Christian René Marie Joseph de Duve was born in 1917, near London, after his Belgian parents fled to England during the First World War. They returned to Belgium in 1920, and settled in Antwerp. Christian, already fluent in four languages, entered the Catholic University of Louvain in 1934, where his education centred on ancient humanities, but he decided to study medicine. He joined a research laboratory, investigating the effect of insulin on glucose uptake. By the time he graduated as an MD in 1941, insulin had become his passion.
Even with the Second World War at its height, it seemed to have only a casual impact on de Duve. He says: “After a brief interval in the army and a temporary stay in a prisoners’ camp, from which I promptly escaped, I returned to Louvain to complete my studies.” He combined these studies with a clinical internship in the Cancer Institute, and by 1945, he had presented a thesis on the action of insulin, written a book and several research articles.
When the war ended de Duve worked in Stockholm with Hugo Theorell, who received the Nobel Prize in 1955; went on to Washington University, under Carl and Gerty Cori who jointly received the Nobel Prize while he was there, and in St. Louis, he worked with Earl Sutherland, Nobel laureate in 1971. “Indeed”, he smiles, “I have been very fortunate in the choice of my mentors.” He returned to Louvain in 1947 to teach physiological chemistry, becoming a professor in 1951 and starting a research laboratory.
While using a centrifuge to examine the intracellular localization of enzymes involved in liver metabolism, he noticed that the cells’ digestive enzymes were not free to act unless the preparations were damaged. He reasoned that the enzymes were enclosed in a protective membrane, forming a self-contained organelle which he called the lysosome. This explained how powerful enzymes are kept separate from other cell components.
He went on to identify peroxisomes (organelles for processes involving hydrogen peroxide). For this work he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 with Albert Claude and George Palade.
In 1962, while retaining his position in Louvain, de Duve was appointed a professor at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where Albert Claude had made his pioneering studies between 1929 and 1949, and where George Palade had been working since 1946. There he set up a second laboratory, which worked closely with the Louvain group. In 1974 with others, he created the International Institute of Cellular and Molecular Pathology, or ICP, now called the de Duve Institute, at the Louvain Medical School in Brussels to combine basic and applied medical research in cellular and molecular biology. He became emeritus at Louvain in 1985 and at the Rockefeller University in 1988. In 1943 he married Janine Herman, the daughter of a physician. She passed away in 2008. They have four children.
Christian de Duve died on 4 May 2013.
This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).
Picture: © Peter Badge/ Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings