Henri Isliker (1922-2007)
Our department’s long-standing passion for immunology, as applied to cancer, dates back to the appointment of Henri Isliker in 1958, as the first Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Lausanne, and chair of the newly created Institute of Biochemistry.
Born in 1922 in Geneva, as an undergraduate, Henri Isliker studied chemistry at the University of Bern. After completing his doctoral thesis in biochemistry, he spent five years at Harvard Medical School in the "Department of Biophysical Chemistry" and later at Columbia Medical School. These stints were carried out in the company of illustrious scientists - founders of the field of immunochemistry - such as Edwin Cohn, John Edsall, Lawrence Oncley, Michael Heidelberger and Elwin Kabat.
He then returned to Bern where he was appointed “Privatdozent” before being summoned by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lausanne to create and direct the Institute of Biochemistry from 1958. This decision proved to be inspired, as Henri Isliker emerged to be among the visionaries of the time that realized that Immunology held great potential to make important contributions to biology, biochemistry and medicine.
His own rich scientific work focused on the study of the structure and properties of immunoglobulins and compounds of the complement system, at a time when the first methods of protein identification, separation and analysis were just emerging. However, above all, we owe him the creation of a unique research centre in Switzerland, which grouped various institutions that together have greatly contributed to the reputation garnered by the University of Lausanne in the field of life sciences.
Under his ingenious leadership, Henri Isliker established the infrastructure to develop and nurture scientists with particular interest in biochemistry and immunology. Along with the responsibility for teaching biochemistry within the Faculties of Medicine and of Science of our university, he made huge efforts to establish the first university institute in Switzerland specializing in immunochemistry and fundamental immunology.
Thanks to his enthusiasm, his lucidity, his modern vision of scientific research and his powers of persuasion, his influence was not only felt in our university.
He simultaneously founded and led the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC). At the same time, he was instrumental in the creation of the Lausanne branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, whose dual orientation towards immunology and oncology reflects Henri Isliker’s own scientific interests. In the same spirit of openness, and also due to the relationships he was able to establish with major international institutions, he also set up the WHO Reference Centre for Immunoglobulins in 1963. This would later become the WHO Immunology Research and Training Centre. In 30 years of activity, this unit not only trained more than 850 medical and biological fellows from developing nations but also set up research programmes in the Department of Biochemistry on certain parasitic or transmissible diseases and on the development of vaccines. Fully aware of the crucial role of this unit, Henri Isliker, personally taught many of the courses given in the countries concerned.
A man of exceptional energy, with high ambition and a spirit of harmony, Henri Isliker was able to bring together scientists of sometimes very different and complementary backgrounds and characters, while leaving them completely free to conduct their projects. His warm personality, great modesty and his willingness to always prioritise the quality of research and the support given to researchers, in particular young researchers, were shining examples for us, his students, colleagues and friends. May the spirit that animated him in all these achievements inspire those who have the responsibility to continue the exceptional work of this pioneer.