Childhood & Early Life
He was born on August 26, 1850, in Paris to Alfred Richet and Eugenie, née Renouard. His father was a Professor of Clinical Surgery in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris.
He completed his studies in Paris and received his Doctor of Medicine in 1869.
He had interest in literature and during his youth whenever he got bored with anatomy and surgery, he used to indulge himself in writing poetry and drama.
As a student he assisted surgeons namely Aristide Auguste Stanislas Verneuil and Léon Clément le Fort.
In 1872, while still studying, he became an interne des hôpitaux at the ‘Salpêtrière’ hospital in Paris. Richet was inducted as in charge of a female ward where he witnessed works of French neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot on hysterical patients.
After observing the hypnotic experiments, he took interest in the subject and produced many such hypnotic trances in his patients for the next couple of years. Presumably these experiments and know-how influenced him to dedicate himself in physiology instead of developing a career in surgery. The term ‘metapsychism’ was coined by him.
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During 1876-82, he worked in the labs of Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot and Étienne Jules Marey at the ‘Collège de France’ and thereafter in the lab of Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian at the ‘Faculty of Medicine’. In the lab of Charles Philippe Robin, he made investigations related to histology. He worked in a Paul Bert directed marine biological station and examined digestion in fish.
In 1878 he became a Doctor of Sciences. Through his doctoral thesis, he showed that the sensory nerves that lack blood supply slowly die from the periphery towards the center.
From 1878 to 1902 he served as editor of the scientific journal, ‘Revue Scientifique’.
He repeated the research work on human digestion conducted by famous US surgeon William Beaumont, who became renowned as "Father of Gastric Physiology".
He worked extensively for years on body heat and the function played by central nervous system in temperature control. The system of thermoregulation in homoiothermic animals was examined by him. Not much was known about procedures applied by animals lacking cutaneous transpiration to protect them from overheating as well as to get warm from cold stage prior to research work by Richet between 1885 to 1895 on shivering due to temperature and polypnoea.
From 1887 to 1927 he served as Professor of Physiology in the Faculty of Medicine at the ‘Collège de France’ in Paris.
While pursuing research on therapeutics in November 1888 he demonstrated that vaccination of blood of animals against an infection prevents them from the infection and he used this principle to tuberculosis. On December 6, 1890, he first applied serotherapeutic injection on human being. Further in 1900 he showed that dogs suffering from tuberculosis could be cured by feeding them raw meat and milk.
In 1888 he and Jules Héricourt examined an epithelial tumour of a dog and found out a new type of staphylococcus bacterium in it. They developed a pure culture of the bacterium by adopting the standard strategy followed since experiment of fowl cholera by renowned French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur.
While conducting experiments he observed that a dog that he injected sea anemone (Actinia) toxin for protection could stand the antigen. However a second dose given after three weeks developed anaphylaxis in the dog.
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Thus when harmful and fatal responses resulted on second exposure of the antigen rather than causing prophylaxis that is prevention, in 1902 he coined the word ‘aphylaxis’ for the life-threatening allergic reaction, where ‘a’ denotes without and ‘phylaxis’ denotes protection. The term was later altered to anaphylaxis.
He had varied interests other than his main interest - physiology. The experiments done by Étienne-Jules Marey on bird flight fascinated him about aviation and saw him collaborating with French engineer Victor Tatin between 1890 and 1897. He guided and financed Louis Charles Bréguet and their collaboration saw creation of ‘gyroplane Bréguet-Richet’, the first helicopter that took to the air on September 29, 1907.
He had great interest in hypnosis and extrasensory perception and in 1891 he set up the ‘Annales des Sciences Psychiques’ with Dr. Dariex. He remained in the company of many famous spiritists and occultists of that time like Gabriel Delanne and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing.
In 1898 he became a member of ‘Académie de Médecine’.
In 1901 he showed that by decreasing the content of sodium chloride in food, potassium bromide performs effectively for epilepsy treatment so much so that the therapeutic dose decreases to 2 g from 10 g.
He became the president of the Society for Psychical Research in the UK in 1905. The term ‘ectoplasm’ was coined by Richet who experimented with the likes of William Eglinton, Elisabeth D'Espérance and Eva Carrière.
In 1907 he started to develop a general theory of anaphylaxis which was based on observations made by him and his colleagues. His research work on anaphylaxis aided in elucidating diseases like asthma and allergic rhinitis as also other allergic reactions to foreign substances. The research also helped in explaining some cases related to intoxication and sudden death, which remained incomprehensible earlier.
The ‘Académie des Sciences’ inducted him as a member in 1914.
In 1917 he became co-editor of ‘Journal de Physiologie et de Pathologie Générale’. Many papers on physiology, experimental pathology, pathological psychology, normal psychology, physiological chemistry and several research works that he conducted in the physiological lab of the Faculty of Medicine, Paris were published by him.
He was inducted by the ‘Institut Métapsychique International’ in Paris as the honorary president in 1919 and became full-time president in 1929.
Some of his works on parascientific subjects are ‘Treatise on Metapsychics’ in 1922, ‘Our Sixth Sense’ in 1928 and ‘The Great Hope’ in 1933.
He had profound interest in literature and wrote several books on history, many of which were issued with pseudonym Charles Epheyre. He also penned down poetries, dramas, novels and philosophical works.