A 1947 Nobel Prize winner, Bernardo Alberto Houssay is known for his research on the role that pituitary hormones play in sugar metabolism, which helped towards providing an effective treatment for diabetes. 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 Albert Houssay, a lawyer, who also worked at the National College of Buenos Aires teaching literature. His mother was Clara Laffont. Houssay’s parents were originally both from France and had migrated to Argentina just before he was born.
Houssay showed a lot of potential as a child, gaining top marks and showing academic excellence from a very young age. As well as Spanish he could speak English and French fluently. He completed his secondary education in Colegio Britanico and was only 14 years old when he attended the University of Buenos Aires. Throughout his university years, Houssay worked at a hospital dispensary to finance his studies. After three years study he graduated from Pharmacy School in 1904. He then attended medical school at the same University from 1904 to 1910. He earned his degree in medicine at the age of 23, in 1910 and qualified as a practicing physician a year later.
At medical school, it was endocrinology that sparked Houssay’s interest. This is the branch of medicine concerned with the system of glands in our bodies that secrete hormones. Houssay was especially fascinated with how the pituitary gland functioned. This is a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain. Indeed, his doctoral thesis in 1911 was entitled “Studies of the Physiological Action of the Pituitary Extracts”, which earned him a special award.
In 1921, three individuals, Charles Best, Frederick Banting and John Macleod, discovered the role of insulin in the body. This, along with Houssay’s own contribution, would lead to effective treatments for diabetes.
Houssay conducted experiments on the pituitary gland from 1924 to 1937. He discovered how pituitary hormones regulated blood sugar in animals. Houssay worked with diabetic dogs in his research. He treated diabetic dogs by removing the adenohypophysis (the frontal lobe of the pituitary) and discovered that this greatly relieved their diabetic symptoms and the dogs became unusually sensitive to insulin.
He also demonstrated that heathy dogs injected with pituitary extracts developed an increase in their sugar levels in their blood. Effectively he showed that diabetes could be induced through the action of the pituitary gland.
His experiments showed that the secretions of the pituitary gland worked in the opposite way to insulin, and were important in controlling blood sugar levels.
These discoveries led to Houssay’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1947. It was shared with Gerty Cori and her husband, Carl Ferdinand Cori who discovered the role that glucose played in carbohydrate metabolism, a study related to Houssay’s work.
Other Works and Achievements
In 1910, Houssay became a professor at the University of Buenos Aires School of Veterinary Medicine. Three years later he took a position at Alvear Hospital in Buenos Aires. In 1915 he also became laboratory director of the government experimental pathology laboratories.
Houssay returned to the University of Buenos Aires 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 up to 250 graduate students from all over the world working on different projects for the institute
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 democratic rights from the Argentine government. Because of this, Peron dismissed Houssay, along with around 150 other academics from the university. Houssay did not lose his resolve however and he continued with his research. In 1944, he founded the privately funded Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine.
When Peron was exiled in 1955, Houssay was reinstated by the University of Buenos Aires. From 1957, he also became director of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
Although endocrinology was his specialization, Houssay worked in many other fields including spider, snake and scorpion venoms, the renal glands and adrenalin, the thyroid and its secretions and respiratory functions.
Houssay received a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1947 for his research on the role that pituitary hormones play in sugar metabolism. Other awards he received include:
- Election to the National Academy of Sciences in Buenos Aires in 1937
- The Charles Mickle fellowship of Toronto in 1945
- The Banting Medal of the American Diabetes Association in 1946
- The Baly Medal from the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1947
In 1950, Houssay shared his insights and knowledge through his book entitled “Physiologie Humaine” (Human physiology). Because of its huge success, an English version was published and has sold all over the world.
Houssay married Maria Angelica Catan, a chemist in 1920. They had three children together;Alberto Bernardo, Hector Emilio Jose, and Raul Horacio. All three of them followed their parents’ footsteps and earned their own medical degrees.
Houssay died on September 21, 1971 in Buenos Aires. He was 84 years old and was survived by his three sons.