Lives of the fellows

Jean Hamburger

b.15 July 1909 d.1 February 1992
MD Paris(1936) *FRCP(1966)

Jean Hamburger was born in Paris and educated at the Lycee Carnot and the Sorbonne. He finished his ‘internat’ in 1936 and after a brief period in dermatology he joined Radot at the Hôpital Broussais in Paris where his interest in renal physiology was awakened. Radot had taken over from Widal, who was the first to show that generalized oedema was due to the urinary retention of salt. During the second world war the anti-semitic laws promulgated by the Vichy government forced Hamburger to lead a clandestine life. In 1945 he returned to the Broussais where he developed an intense interest in pathophysiological mechanisms, especially in problems presented by particular patients.

In 1951 he joined the Hôpital Necker where he became professor of nephrology and medicine. He started from scratch and rapidly assembled all the means known at that time for the investigation and treatment of patients with renal disease. From a reluctant administration, he carved out a unit of 70 beds to which were brought patients from all over France, North Africa, and other parts of the world. He had an outstanding knack in applying recent scientific discoveries to medicine. A variety of diagnostic tools, including the rapid determination of electrolytes, were making their appearance at the time; the first electron microscope at the Necker was in his department. He put together a formidable team who developed a method of integrating close clinical observation of the patient with the continuous flow of information that was coming from their own laboratories. The treatment of acute renal failure with haemodiafysis was just beginning and Hamburger and his team designed the first French artificial kidney. Their recurrent experience in the treatment of severely ill patients with acute renal failure led to their setting up the first ‘salle de reanimation' (intensive ward care) in France.

Hamburger’s interest in transplantation in man had begun in 1941. His first attempt was in the dog, then in man using kidneys taken from persons that had been guillotined. They were immediately grafted into patients who, as he put it, were ‘ . . . facing death from chronic renal failure.’ These kidneys were rejected within a few days. In 1953 a 16-year old boy received a graft from his mother that lasted 20 days, which suggested that a close genetic relationship between the recipient and the donor might be important. This was shown to be correct in identical twins by Merrill in Boston in 1955. The first successful renal transplantation between non-identical twins took place in Boston and Paris within a few months of each other, in 1959. Whole body x-ray irradiation supressed the recipient’s immunological defences; thereafter Hamburger’s interest focused increasingly on immunology. It was Hamburger who applied the term ‘nephrology’ to the new discipline and it was he who initiated the efforts that led to the founding of the International Society of Nephrology. It was a measure of his recognized pre-eminence that enabled him to organize and convene the first International Congress of Nephrology at Geneva and Évian in 1960.

His ability to abstract a subject in an orderly manner and to present it lucidly was one of Jean Hamburger’s greatest gifts. In 1970 he began a successful literary career during which he published about 20 books, including La puisance et la fragilité’ Paris, Flammarion, 1972; New York, Macmillan, 1973; translated into 14 languages, and Le journal d'Harvey, Paris, Flammarion, 1983 and New Brunwick, New Jersey, 1992. One of his main themes was that of the remarkable advances in scientific knowledge, which he had lived through and contributed to, and their possible effects on man’s attempts to remain civilized. The book on Harvey demonstrated Hamburger’s facility with the English language which, however, he was always reluctant to use in public.

Jean was a most courteous and generous host, with a touch of panache - such as roses in one's hotel room and delicious meals in luxurious settings for all the members of a committee after their meeting. Of all the numerous honours that he received the two he most prized were his election to the ‘immortals’ at the Académie Français, where he became an assiduous and valued member of its dictionary revision committee, and to the Académie des Sciences - equivalent to the Royal Society - the president of which he became in 1991. An outstanding achievement for a clinician.

He was twice married, having three children by his first wife - one of whom became the well known French singer, Michel Berger. In 1964 he married Catherine Descamps, daughter of a banker.

H E de Wardener

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[Brit.med.J., 1992,304,837; Times, 11 & 22 Feb 1992; The Independent, 10 Feb 1992;The Daily Telegraph, 5 Feb 1992;Proc.Roy.Coll.Phycns.Edin., 22,no 3,July 1992]

(Volume IX, page 221)

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