Lives of the fellows

Gabriel Charles Richet

b.26 December 1916 d.10 October 2014
MD Paris(1944) FRCP(1994)

Gabriel Richet was professor of renal medicine at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. He was born in Paris during the First World War into a medical family. He was the fourth in a famous line of academic medical doctors, all professors at the faculté de médecine in Paris, including his grandfather Charles Robert Richet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for the discovery of anaphylaxis. Richet was a student at the prestigious Montaigne and Louis-le-Grand high schools, and he received his medical teaching at the faculté de médecine in Paris.

Gabriel Richet was 23 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War. He had just passed the highly competitive concours de l’internat (the residency examination) when he was enlisted and actively participated in the French military campaign. After a short time as a prisoner of war in Germany, he returned to Paris as a physician in the hospital system. The Richet family was actively engaged in the resistance movement against the German occupation of France. His father, Charles Richet, was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp; his brother Olivier to Buchenwald, Dora and Bergen-Belsen camps; his cousin, Jacqueline Richet-Souchère, to Ravensbrück; and his mother, Marthe Julie (née Trélat), was jailed at Fresnes outside Paris. Soon after the liberation of Paris in 1944, Gabriel Richet served under the high command of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and later as a doctor to the French commandos during violent fighting in the area of Colmar. He was injured, received three military citations, and was decorated with the award of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by General de Gaulle in April 1945.

On his return to civilian life, Gabriel Richet joined the department of Louis-Pasteur Vallery-Radot at the Broussais Hospital in Paris, where he met Jean Hamburger [Munk’s Roll Vol.IX, p.221]. This meeting changed their professional lives, and in 1950 they established at Necker Hospital the first French department of nephrology. They worked together for the next 10 years, helping to rebuild French academic medicine after the war. Richet introduced treatment of acute kidney injury with the artificial kidney, which resulted in a dramatic prognostic improvement of post-abortion sepsis and crush syndrome, and, with Jean Hamburger and Jean Crosnier, he developed the concept of renal intensive care aimed at correcting major fluid, electrolyte and acid-base disorders. Introducing at Necker Hospital the percutaneous kidney biopsy pioneered by Claus Brun, Richet, together with Hamburger and Renée Habib, contributed to the clarification of the causes of uraemia, thanks to the routine histological diagnosis of kidney diseases, including the first studies by electron microscopy performed with Paul Michielsen. He was involved in the first allogeneic kidney transplantation from a mother to her son, opening up exciting new therapeutic perspectives in living related transplantation. Richet was a highly talented investigator who contributed to the worldwide reputation of the Necker nephrology department, together with other members of Hamburger’s team.

In 1961, Gabriel Richet moved to Tenon Hospital, at that time a small peripheral hospital, where he was appointed chief of nephrology. He was accompanied by his first two assistants, Claude Amiel and Raymond Ardaillou, and was subsequently joined by Liliane Morel-Maroger, Françoise Mignon, Jean-Daniel Sraer, Pierre Verroust, Pierre Ronco, Eric Rondeau and many others. ‘We had nothing,’ he later said. ‘I found myself in the same situation as Hamburger when he arrived at Necker in 1951, but I had learned from all the successes and failures we had been through.’ Richet built a new hospital wing thanks to institutional sponsors (Assistance Publique, INSERM [Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale], CNRS [Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique] and the University of Paris), and fully succeeded in his goal of making the nephrology centre at Tenon Hospital a place of national and international excellence as well as an intellectual haven, a ‘foyer intellectuel’ (intellectual home), as he used to call it. It is impossible to count the number of fellows and visiting faculties from all over the world who trained or did research in the multilingual and multicultural Tenon community, where Richet provided support and guidance to each, while leaving the freedom for all to develop their own projects. All who worked with him would consider him a father figure, a position that he accepted and filled with a lot of humour and joviality.

Richet never spoke of the prizes and honours he received, or of his own scientific achievements. He rather spoke of the scientific successes of his department. But he had his own research group within the INSERM unit, which he directed from 1965 until 1985, and was proud of their discovery of the ‘dark cells’ of the collecting duct, now called intercalated cells.

He was one of the early giants of French and international nephrology and a founding member of the International Society of Nephrology (ISN). He served as a president of the Francophone Société de Néphrologie from 1972 to 1974. Among his many roles in ISN, he was co-general secretary of the organisation’s first congress in Geneva and Evian in 1960, and president from 1981 to 1984. He received many awards, including honorary degrees and the prestigious Jean Hamburger award of the ISN in 1993. Gabriel Richet was elected as a member of the French Académie Nationale de Médecine in 1980, and he was appointed a Grand Officier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (in 2003) and Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur (in 2013), two of the highest civil distinctions in France.

On his retirement in 1985, Richet left as his legacy a clinical and research nephrology centre of the highest reputation among the international nephrology community. But even more importantly, he left a message of hope, inspired by his critical, ironic and benevolent approach, and the need for perennial discovery. The end of his last interview is probably the best way to sum up this tall, green-eyed, charming old gentleman. He said: ‘A doctor is a man who decides; when he writes out a prescription, he orders…. But is it possible to give an order and decide without heart? Unfortunately, many do not share my opinion, but that’s life….. I am like the Queen of Holland whose motto is: “Je Maintiendrai” (I will maintain).’

He was survived by his second wife Claude (née Puaux), by two daughters Marie-Claude and Isabelle, and several grandchildren.

Pierre Ronco
Raymond Ardaillou

[European Renal Association-European Dialysis and Transplant Association In memory of Prof Dr Gabriel Richet (1916-2014) – accessed 14 March 2016; European Renal Association-European Dialysis and Transplant Association Gabriel Richet – accessed 14 March 2016; Académie Nationale de Médicine Accueil Actualité Gabriel Richet (1916-2014) 20 October 2014 – accessed 14 March 2016; International Society of Nephrology – accessed 14 March 2016; Nephron Clin Pract 2014;128:414-5 – accessed 14 March 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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