Christian de Duve, a modest scientist with an impressive track record
The terms lysosome and the peroxisome probably don't mean much to you, but the Belgian Christian de Duve received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1974 for identifying these cell constituents. This was the climax in an impressive international scientific career. His motto was Per vivum ad verum, Living, the path to the truth.
Christian de Duve was born on 2 October 1917 in the English village of Thames Ditton. His parents had fled from Belgium to escape the First World War. The young family returned to Antwerp in 1920. During the 1930s and 40s Christian de Duve studied medicine and then chemistry at the KU Leuven. He was particularly interested by research into insulin and glucose. After the Second World War he headed off to the United States and Sweden, where he specialised in biochemistry and cell biology.
Having completed his studies, Christian de Duve lectured at the University of Leuven and, as from 1962, also at the Rockefeller University in New York. But he did not just stick to teaching. He also led various research groups and, together with his colleagues, discovered two unknown cell constituents: the lysosome and the peroxisome. This earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1974, alongside Albert Claude from Belgium and the Romanian-born American George Emil Palade. This joined his previous awards, the Francqui Prize (1960), the most prestigious Belgian scientific award, and the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize (1973).
In 1974 Christian de Duve set up a new international research institute in Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe, near Brussels, known as the International Institute of Cellular and Molecular Pathology, and later renamed De Duve Institute. This institute’s key priority is fundamental, multi-disciplinary research targeting medical use.
After becoming Emeritus Professor he wrote five books about life's biology and an autobiography. In 1990 he was granted the rank of Viscount. Despite his many accomplishments he remained very modest. “I discovered something that already existed. All that was required was a good technique. If I had not found it, someone else would have done. You can compare it with a treasure hunt.” Christian de Duve died on 4 May 2013 after opting for euthanasia.
Photo: © Julien Doornaert