A 1947 Nobel Prize winner, Bernardo Alberto Houssay is known for his research on the role that pituitary hormones play in sugar metabolism. He was the first Latin American and Argentine to receive the Nobel Prize.
Early Life and Childhood
Bernardo Alberto Houssay was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on April 10, 1887. He was the son of a lawyer by the name of Albert Houssay who also worked at the National College of Buenos Aires teaching literature. His other half was Clara Laffont. Houssay’s parents were both originally from France and migrated to Argentina just before he was born.
Houssay showed a lot of potential early on, gaining top marks and showing academic excellence at a very young age. He completed his secondary education in Colegio Britanico and was merely 14 years old when he attended the University of Buenos Aires. It took him only three years to graduate from Pharmacy School under the same university where he graduated with highest honors. He went on to attend medical school while working as a pharmacy assistant to somehow help cover some of the costs of his education. He eventually earned his degree in medicine at the age of 23.
Houssay married a chemist named Maria Angelica Catan in 1920. They had three children together; the eldest was Alberto Bernardo, the second was Hector Emilio Jose, and the youngest was Raul Horacio. All three of them followed their parents’ footsteps and earned their own medical degrees.
It was in medical school that endocrinology sparked Houssay’s interest. He was especially fascinated with the different hormones that the endocrine glands secreted and specially paid great attention to how the pituitary gland worked. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Studies of the Physiological Action of the Pituitary Extracts”, which earned him a special award.
In 1921, three individuals discovered the importance of insulin for a body that suffers diabetes. They were Charles Best and Frederick Banting who were Canadians and John Macleod, a Scottish physiologist. Their research and the results they gained from it became part of the foundation of Houssay’s own studies.
Houssay started to concentrate on two things from 1923 to 1937: the interaction between insulin and the pancreas and the interaction between the pituitary gland and its secretions. At that time, the pituitary gland was still known as the hypophysis. A major breakthrough came when he discovered the role that the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland played in carbohydrate metabolism. He also discovered that insulin’s interaction with other hormones also has a great impact on the oxidation of sugar, and not just its absence or presence. Hormones that insulin interacts with include somatotropin and prolactin, both of which are produced within the pituitary gland. These discoveries led him to his Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine which he shared with Gerty Cori and Carl Ferdinand Cori. The two discovered the role that glucose played in carbohydrate metabolism, a study that was greatly related to Houssay’s work.
Other Works and Achievements
Around 1910, Bernardo Houssay went back to the University of Buenos Aires as a professor, this time under the School of Veterinary Medicine. He left for some time when he became Alvear Hospital’s chief physician. He was also assigned as laboratory director of the experimental National Public Health Laboratories under the National Department of Hygiene. He went back to the university as a Professor of Physiology in 1919. During his stay, he founded a new research center for the university, the Institute of Physiology. While Houssay was in charge, he had around 135 graduate students from all over the world working on different projects for the institute, which further widened Houssay’s influence in his chosen field of specialization.
Juan Peron became President of Argentina in 1943. There were a lot of uprisings during that period and Houssay was among those who petitioned for the Argentine government to be changed into a democratic one. Because of this, Peron dismissed Houssay, along with around 150 other academics from the university. This was not a reason for Houssay to lose his resolve however, and continued with his research. Houssay’s dismissal was considered void shortly after and in 1944, he founded the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine. He was then asked to retire in 1946.
Although endocrinology was his specialization, Houssay worked in several other fields as well. He took interest in the digestive, nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems and did his share in understanding these other processes.
Houssay received a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1947 for his research on the role that pituitary hormones play in sugar metabolism. He then travelled to the United States and became University of California’s Hitchcock Professor of Physiology.
In 1950, Houssay shared his insights and knowledge through a book entitled Physiologie Humaine. Because of its huge success, an English version was published and sold all over the world.
Looking at Houssay’s entire career, he was in part an important factor that held Argentina’s scientific growth together. He was responsible for founding and assisting in building almost all of the major scientific organizations all over the country and was assigned as a head in most of them at one point. He also earned honorary doctorates granted to him by over 25 universities all over the world, not to mention being invited and elected as a member of different prestigious scientific societies in France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Spain and the United States. All these were ways by which the world’s scientific community honored the importance of Houssay’s discoveries and the impact that these discoveries had in the further growth and advancement of science.
Houssay also trained a lot of people who eventually made their mark on the sciences as well. One of them was Miguel Rolando Covian who later on became the Father of Brazilian Neurophysiology. He also mentored Eduardo Braun Menendez, a noted Argentine physiologist.
Houssay died on September 21, 1971 in Buenos Aires. He was 84 years old and was survived by his three sons. His wife, Maria Angelica Catan, died a decade ahead of him.