Marie Phisalix, biologist and feminist!

Fundamental research finds life-saving applications and nourishes glorious lives. Marie Phisalix (1861-1946) was a pioneer. She was awarded the Agrégée de Sciences in 1888 and was one of the first women to pass the competitive examination and become a doctor in France.

Marie Phisalix jeune en 1895

Domaine public

However, it was in the shadow of her husband, Césaire Phisalix, that she began her exceptional career as a scientist. She met this doctor and professor of medical zoology at the School of Medicine and Pharmacy in Besançon. She then joined him at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, where he was assistant to the chair of comparative pathology. It was there that he discovered serotherapy against viper venom in 1894, thanks to research carried out with the biochemist Gabriel Bertrand, thus beating Albert Calmette, of the Pasteur Institute in Lille, who was working on the venom of the Cobra.

When her husband died prematurely, Marie took up the torch. In 1900, her thesis on "Histological, embryological and physiological research on the venom glands of the terrestrial salamander" earned her a silver medal from the Faculty of Paris. As soon as she was awarded her doctorate in medicine, her name became associated with the study of venoms and the animals that produce them, and will remain so for all biologists in the world.

Charles Fichot, Auguste Tilly,  « Nouvelles constructions du Jardin des Plantes. Pavillon des reptiles. Vue extérieure. Salle des reptiles venimeux. Salle des amphibies », 1874, estampe, 322x222 mm, IC 384

© MNHN

Antoine Chazal, Vipère à queue courte, Echidna arietans, d'après le vivant, 1848, aquarelle sur vélin, 460x330 mm, portefeuille 88, folio 49

© MNHN

Eager to study living reptiles, she moved to the Museum's herpetology laboratory in 1910. Her research topics included the comparative anatomy of venomous systems, the physiology and pathology of envenomation and the special study of natural immunity and its mechanisms. All of this work was the basis for the therapeutic use of venoms.

The renowned herpetologist was also a feminist activist. Appointed vice-president of the Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women in 1935, on 14 April 1945 she chaired a meeting of the French League for Women's Rights on the role of women voters in the reconstruction of the country.

Marie was highly decorated and won the Bréant Prize of the Academy of Sciences twice (1916 and 1922) and then, in 1928, the Lasserre Grand Prize (sciences) of the Ministry of Public Instruction. She was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1923, and was so bold as to stand for election to the Académie de Médecine, though she failed. The institution on rue Bonaparte missed out on the entry of its first female academician at the time!

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