Vascular Surgery Chronicles: Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel: Strange Bedfellows

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How does one of the smartest and most well-known men of his time become almost forgotten in history? Dr. Alexis Carrel’s contributions to medicine brought him to the height of fame in the worlds of surgery and science. By designing a curved needle coated in Vaseline, Carrel developed a new method of blood-vessel anastomosis that created a new standard for vascular surgery. This development earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1912, making Carrel the second surgeon and youngest scientist at that time to earn this recognition. The ability to repair, reconnect, or attach blood vessels to one another opened the door for open heart surgery, coronary artery bypass grafts, transplantation, and countless other procedures. He further gained respect while working with Henry Drysdale Dakin in the French Army Medical Corps by revolutionizing the treatment of major wounds with wound antisepsis in the form of Carrel-Dakin fluid. This contribution alone earned him the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

However, by the time of the 52nd Vascular Annual Meeting in 1998, Dr. William Abbott in his SVS Presidential Address would focus on Carrel as an example of a surgeon with vast achievements who had come to be underrecognized. Despite Carrel’s amazing accomplishments throughout his life, the choices he ultimately made later significantly affected his legacy. Dr. Abbott attributes this to Carrel’s “unfortunate leadership decisions, in both boldness and judgment.”

Similar issues affected the legacy of Carrel’s close friend and colleague, Charles Lindbergh. The relationship between these two legendary men demonstrates the serendipity of history, the power of partnerships, and the importance of one’s choices, as well as the fleeting nature of fame. Both men reached the heights of praise and public admiration, then tumbled in a downward spiral of public condemnation.

Lindbergh, America’s golden boy aviator, had won the hearts of the world after he became the first to fly solo from New York to Paris in 1927. On Nov. 28, 1930, the American hero met the pioneering scientist Carrel through the auspices of Dr. Charles Flagg, a caretaker for Elisabeth Morrow, Lindbergh’s chronically ill sister-in-law. He and Carrel met at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and formed a quick bond of mutual respect and admiration. Lindbergh was interested in questioning Carrel on potential treatments for his sister-in-law’s diseased heart valves: “Why could not a part of the body be kept alive indefinitely if a mechanical heart was attached to it – an arm, or even a head?… Why would not a mechanical heart be valuable for certain surgical operations?”

For his part, Carrel, a firm believer in “physiognomy,” the assessment of a person’s character from their outer appearance, and eugenics, the science of improving a population through controlled breeding, viewed Lindbergh as the perfect human specimen.

He interpreted the tall and handsome American hero as one of the elite selected by nature to play a role in society by promoting the production of the fit.

It was after this meeting that Lindbergh was invited to work in Carrel’s lab at the Rockefeller Institute. Lindbergh was enthralled with Carrel’s intellect, stating that his friend’s “mind flashed with the speed of light in space between the logical world of science and the mystical world of God.” Through Carrel’s tutelage and supervision, Lindbergh became focused on research on organ preservation.

During the mid-1930s, Lindbergh’s contribution to Carrel’s laboratory culminated in the design and production of the first efficient perfusion pump. This pump was intended to perfuse organs with pulsatile flow while maintaining a sterile environment free from contamination. The two men coauthored a book, “The Culture of Organs,” which detailed the process and theories for allowing living organs to exist outside the body during surgery. Their combined work is said to have been a crucial step in the later development of open heart surgery and organ transplantation, as well as to have laid the groundwork for the development of the artificial heart. Their collaboration raised their combined fame to the point where both men appeared on the cover of Time magazine on June 13, 1938, highlighting their heart perfusion work.

However, the very ideas that bonded the two famed men in mutual admiration would come to be unpopular, if not reviled, and led to their mutual downfall. Carrel’s views stating the superiority of evolution, survival of the fittest, and thoughts of eugenics paralleled Lindbergh’s thoughts of heredity and evolution. Lindbergh grew up on a farm and knew about breeding livestock and was comfortable with Carrel’s philosophy of racial superiority.

Therefore, despite the incredible accomplishments of both men, these jointly held views and their later affiliation with Nazi Germany and its principles tarnished their legacy.

Lindbergh, one of the few men with his level of fame who had lived among people of all skin colors in many cultures, was constantly being charged with racism and antisemitism. And even though he had previously stated, “I can’t feel inferior or superior to another man because of race, or in any way antagonistic to him. I judge the individual not by his race, and have always done so,” he constantly spoke of the value of genetics in promoting individual importance. And this talk of race betterment was a concept synonymous with the growing Nazi movement in Germany.

To make matters worse, Lindbergh had openly admired the Third Reich after having received the German Medal of Honor in 1938, bestowed by Herman Goering. This combined with Lindbergh’s past appreciation of Germany and his well-known views on eugenics caused many to view him as a Nazi sympathizer. It didn’t help that Lindbergh was also a great isolationist during World War II and acted as a spokesperson for the “America First” committee, which believed that the United States should not intervene. The once great man was denounced within his own country in a manner that would parallel what would happen to Carrel.

During the same period, Carrel returned to France to display his patriotism. In support of the war effort, Carrel volunteered his time toward supporting and designing mobile military hospitals and combating malnutrition. However, in the early 1940s, Germany conquered France and set up a puppet French government at Vichy. The new government offered Carrel the opportunity to continue his research at his own “Institute of Man.” Because of his past sentiments and this relationship formed with the Nazi-supported Vichy government, Carrel would come to be seen as a Nazi collaborator as well.

After the liberation of France in 1944, Carrel was dismissed from the institute and placed under surveillance to investigate his collaboration with the Nazis. Although no conclusions were ever reached, Carrel’s reputation was further destroyed by the press; this left him depressed and ruined. He died later that year on Nov. 5 (J Vasc Surg. 1999;29[1]:1-7).

Through their similar political views, Lindbergh and Carrel became despised in their own countries. Lindbergh would later regain his stature as an American hero and icon after advising the Army and Navy in World War II and continuing his work in the aeronautics industry. But his reputation remained forever tarnished as a Nazi sympathizer, and he died with his legacy disgraced in the eyes of many.

Lindbergh and Carrel’s contributions, despite their personal choices and judgments throughout life, have not been forgotten. There are many who still appreciate and remember the advances that both brought to the fields of medicine and science. Their legacies remain linked through the Lindbergh-Carrel Prize, established at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The award celebrates their contributions to the “development of perfusion and bioreactor technologies for organ preservation and growth.”

Lindbergh and Carrel exemplify the idea that one must consider the legacy that individuals leave behind in the context of their overall interactions and influences on the society in which they lived. Both men had significant individual failings and made choices that tarnished their public image and affected their legacies. With regard to Carrel, his opinions regarding the superiority of the white man and his proclamation of his mystical views alienated him from the public and the scientific community. Lindbergh’s alleged racism and antisemitism tarnished his image as a true American hero. Whatever their personal failings, however, medicine was forever changed by the impact of the great surgeon and the pilot.

Sources:

Berg AS. Lindbergh, Putman Adult Press, 1998.

Friedman DM. The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever. Ecco Publishing, 2007.

Presidential address: Legend, leadership, legacy. Abbott WM. J Vasc Surg. 1999;29:1-7.

Chaudhuri J, Al-Rubeai M. Bioreactors for Tissue Engineering: Principles, Design and Operation. Springer Publishing, 2005.

Dr. Phair is at the Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.

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