Skip to Main Content

Events and Exhibits

The Life of René Dubos:

Choosing to Be Human

Exhibition at the

Rockefeller Library

April – June, 2006

Early Years

René Jules Dubos was born in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France, on February 20, 1901, and grew up in Hénonville, another small Île-de-France farming village north of Paris. His parents, Georges Alexandre Dubos and Adéline De Bloedt, ran a butcher shop in each of these villages.  At age eight he suffered a severe attack of rheumatic fever that incapacitated him for more than a year and left him with damaged heart valves. In place of typical childhood activities, the young René developed traits that would dominate the rest of his life. He read intensively and walked and explored the countryside, pastimes that helped him cultivate a meditative mood—what he called the beginning of his freelance spirit.

The family moved to Paris in 1914 and René helped run the butcher shop while continuing his schooling at the Collège Chaptal.

After graduation from the Institut National Agronomique, René Dubos obtained a position in Rome as associate editor of the International Review of the Science and Practice of Agriculture. In the course of his duties he encountered an article by Russian soil microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky that favored the study of microorganisms in their natural environments in competition with other bacteria.

In 1924 Dubos met Selman Waksman who was then a distinguished bacteriologist at Rutgers University. Fate intervened a few weeks later when Dubos set sail for America and found that Waksman was a fellow passenger on the steamship Rochambeau. René Dubos arrived in America on September 30, 1924 and went to New Brunswick with Waksman that same evening.

Launching the Antibiotic Era

Rene Dubos’ best known scientific achievement was discovery of the first antibiotics that were systematically cultivated from soil bacteria and produced commercially. His search for a microbe that would produce a substance capable for destroying pathogenic bacteria culminated in the isolation of Bacillus brevis, from which he extracted the active soluble principle he called tyrothricin that contains the two substances – gramicidin and tyrocidine – that attack gram-positive organisms. Papers on these antibiotics published between 1939 and 1941 established their structure, antibacterial activity, and clinical efficacy. Dubos provided methods through which other antibiotics came to be discovered.

His work stimulated Howard Florey and Ernst Chain to look further into Alexander Fleming’s penicillin, which was found in 1928. It also stimulated Selman Waksman, Dubos’ former teacher, to undertake a search that led to streptomycin.

Dubos’ antibiotics were not the ones widely used for the treatment of bacterial infections, yet he was a true pioneer in the development of antibiotics – a momentous development in the history of medical science.

Scientific Career at The Rockefeller Institute


1927 Appointment as fellow, Department of the Hospital in the laboratory of Oswald T. Avery.

1938 Studies on bacterial agents from soil microbes.

1939 Reports discovery of the antibiotics tyrothricin, tyrocidine, and gramicidin.

1940 John Phillips Memorial Award (the first of more than thirty major prizes received during his lifetime).

1941 Elected to the National Academy of Science.

1944 Establishes laboratory to study tuberculosis.

1945 Publication of his first book, The Bacterial Cell.

1946 Appointed an editor of The Journal of Experimental Medicine

1946 Reports discovery of a culture medium to grow tubercle bacilli

1950 Begins studies on infection versus disease and host-parasite relationships.

1951 Trudeau Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association.

1957–1971 Professor and member, The Rockefeller University.

1961 Begins studies on the digestive tract as an ecosystem and early environmental influences.

1969 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for So Human an Animal.

1970 Begins “The Despairing Optimist” column for The American Scholar, which continues until 1980.

1971 Professor emeritus, The Rockefeller University

Author, lecturer, visible scientist

René Dubos was the author of more than a thousand publications, including two dozen books, which were translated into many languages, and two hundred scientific research articles. His characteristic style involved writing essays to test themes and ideas. These essays were further tested during public lectures to a variety of scientific, medical, and environmental audiences. Only then were the lectures reworked into books having a robust theme. He had a powerful vision of the way things are, of the way things go, and then he wrote a shelf of great books that convinced his readers of his vision.

After the publication of Man Adapting in 1965, Dubos became a visible scientist with an even larger constellation of publics. He was the subject of at least a hundred newspaper and magazine articles and interviews. He was featured in several, full-length television documentaries; interviewed for more than one hundred fifty television and radio programs in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. In addition to receiving forty-one honorary degrees, he was honored with the Lasker Award, the Tyler Ecology Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, among many other major international awards.

The Life of René Dubos:
Choosing to Be Human

Idea, design – Olga Nilova

Text – Carol Moberg, Olga Nilova

Consultant – Carol Moberg

Archival Support  - Renee Mastrocco

The exhibition has been inspired by Carol Moberg’s biography

René Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth: Microbiologist, Medical Scientist, Environmentalist (ASM Press, 2005)

 Books by René Dubos

The Bacterial Cell, 1945

Editor, Bacterial and Mycotic Infections of Man, 1948

Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, 1950 

The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, with Jean Dubos,  1952

Biochemical Determinants of Microbial Diseases, 1954 

Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change, 1959

Pasteur and Modern Science, 1960 

The Dreams of Reason: Science and Utopias, 1961

The Torch of Life: Continuity in Living Experience, 1962 

The Unseen World, 1962 

Health and Disease, with Maya Pines and the editors of Life, 1965 

Man Adapting, 1965 

Man, Medicine, and Environment, 1968 

So Human an Animal, 1968

Reason Awake: Science for Man, 1970 

A God Within, 1972

Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, 1972

Beast or Angel? Choices That Make Us Human, 1974 

Of Human Diversity, The 1972 Heinz Werner Lecture, 1974 

The Professor, the Institute, and DNA: Oswald T. Avery, His Life and Scientific Achievements, 1976 

The Wooing of Earth, 1980 

Celebration of Life, 1981

 

See also, The Rockefeller University Research Profile of René Dubos.
Dubos

Hénonville, France. 1909

Courtesy of Francis Dubos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubos

René Dubos with his mother Adeline, sister Madeleine, and brother Francis, ca. 1918

Courtesy of Francis Dubos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubos

Dubos’ mother, Adéline De Bloedt

Courtesy of Francis Dubos

 

Dubos

The steamship Rochambeau

 

Dubos

Rutgers University, New Brunswick, ca. 1927

Courtesy of The Rockefeller Archive Center

 

Dubos

Gramicidin crystals, 1939

Courtesy of Dr. Rollin D. Hotchkiss

 

Dubos

René Dubos and Ken Goodner, c. 1930

Courtesy of The Rockefeller Archive Center

 

Dubos

Scientists in Oswald Avery’s laboratory in the early 1930s

 

Dubos

René Dubos, 1941

Courtesy of The Rockefeller Archive Center

 

Dubos

Dubos’ laboratory at Smith Hall, 1949

Courtesy of The Rockefeller Archive Center

 

Dubos

René Dubos in his laboratory, 1950

Photograph by Maria Martel

 

Dubos

René Dubos lecturing, 1970s

Courtesy of The Rockefeller Archive Center

 

Dubos

René Dubos, 1973

Photo by Ingbet Gruttner

 

The Life of René Dubos:Choosing to Be HumanExhibition at theRockefeller LibraryApril – June, 2006Early Years René Jules Dubos was born in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt,