René Jules Dubos
|Died||20 February 1982 (aged 81)|
|Alma mater||Rutgers University|
|Known for||Isolation and first successful testing of natural antibiotics|
Coining the phrase "Think globally, act locally"
|Awards||E. Mead Johnson Award (1941)|
Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1948)
Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction (1969)
Cullum Geographical Medal (1975)
Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1976)
|Institutions||The Rockefeller University (formerly The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research)|
René Jules Dubos (February 20, 1901 – February 20, 1982) was a French-American microbiologist, experimental pathologist, environmentalist, humanist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book So Human An Animal. He is credited for having made famous the environmental maxim: "Think globally, act locally." Aside from a period from 1942 to 1944 when he was George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology and professor of tropical medicine at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, his scientific career was spent entirely at The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, later renamed The Rockefeller University.
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 operated butcher shops in each of these villages. He attended high school and the National Institute of Agronomy in Paris, and he received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1927.
Dubos began his career in microbiology in 1927, when he joined Oswald Avery's laboratory at The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Avery was looking for a microbe that could break down the polysaccharide capsule of a deadly strain of bacterial pneumonia in the same way that soil bacteria digested decaying organic matter in the woods. Dubos identified a bacterium that secreted an enzyme that broke down polysaccharide. In 1939, with the help of Rockefeller Institute biochemist Rollin Hotchkiss, Dubos isolated the antibacterial agents tyrothricin and gramicidin from the bacterium Bacillus brevis that killed or inhibited Gram-positive bacteria and tested their bacterial, chemical, and clinical properties. These antibiotics remain in limited use today. In 1942, before antibiotics were in general use, Dubos warned that bacterial resistance should be expected.
Dubos devoted most of his professional life to the empirical study of microbial diseases and to the analysis of the environmental and social factors that affect the welfare of humans. His pioneering research in isolating antibacterial substances from certain soil microorganisms led to the discovery of major antibiotics. He performed groundbreaking research and wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the mechanisms of acquired immunity, natural susceptibility, and resistance to infection.
In 1948, Dubos shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Selman Waksman for "their achievement in studies of the antibiotic properties of soil bacteria". A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he served as an editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine from 1946 to 1972.
In later years, Dubos explored the interplay of environmental forces and the physical, mental and spiritual development of mankind. The main tenets of his humanistic philosophy were: global problems are conditioned by local circumstances and choices, social evolution enables us to rethink human actions and change direction to promote an ecologically balanced environment, the future is optimistic since human life and nature are resilient and we have become increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in natural forces and human activities, and we can benefit from our successes and apply the lessons learned to solving other contemporary environmental problems.
For the academic years 1963-1964 and 1964-1965, he was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies of Wesleyan University. He served as chairman of the trustees of the René Dubos Center for Human Environment, a non-profit education and research organization that was dedicated in his honor in 1980. The mission of the center, which was co-founded by William and Ruth Eblen, is to "assist the general public and decision-makers in formulating policies for the resolution of environmental problems and the creation of environmental values." Dubos remained actively involved with the Center until his death in 1982. He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1949 to 1952.
Dubos is often attributed as the author of the popular maxim "Think Globally, Act Locally" that refers to the argument that global environmental problems can turn into action only by considering ecological, economic, and cultural differences of our local surroundings. This motto appeared for the first time in 1977, five years after Dubos served as advisor to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. In 1979, Dubos suggested that ecological consciousness should begin at home. He urged creation of a world order in which "natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications". In the 1980s, Dubos held to his thoughts on acting locally, and felt that issues involving the environment must be dealt with in their "unique physical, climatic, and cultural contexts". Dubos' approach to building a resilient and constructive relationship between people and the Earth continues to resonate.
He died February 20, 1982, his 81st birthday, due to heart failure. He is survived by his wife, Letha Jean Porter.
The collected papers of Dubos from 1927–1982 including correspondence, lecture notes, book and article drafts, laboratory notebooks, photographs, audio and video cassettes, and films, are stored at the Rockefeller Archive Center.