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Jules Bordet (33 years old)History

Jules Bordet (1870-1961)


Jules Bordet was born in Soignies, Belgium, on June 13th, 1870.
Five years later, his father, a teacher was appointed at the "Ecole Moyenne de Schaerbeek" (Brussels). The whole family then moved to Brussels, opposite to the Pogge square, 48 rue de la Ruche.
When he was 10, he went to the "Athénée Royal de Bruxelles" that is today called after his name, rue du Chêne. After secondary school, when he was 16, Jules Bordet enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the "Université Libre de Bruxelles", where he spent time in the laboratories of Paul Héger and Leo Errera.
He passed the first two years in one year. In 1892, when he was 22, he graduated with the highest distinction as Doctor of Medicine, at the same time as his two-year-elder brother Charles.
In 1894, a grant from the Belgian Government enabled him to join the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and to work in Elie Metchnikoff's laboratory, a famous zoologist, who had just discovered the phagocytosis - digestion - of microbes by white blood cells : this discovery set the basis of cellular immunity.
Towards the end of his life, Louis Pasteur, did not work there regularly anymore, but all his colleagues made of the "Institute" one of the most renowned establishments of scientific research in the world.

In 1895, Bordet proved that two elements have to be present in the serum in order to destroy the bacterial wall (= bacteriolysis) :
1) one of these elements is an antibody that can only be found in animals that are already immunised against the bacteria.
2) the other element called alexine or complement, can be found in any animal.

At that time, Jules Bordet set the basis of serology or the study of humoral immunity because it is contained in the "humors" - body fluids - as opposed to cellular immunity.


The humoral immunity is the ability to produce specific antibodies to foreign bacteria (= antigens). These specific antibodies bind to the antigens and sensitize them to complement. The complement is then able to bind to the antigen antibody complex : this phenomenon is called the reaction of complement fixation. Once the complement is bound, it attacks the antigen : the bacterium is destroyed by bacteriolysis.
Later, Bordet discovered that when red blood cells are added to the blood serum (where bacteria can be found), those are also destroyed if the complement is in the serum : this is called hemolysis.
However, if red blood cells (= erythrocytes) are added after the bacteriolysis, they remain intact since the free complement is already bound to the antigen antibody complexes.
This is how a specific bacteria can be detected in a sample of blood serum.
This discovery allowed him to develop blood tests (serodiagnosis technique) that indicate whether a person has been in contact with any infectious agent.
If the red blood cells remain intact when 1) the bacterium's specific antibody, 2) the complement's specific antibody and 3) the red blood cells' specific antibody are added to the serum, that means that the bacterium is present.
This technique, called "Bordet-Wassermann's reaction", allows to detect the presence of some bacteria that cause diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis, syphilis...
Moreover, Jules Bordet also proved that antibodies allow to distinguish different animal species, which shows that the zoological diversity depends on chemical molecules that are specific to each species. Furthermore, within the same animal species, antibodies are able to recognize antigens that are only present in some of them, which led to the discovery of blood groups, then leucocyte groups and the whole Transplantation Immunology.

Jules Bordet stayed seven years in Paris. During this period, on the Pasteur Institute's initiative, he went to South Africa where rinderpest (cattle plague) was killing cattle. Jules Bordet recommended serovaccination, which eradicated the disease rapidly.
He met Robert Koch, who discovered the tuberculosis bacillus.

In 1899, Jules Bordet married Marthe Levoz, with whom he had three children, two girls and one boy : Simone, who married Maurice Craps, a Professor of Dermatology, Marguerite, who married Jean Govaerts, a Professor of Surgery and his son Paul, who had the same vocation as his father.

In march 1900, the Province of Brabant set up an "anti-rabies and bacteriological institute", 28, rue du Remorqueur in Brussels.
When he came back in Brussels in 1901, Bordet became the director and named it the "Pasteur Institute of Brabant", with Madame Pasteur's authorization.
This Institute is the only Pasteur Institute in the world that is not linked to the parent Pasteur Institute in Paris.

In 1906, Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou (another famous Belgian bacteriologist : 1875-1957) discovered the microbe that causes whooping cough (this bacterium is called Bordet-Gengou bacillus or Bordetella pertussis). Nowadays, most children are vaccinated against whooping cough.
Jules Bordet also discovered the microbe that causes avian diphtheria and bovine pleuropneumonia induced by a mycoplasma.
He described several immunology systems, and he analysed blood coagulation and bacteriophages.
During the First World War, he published the "Treatise on immunity in infectious diseases" that was authoritative for more than thirty years and republished in 1939.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to him in 1919 for his discoveries relating to immunity

Bordet was also a Professor of Bacteriology at the "Université Libre de Bruxelles" (from 1907 to 1935); he was a member of numerous Academies and Doctor Honoris Causa of many universities in many parts in the world, and in 1933 he became President of the Scientific Council of the Pasteur Institute of Paris. Jules Bordet and his son Paul Bordet

He was also interested in other non-medical subjects. He published an astronomy handbook and several political books about the conduct of public affairs; he also liked literature and spent a lot of his free time with his family. He always had a very young outlook.

Queen Elisabeth often showed her interest and sympathy for his work.

In 1940, Bordet retired : his son succeeded him as director at the Pasteur Institute of Brabant and as Professor of Bacteriology at the ULB.

Jules Bordet died on April 6th 1961 at the age of ninety and was buried in the Ixelles cemetery (Brussels), his wife died five months later.

In Brussels, the avenue that goes along the cemetery of Brussels has been called after him and the alley between the Justice Ministry and the Bordet Institute has been named after him and his master Paul Héger, rue Héger-Bordet.

We would like to thank Professor André Govaerts for the photos that illustrate this biography.

©2005, Institut Jules Bordet - 121 Boulevard de Waterloo, 1000 Brussels - Belgium, telephone image+32 2 541 31 11