Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) is a name that few people outside the medical profession will recognize today. Yet, during most of his long career at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, he was famous, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1938, along with his close friend Charles Lindbergh. Apart from his newsworthy experiment which kept tissue from an embryonic chicken heart alive for decades in a Pyrex flask—a suspect achievement, since it has never been repeated—he had better grounds for renown than his status as a New York celebrity-scientist and doctor. A 1994 article in Scientific American credits Carrel with having initiated all major advances in modern surgery, including organ transplants. Carrel’s two major achievements were the winning of the Nobel prize for medicine in 1912 for his work on vascular suture—before Carrel devised his techniques, the severing of a major artery usually meant death—and the invention (with Lindbergh’s moral financial support) of the perfusion pump, an artificial heart that is required for all heart surgeries and organ transplants.
Born in France just outside Lyon to a devout Catholic family and educated by Jesuits, Carrel was a rationalist by the time he went to university. He was well on his way to an eminent career in the medical faculty of the University of Lyon when, buoyed by his successes, he was emboldened to do a colleague the favour of filling in for him as a doctor accompanying a ‘White Train,’ a train full of hopeless invalids bound for Lourdes. The year was 1902. While at Lourdes he had the professional misfortune and personal trauma of witnessing the miraculous healing of the sickest person on the train, Marie Bailly. Carrel hoped to keep this fact to himself, but Bailly’s sudden cure became widely known in Lyon and he was ‘outed’ by an article in a local Catholic newspaper that implied he refused to believe that he had seen a miracle. Carrel was forced to publish a reply. It was carefully worded, critical of both sides, and it pleased no one. He was right to be cautious, for his fears were soon confirmed. Due to the pervasive anticlericalism of the French university system at the time, it was made clear to him that he had no future on the medical faculty.
Within a year he moved to Paris, then to Montreal, then to Chicago. When he emigrated to Canada he had cattle farming in mind, but it was in the United States where he found fame and fulfilment, working at the Rockefeller Institute until 1939, when he was forced into retirement at the mandatory age of 65. In the weeks following his visit to Lourdes, however, he vividly described his experience in the form of a novel, a novel that wasn’t published until four years after his death. (The English translation came out in 1950.) Carrel died in disgrace in 1944 while on trial for collaborating with the Vichy Regime. He was also deep into eugenics, which led to some ‘Rue Carrel’ street names being changed in the 1990s.
The protagonist of the novel, Dr. Lerrac—Carrel spelled backwards—is the author himself, and Marie Bailly becomes Marie Ferrand. Well-written and lyrical, The Voyage to Lourdes gives us a detailed and probably unique account of one of the more sensational healings that are alleged to happen at Lourdes as it unfolded minute by minute before the astonished eyes of one who was both a philosophical sceptic and medical man of ‘scientific outlook.’ A superficial reading of the 57 page account might easily leave one with the impression that this healing led Alexis Carrel back to the faith of his childhood. That would be a erroneous impression. A more careful reading will bring to light the deep philosophical and psychological difficulties involved in going from one world view to its traditional opposite on the basis of nothing but empirical evidence. Seeing is not believing. Carrel did return to the Faith—forty years later!—but the story of his journey is as complicated as human nature and as drawn out as age-old philosophical disputes.
As well as being a sceptic’s exciting eye-witness description of how one medically inexplicable healing occurred at a world-famous shrine, The Voyage to Lourdes is a valuable document for those interested in the psychology of an unbeliever when confronted with a phenomenon that believers are pleased to call miraculous. As an added bonus, Carrel’s story gives us a snapshot of a slice of French society and culture at the beginning of the twentieth century, which I think adds something to its charm. (For more background on Alexis Carrel and Marie Bailly, see the link below.)
The Voyage to Lourdes by Alexis Carrel (written in 1902, published in English in 1950)
An eight page excerpt from Carrel’s account describing the healing as it appeared to him
Alexis Carrel and Marie Bailly
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