Lives of the fellows

Jean Bernard

b.26 May 1907 d.17 April 2006
MD Paris(1926) FRCP(1975)

Jean Bernard was a pioneering French haematologist. He was born in Paris, France, the son of Paul Bernard, an engineer. During the First World War Bernard was evacuated to the village of Couëron, Loire-Atlantique, on the west coast of France, where he stayed until 1918. He then returned to Paris to finish his schooling, attending the Lycée Louis Le Grand. He decided on a career in medicine after being shocked by the premature death of his mother when he was just 13. He went to the University of Paris, where he qualified in 1926.

Unable to get an internship in the hospital where he trained, Bernard decided to take up a post in the hospital nearest his home. Here he met Paul Chevallier, then France’s leading haematologist, at a time when the specialty was still developing. In 1931, the two men co-founded the Société Française d’Hématologie, the world’s first learned society for haematology. Bernard’s thesis, which he submitted in 1933, showed that tar, when injected into the bone marrow of rats, caused leukaemia. From then on, leukaemia could be seen as a disease of haematopoietic tissue (or the tissue that forms blood cells), rather than of the blood.

During the Second World War Bernard was active in the resistance, and was responsible for parachuting weapons into the Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône regions in southern France. He was arrested and imprisoned for six months at Fresnes in the suburbs of Paris. He was released shortly before France was liberated and carried on fighting until the armistice was signed. He was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Resistance.

In the late 1940s, with Jean-Pierre Soulier, he described what has come to be known as Bernard-Soulier syndrome, a rare, recessive genetic bleeding disorder.

Having already developed exchange blood transfusion as a therapy for childhood leukaemia, in 1962 he demonstrated that the anthracyclines were effective in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Once treated with these drugs, Children with this condition were sent into remission for the first time.

He was an associate professor at the Pasteur Institute from 1949. In 1956 he was appointed professor of oncology and, from 1961, he was clinical professor of haematology and director of the research institute for blood diseases and leukaemia. He established and oversaw several research groups, including a team led by Jean Dausset, who helped outline the HLA (human leucocyte antigen) system and shared the 1980 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology.

In 1974 Bernard was one of two doctors asked to go to Tehran, in Iran, in secret, to see the reigning Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, who was suffering from an enlarged spleen. Bernard diagnosed chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and Waldenström’s macroglobulinaemia. Three years later, the Shah was deposed and went into exile. President Carter eventually allowed him to enter the USA for medical treatment, and in retaliation a group of Iranians seized the US embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans for over a year.

Jean Bernard was a government consultant on hospital and university reforms, as well as on addiction and other public health issues. He was the first president of the French national advisory committee on ethics in medicine and the life sciences. In 1975 he was made a fellow of the RCP.

Outside medicine, he was a published poet and wrote books on philosophy and ethics. He was elected to the Académie Française in March 1976. He married Amy Pichon in 1931 and they had three children.

RCP editor

[The Times 25 April 2006; Brit.med.J., 2006 332 1395; Haematologica 91 (9):1163-4 Sept 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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