Charles Thibault at his desk (spring 2003). © INRA, DENIS Jean-Baptiste

Charles Thibault

"More failures than successes" was the philosophy of the man whose name would always be linked to the first in vitro fertilisation in a mammal.

Updated on 04/13/2016
Published on 02/17/2016

If Charles Thibault had been born fifty years later, we would now speak of him as one of those new "disruptors" whose mindset can change the world.  How can a man born on 14 July 1919 still inspire so many, more than ten years after his death (in 2003)?  Like his other work (see inset) in vitro fertilisation left its mark on INRA's Animal Physiology Division that he set up and led between 1954 and 1972 in Jouy-en-Josas.  For the Institute, it is above all his timeless spirit and his "stimulation of the imagination through failure" which persist.  Idealistic? Charles Thibault was above all an admirer of INRA and even more of its scientists and engineers who worked with him and who he kept on a tight rein. His words still probably resonate in the ears of his detractors.  "INRA should only recruit scientists who sign a moral undertaking that their research will serve advances in agriculture" he stated repeatedly, as a man who had spent thirty-eight years behind what he called affectionately "my bench".

From INRA to the President of the CNRS

A resolute man, Charles Thibault was as likely to battle with a scientific unknown as with one of his supervisory ministers.  Appointed for three years as President of the CNRS from 1979 to 1981, he accepted no political compromises, preferring to tough it out rather than abandon his convictions. Towards the end of his professional life, he returned to teaching.  A logical destiny for one who had always intended to become a primary school teacher.  Passionate about natural sciences, he sometimes suffered misfortunes.  Twice he tried to pass the competitive examination in natural sciences at the École Normale Supérieure, but D-Day and then the German fight-back in the Ardennes caused cancellation of the examinations that he had prepared with such zeal.  By that time he had already published two theses (in 1942), one on colour vision in fish and the other on mammalian parthenogenesis.  These two areas of work were threads that would run through his life of scientific research.

A peerless administrator

His career followed a spectacular path as from the day in 1944 when he joined CNRS before being appointed assistant and then supervisor at Université de Paris from 1947 to 1949, and finally entering INRA in 1950. His career was marked by dozens of national and international awards, which included the Prix Foulon in 1950 and the Pioneer Award from the International Embryo Technology Society, which he received in San Diego in 1989.  As well as these scientific activities and his leadership of CNRS, Charles Thibault was also Vice-Chairman of the French Prime Minister's Consultative Committee on Scientific and Technical Research and a member of the National Economic and Social Council, the CNRS Board and of numerous CNRS committees over a 25-year period.  His authority in the field of reproduction was also recognised by the medical community, who adopted him as President of the French Society for the Study of Fertility between 1986 and 1989.
Charles Thibault died on 20 August 2003 having never wavered from his belief that "a research scientist must have an open mind and never be concerned about his social position".  In vitro veritas?

Charles Thibault, a pioneer of in vitro fertilisation

"We were the first to achieve the in vitro fertilisation of a mammalian oocyte (rabbit) in 1954, with Louis Dauzier and S. Wintenberger-Torrès." When referring to his research, Charles Thibault never forgot to mention his colleagues or talk about the men and farmers for whom he had provided practical solutions.  Indeed, his close links with farming allowed him to formulate pertinent research questions.  In the early 1950s, livestock production was limited by low reproductive rates.  Charles Thibault tried to solve this very practical problem through the use of cutting-edge science: he was behind the initial work by his teams on controlling the reproduction of livestock.  In 1988, Charles Thibault was awarded the Wolf Prize in Agriculture - equivalent to a Nobel - for his work on reproductive physiology.  He remains the only French winner of this prestigious award…