I have decided to launch a series of articles called “Malaria Heroes” which will give some information about some of the key figures throughout the modern history of malaria (i.e. since the 1800’s). The first of these heroes that led to a greater understanding of this parasitic infection is Dr. Charles Alphonse Laveran, a French physician who was born in Paris in 1845.
Like his father and paternal grandfather, Laveran decided to pursue a career in military medicine, completing a thesis on nerve regeneration to attain his medical degree from the University of Strasbourg. After a variety of military positions including his service in the Franco-German war during the 1870’s, Laveran ended up in Algeria and Italy where he made his groundbreaking discovery in 1880, which helped revolutionize malaria. After examining numerous blood smears from patients with malaria, and visiting Rome to check patients there who appeared to have malaria, he noticed that all had protozoan parasites in their blood (which appeared as pigmented bodies in the smears). On November 6th in 1880 whilst at a hospital in Constantine he observed “…on the edges of a pigmented spherical body, filiform elements which move with great vivacity, displacing the neighboring red blood cells“. He initially named the microorganisms Oscillaria malariae, but later this was changed to Plasmodium.
What was particularly stunning about his discovery, was that is caused a paradigm shift in how malaria was viewed. In the 1800’s there was still a persistent thought that bad air (“mala aria” in old Italian, hence the name of the disease) also known as miasmas was the cause of much disease, and the germ theory was still being consolidated. Laveran’s discovery that a parasitic microorganism was the causative agent of clinical malaria helped reinforce the germ theory of disease, fitting in nicely with the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.
Laveran’s drawing of the various forms
of Plasmodium he observed in blood.
However, despite his initial discovery, his findings were still met with initial skepticism. But as other independent scientists and physicians began replicating his findings, there could eventually be no denial that Plasmodium parasites cause malaria. So in 1884, Laveran was finally able to convince Pasteur and others of his findings, which were also supported by discovering the pigmented bodies of the parasites in brain, spleen and liver (sites where pathology was observed, especially in severe cases of malaria).
Eventually, Laveran became deeply dissatisfied with the military as he felt they did not give him the recognition he deserved which was in contrast to the scientific community. So in the late 1890’s he was took a position at the Pasteur Institute in Paris where he received his own independent lab to continue his medical research (also making important contributions to other parasitic diseases such as trypanosomiasis). It was in 1907 that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research in malaria. With the money from the prize, he established a tropical medicine research unit at the Pasteur Institute.
Sadly, Laveran died on May 18th, 1922 following a months-long struggle with an unidentified illness. However, he will always be remembered as a champion of science and a hero of malaria. In fact, out of honor for his contributions to parasitology, the subgenus of the genus Plasmodium was named after him- Laverania.