Hélène Sparrow

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Hélène Sparrow
Hélène Sparrow.jpg
Born(1891-06-05)5 June 1891
Died13 November 1970(1970-11-13) (aged 79)
NationalityPolish, Russian, French
Other namesHélène Sparrow-Germa
  • Baron R von Kuegelgen (12 November 1887 - 1932);
  • Phillippe Germa, agricultural engineer c.1890 - 1960
Scientific career
ThesisProblèmes de la vaccination contre le typhus exanthématique (The problems of vaccinations against exanthematic typhus) (1928)

Hélène Sparrow (5 June 1891 – 13 November 1970) was a pioneer in world public health, a medical doctor and microbiologist. She was noted for her work to control typhus in Poland after the First World War and then leading national programmes of vaccination against diphtheria, scarlet fever, spotted fever and relapsing fever in Poland and Tunisia into the 1960s.[1]

Early life[edit]

Sparrow was born to Polish parents on 5 June 1891 in Bohuslav, Kiev Governorate. Her parents married in 1890. Her mother was X. Stefanska (b. c 1870) and her father Leopold Sparrow (born c. 1860) was a magistrate.[1] She was educated at the Faculty of Medicine in Kiev, obtaining a medical diploma (cum laude) in 1915.[2] She obtained a second degree in medicine from University of Poznan in 1923. She obtained her doctorate in 1928 from the University of Warsaw.[1]

Academic career[edit]

In 1915 she became involved in control of epidemic disease within the Russian army during the First World War. Once fighting ended, she began working in clinics in Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia), supervised by Professor Bylina, soon moving to the Institute of Bacteriology in Kiev as assistant to Wolodymyr Lindeman [uk]. She began to work on epidemic typhus with Oleksii Krontovski [uk] and L. Polev. In 1920 she went to Warsaw to work with Dr Ludwik Rajchman, the Director of the State Institute of Hygiene.[2] In 1922 she was appointed Chief of Service and then in 1928 became the Chief of the Preventative Vaccinations Service. This included organising vaccination campaigns and also investigation of cholera outbreaks. She obtained a second medical degree from University of Poznan in 1923. Between 1921 and 1933 she also worked with Rudolf Weigl at the University of Lwów on epidemic typhus. During this time she was involved in setting up four public health laboratories in eastern Poland to benefit people relocated following national boundary changes as well as supervising large-scale programmes of vaccination against diphtheria and scarlet fever in the Warsaw region, supported by Robert Debré.[1]

In 1923 a grant from the League of Nations took her to France for the beginning of her lifelong involvement with the Pasteur Institute.[3] She studied tuberculosis with Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin in Lille, then worked with Jules Bordet in Brussels and also with Amédée Borrel at the Institute of Health in Strasbourg. In 1924 she was again sent to France for training in microbiology at the Pasteur Institute and in the laboratory of Alexandre Besredka. There she met Charles Nicolle during his annual conference on typhus, changing the course of her life.[4] In 1925, the Pasteur Institute financed her research with Charles Nicolle into epidemic typhus in Tunisia. She spent time during 1927-28 at the Pasteur Institute in Tunis and continued her vaccination trials against typhus using repeated injections of small doses of an attenuated strain.

She obtained her first tenured academic post in 1928 as an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Warsaw, presenting her doctoral thesis on 'Problèmes de la vaccination contre le typhus exanthématique' ('The problems of vaccinations against typhus exanthematique')[2] and was subsequently the Professor of Bacteriology. She managed microbiology training and actively participating in medical societies in Poland and the Warsaw branch of the French Société de biologie into the 1930s. In 1931, she was sent by the government, along with Charles Nicolle, to study epidemic typhus in Mexico and Guatemala. In 1933 she went with Nicolle to join the Pasteur Institute in Tunis as laboratory chief and introduced the Weigl approach for vaccine production. Her transfer of expertise in the laboratory culture of lice was important for progress against typhus at the Pasteur Institute, Tunis by herself and others. This included development of a vaccine, trials of insecticides and isolation of bacteria that were the causal agents of typhus and typhus-like fevers.[4] From 1935 she worked on a murine virus as a potential basis of anti-typhoid vaccine and in 1940 she and Paul Durand [5] developed the Durand-Sparrow anti-typhoid vaccine. She also worked to culture the agent of spotted fever as a prelude to a vaccine against Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

She was allowed to continue working at the Pasteur Institute until 1961 as 'Chef de Service', beyond the compulsory retirement age and from 1949 was the Head of the vaccine service, immunising against tuberculosis. From 1955 she was in charge of work on relapsing fever in Ethiopia for the World Health Organization. She was author or co-author of at least 103 scientific publications.[2]

Personal life[edit]

She married Baron Robert von Kuegelgen in 1917, a surgeon in the Russian army, and they had a daughter, Marie Bogna Seiler von Kugelgen.[2] They eventually separated.[4] Following her move to Tunis, she became a French citizen in 1933.[3] In October 1933 she married Phillippe Germa, an agriculturalist.

