René Dubos: Wooing the earth from soil microbes to human ecology
How did René Dubos (1901–1982), a French-born American microbiologist, medical scientist, and environmentalist, become a human ecologist? He championed the philosophy that health or disease—of a microbe, person, society, or earth itself—could be understood only in the context of the relationships it forms with everything else. He studied agronomy in France and earned a Ph.D. at Rutgers University by demonstrating that the type of microorganisms that decompose cellulose depends on the soil’s composition (terroir). In the 1930s, his systematic searches for soil bacteria at The Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research produced two medical discoveries. One soil bacterium generated an enzyme that destroyed the cellulose-like capsule surrounding a deadly type of pneumococcus and exerted both protective and curative effects in infected animals. Another soil bacterium produced tyrothricin and gramicidin, the first antibiotics that were manufactured commercially and used clinically even before penicillin was available. In his 1960s environmental biomedicine studies, Dubos showed how subtle environmental stresses of malnutrition, toxins, and crowding increase susceptibility to disease and when applied to newborn animals they induce lifelong deleterious effects. The research of Dubos was instrumental in the creation of new medical sciences devoted to infectious diseases, antibiotics, the human microbiome, and environmental health.
Dubos reformulated the theory of disease causation by implicating the total environment and singling out humanity as a balancing factor in the quality of its own and the earth’s health. He became famous during the 1970s environmental movement after winning the Pulitzer Prize for So Human an Animal, subtitled “How We are Shaped by Surroundings and Events.” His broader vision redefined ecology as a humanistic science that introduces an ethical component into all environmental problems. He stressed human obligations to cultivate a healthy earth in several books and hundreds of essays, interviews, and lectures, for which he coined many prescient aphorisms to convey his complex messages. Among those that reverberate today in agriculture, medicine, technology, energy, and working and living habitats include “mirage of health,” “improving on nature,” “trend is not destiny,” “creative adaptations,” and—the best known and famous—“think globally, act locally.” To whichever ecosystem he applied his thinking, his integrative wisdom focused on ecology as a healing art.