute, he turned the institute into a distinguished hub for bacteriological research. Subsequently, he also built a center for the production of serums and vaccines, which would combat infectious diseases at Tunis.
At the same time, Nicolle carried on extensive research on bacteriology. In 1903, he began his research on malaria and brucellosis and then in 1907, he started working on trachoma.
Simultaneously, he also collaborated with local doctors on Mediterranean splenomegaly in children and recognized that Leishmania donovani is responsible for such disease. By 1910, he showed that dogs were the vector of this disease.
In 1908, Nicolle discovered a new parasitic protozoan called Toxoplasma gondii along with L. Manceaux. They found it in the blood of gondi, a small rodent, native to South Tunisia.
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Initially they thought that the organism was a member of the genus Leishmania; therefore, they described it as "Leishmania gondii. Later they realized that they have discovered a new organism, which causes disease toxoplasmosis. Consequently, they named it Toxoplasma gondii.
Next, he started researching on typhus, which used to take up an epidemical proportion in Tunisia every winter. It was also rampant in jails. In 1909, he identified that the vector of the disease was none other than body louse and one can protect himself from the disease simply by getting rid of it.
Subsequently, he published two reports at the French Academy of Sciences. They were ‘Reproduction expérimentale du typhus exanthématique chez le singe’ and ‘Transmission expérimentale du typhus exanthématique par le pou du corps’. The later was written in collaboration with Charles Comte and E. Conseil.
Next, Nicole along with E. Conseil undertook further research into protection against typhus. In 1910, he developed convalescent serum injections as protection against the disease.
From 1911 onwards, Nicolle began working on recurring fevers. He not only introduced preventive vaccination for Malta fever, but also contributed immensely towards the understanding of the disease. In addition, he also discovered how tick fever was transmitted and worked on scarlet fever, rinderpest, measles, influenza, tuberculosis etc.
In 1918, towards the end of the World War I there was an outbreak of influenza over a large area, which threatened to take the form of an epidemic. Nicolle worked on it and with Charles Lebailly and showed that it was caused by a filtering virus, which he named ‘infra-microbe’.
Later in 1919, he started further research on typhus on rats and guinea pigs. Soon he distinguished between lice-borne epidemic typhus and marine typhus, which is borne by rat-flea. Subsequently, he also developed the concept of ‘non-appearing’ infection.
He continued working until the end. In 1923, he co-founded and chaired the International League against Trachoma. He also travelled a lot visiting Greece in 1924 and Mexico in 1931.
Nicolle is best remembered for his work on typhus. During his stay at Tunis he observed that the disease razed the countryside in the winter and subsided in summer. He also observed that those who transmitted typhus even at the door of the hospital ceased to be contagious as soon as they are admitted.
He noticed that on being admitted to the hospital the patients were first made to have a shave and then a bath. Their clothes were confiscated as well. He suspected that it was either patient’s clothes or their skin, which carried the vector of the disease. He further surmised that the culprit was none other than the body louse.
He proved it in 1909 after a series of experiments involving chimpanzees. He further showed that the transmission actually occurred through the excrement of the louse, which contains a large number of microbes. The person becomes infected when he/she unknowingly rub it into the skin or eye.
Nicolle also tried to make a simple vaccine for typhus. He crushed the lice and mixed it with blood serum, collected from recovered patients. He successfully tried it first on himself and then on a few children. However, the practical vaccine was later invented by Polish biologist Rudolf Stefan Weigl.