During the Second World War she hosted French refugees (including André Gide) and Polish deserters in Tunis. Gide arrived in December 1942 while it was occupied by German and Italian troops, remaining until May 1943 when French, British and American forces re-took the city and he was able to travel to Algiers. During this time he recorded in his journal that Sparrow was present at or hosted several lunch engagements for mutual friends within the French community.[6]:173 Gide also recounts how Sparrow narrowly escaped death during bombing raids. On 1 January 1943, while she was in the building, a bomb fell on the ground floor apartment where Sparrow lodged with the Boutelleau family but it did not explode. Five days later, on 6 January, bombs destroyed two adjacent houses.[6]:146

Sparrow and her second husband planted an orange orchard together in Soukra, near Tunis. During the final French withdrawal from Tunis, the couple left Tunisia to retire to Corsica. She died at Pietranera in Corsica in 1970.[1]

Awards and Honours[edit]

  • Prize, Kraków Medical Academy, 1922 [2]
  • Head of Laboratory, Institute of State Health, Warsaw 1922
  • Head of Preventive Vaccination Service, Institute of State Health, Warsaw 1928
  • Head of Laboratory, Institute Pasteur, Tunis 1933
  • Head of Vaccination Service, Pasteur Institute, Tunis 1945 - 1961
  • Elected member of the Société de Pathologie Exotique (French Society of Exotic Pathology) 1945

Selected publications[edit]

  • Sparrow H. "Sur une souche de Rickettsia quintana isolee en Tunisie" Pathologia et Microbiologia, Vol. 24 (1961) pp. 140 -
  • Heisch RB., Sparrow H., Harvey AE. "The behavior of Spirochaeta recurrentis Lebert in lice." Bulletin de la Societe de pathologie exotique et de ses filiales, Vol 53 (1960) pp. 140 – 143
  • Sparrow, H. "Etude du foyer ethiopien de fievre recurrente (Study of the Ethiopian source of recurrent fever)" Bulletin of the World Health Organization Vol. 19, No. 2 (1958) pp. 673 – 710
  • Sparrow H. "Emploi des ratons noveaunes pour entrien de Borrelia recurrentis.(Use of newborn rats for maintenance of Borrelia recurrentis)" Bulletin de la Societe de pathologie exotique et de ses filiales, Vol. 49 No. 4 (1956) pp. 630 -
  • Durand P., Sparrow H., "Pulmonary inoculation in typhic and spotty viruses" Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Seances de L'Acadamie des Sciences, Vol. 210 (1940) pp. 420 – 422
  • Nicolle C., Sparrow H., "Experiments on the river virus of Japan (Tsutsugamushi)." Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Seances de L'Acadamie des Sciences, Vol. 199 pp. (1934) 1349 - 1351
  • Nicolle C., Sparrow H., Conseil E. "Preventative vaccination of man against exanthematic typhus by use of small repeated virulent doses (the brain of guinea pig)." Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Seances de L'Acadamie des Sciences, Vol. 184 (1927) pp. 859 – 861
  • Sparrow H. "Immunization against scarlet fever with the aid of the scarlet fever toxoid" Comptes Rendus des Seances de la Societe de Biologie et de ses filiales, Vol. 97 (1927) pp. 957 – 959


  1. ^ a b c d e "Hélène Sparrow (1891-1970)". Archives de l'Institut Pasteur. Archived from the original on 14 May 2014. Retrieved 13 May 2014. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Anigstein, Ludwig (1971). "Helene Sparrow-Germa, M. D. (1891 - 1970) A Pioneer in World Health". Polish Medical Science and History Bulletin. 14 (3): 100–101.
  3. ^ a b Lindermann, Jean (2005). "Women Scientists in Typhus Research During the First Half of the Twentieth Century" (PDF). Gesnerus. 62: 257–272. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Huet, Maurice. "L'élevage du pou au laboratoire (the laboratory breeding of lice)" (PDF). Histoire des sciences medicales. 37 (1): 43–46. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
  5. ^ "Paul Durand (1886-1960)". Archives de l'Institut Pasteur. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  6. ^ a b O'Brien, Justin (1951). The Journals of Andre Gide Volume IV 1939 - 1949. Translated from the French. Secker & Warburg.