Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lost and Found: Filming Nobel Prize Winner Alexis Carrel (1916)

On August 31, 1916, American cameraman Merl LaVoy was just behind the frontlines in a hospital at Compiègne. There he filmed Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, the man who invented vascular surgery and performed the first heart bypass operation as well as the first heart transplant. Together with the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh Carrel also laid the groundwork for the artificial heart.

Alexis Carrel (1873-1944). Picture taken in World War I

The authors recently found a letter by LaVoy in the archives of the French Academy of Medicine which sheds some new light on how he captured Carrel with his movie camera. Carrel played an important part in the history of World War I. During the First World War Carrel and the English chemist Henry Dakin developed a special method of treating wounds based on chlorine which, preceding the development of antibiotics, was a major advance in the care of traumatic wounds.


The Dakin-Carrel method was an absolute breakthrough in medical treatment during World War I. Deaths as a result of gangrene were reduced significantly as a result of this discovery. Strangely enough, when LaVoy visited Carrel in the summer of 1916 he gave him most of the credits. Although Dakin had invented the antisceptic chemical that was actually used he hardly was mentioned in LaVoy's film. The truth of the matter was: Dakin was a shy and retiring person who was reluctant to speak in public. Carrel on the other hand was quite a different man. He was a short Napoleonic figure and in his photographs looks like an arrogant prelate of medical science.

As a result, it was Carrel who cashed in on most of the publicity. Headlines in the New York Times soon blazed: “Drs. Carrel and Dakin find new antiseptic. Remedy said to make infection impossible.” Certainly the technique and the solution were used all over the world and saved thousands of lives, with Carrel largely taking credit for Dakin’s discovery. After the war Carrel came home to a hero’s welcome. For this Carrel was even awarded the French Légion d'honneur.

Heroic France (USA, 1917)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how we found footage from Merl LaVoy's first film project Heroic France (USA, 1917). Among the scenes that we found are a number of close ups showing Carrel which were taken at his hospital in Compiègne. Shortly after recording these films LaVoy corresponded with Carrel on these movie scenes. The letters show there was a considerable interest in LaVoy's film work. At the request of Carrel's colleagues he sent them duplicates of his films which were greatly appreciated.

You can read and download LaVoy's and Carrel's war letters here. Courtesy: Bibliothèque de l'Académie nationale de médecine (Paris).

Here is LaVoy's war film Heroic France which was posted before on our YouTube channel. The scenes showing Alexis Carrel can be watched at 3: 17 minutes.

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