Childhood & Early Life
He was born on January 11, 1924, in Dijon, the capital town of Burgundy to Raymond Guillemin and Blanche Rigollot Guillemin. His father was a machine toolmaker.
He studied at public schools and the lycée in Dijon. Thereafter he completed BS from the ‘University of Burgundy’ in 1942.
In 1944 he earned MS from the ‘University of Burgundy’.
However his studies got interrupted due to the ongoing ‘Second World War’. He joined French underground while the Nazis occupied France and helped the refugees to getaway to Switzerland.
He obtained his M.D. degree from the ‘University of Lyon’ in 1949.
A lecture by the distinguished Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye in Paris on the latter’s alarm reaction and the endocrinology of the general adaptation syndrome, had a profound influence on him.
After interacting with Selye and receiving a modest fellowship from Selye's funds, he moved to Canada in Montreal, Quebec to pursue postgraduate doctorate studies and joined the ‘Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery’ at the ‘Université de Montréal’. There he worked with Selye and earned Ph.D. in Physiology from the university in 1953.
During his tenure at the ‘Université de Montréal’, he had the opportunity to learn experimental endocrinology in a program that was conducted jointly by the university and the ‘McGill University’
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After completing his Ph.D. in 1953 he joined ‘Baylor College of Medicine’ in Houston, Texas, in its Department of Physiology as Assistant Professor and remained in the post till 1962. Thereafter he became a Professor of Physiology in the College and served the position till 1970, thus serving the ‘Baylor College of Medicine’ for a total of 18 years.
He started research on endocrinology and examined the hypothesis of English anatomist Geoffrey W. Harris that proposed that hypothalamus, which is situated at the base of the brain with the pituitary gland just below it, releases hormones that are circulated in the blood and these hormones control the pituitary gland.
He along with Schally worked at Baylor and applied the mass spectroscopy procedure and a new device called radioimmunoassays (RIAs), developed by physicists Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and Solomon Berson, which aided in isolating and identifying chemical structures of hormones. Thus Guillemin and Schally became two such avant-gardes who isolated, identified and ascertained the chemical nature of hormones.
Meanwhile from 1960 to 1963 Guillemin concurrently worked as Professor of Endocrinology at the ‘Collège de France’ and in 1963 became a naturalized citizen of the US.
He was inducted by the ‘Baylor University’ as Director of the Laboratory for Neuroendocrinology, by which time his scientific cooperation with Schally not only ended but culminated into an intense competition in ascertaining hypothalamic hormones.
In order to conduct his research work he collected sheep hypothalami from slaughterhouses and according to him and chemist Roger Burgus, who worked with him, they obtained around five million hypothalamic fragments from brains of sheep that encompassed handling of brain tissues of around five hundred tons.
In 1968 he and his associates became successful in isolating thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) or the thyrotropin-releasing factor (TRF) generated by the hypothalamus, which stimulates release of thyrotropin (TSH), a thyroid stimulating hormone.
In 1969 both Guillemin and Schally through their independent research came out with the structure of TRH or TRF.
He and his colleagues then went on to isolate and identify the chemical structure of other hormones and chemical substances. These include somatostatin, a hormone that restricts the secretion of other hormones like growth hormone and the thyroid stimulating hormone; and the luteinizing-releasing factor (LRF) that regulates reproductive functions of a body.
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He then focussed his investigations on another class of substances, known as neuropeptides and studied endorphins that are released by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Main function of endorphins is to restrict the transmission of pain signals and thereby act as natural pain medication substance of the body.
He also studied the two closely associated protein complexes with totally opposite biological effects, the activin and the inhibin, the peptides that participate in controlling the menstrual cycle.
From 1970 until his retirement in1989 Guillemin remained a resident fellow and research professor of the ‘Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ in California.
Some of the books he has authored include ‘Pharmacological Control of Release of Hormones including Anti-Diabetic Drugs’ (1962); ‘The Brain as an Endocrine Organ’ (1978); and ‘Hypothalamic Control of Pituitary Functions: The Growth Hormone Releasing Factor’ (1986).
He signed a petition with other Nobel Laureates appealing a delegation of the United Nations’ ‘Committee on the Rights of the Children’ to go to China to visit Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, a Tibetian child, identified by Tenzin Gyatso - the 14th Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, who since 1995 is living under house arrest in the country.
He is an enthusiast of arts and has an impressive collection of contemporary American and French paintings. His collection also includes pre-Columbian art objects and artefacts from across the globe.
Guillemin is also a gifted abstract impressionist artist, who creates images in his Machintosh computer and thereafter applies inkjet process or lithography to transfer the creations in paper or canvas. The art works of Guillemin have been displayed in renowned galleries of America and Europe.
Personal Life & Legacy
Sometime in 1950 he had a fatal attack of tubercular meningitis. This is when he came across Lucienne Jeanne Billard, a nurse, who took care of him during his illness.
In 1951 he married Lucienne, who later became a professional harpsichord player. The couple are blessed with five daughters Elizabeth, Chantal, Helene, Cecile and Claire and a son François.