Miracles & the Nobel Laureate

Author: Fr. Stanley L. Jaki


Rev. Stanley L. Jaki

A "new" book marks a semi-centennial anniversary

Scientific fame is not immune to gradual fading. Even the glitter of a Nobel Prize wears off as time goes on. The name of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), a Nobel laureate, is not a household word today. Yet many a household should feel greatly indebted to him. Carrel developed, with the assistance of Charles Lindbergh, the heart pump without which bypass surgery would be inconceivable. Three decades before that, in the opening years of this century, Carrel pioneered in blood-vessel surgery in humans, in organ transplants in animals, and in keeping alive tissues from warm-blooded animals—feats for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1912.

The fifth day of this November is the 50th anniversary of the death of Carrel, who spent much of his active life at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. President Taft took it for a great American honor when Carrel received the Nobel Prize. Hopefully, major Catholic intellectual centers in America will not miss a golden opportunity this November.

A miracle observed

Carrel died as a genuinely devout Catholic. His Catholic death is all the more significant because for most of his life Carrel was a resolute agnostic. Indeed it took a special resolve to keep shoring up his agnosticism. The reason for this lies in a most unexpected event in Carrel's life in 1902, the very year when he achieved international fame by solving the age-old medical problem of suturing ruptured blood vessels.

By then Carrel had been thinking about that problem for almost eight years. He was in his third year of medical school when medical science failed to save President Carnot of France, who died in 1894 after an assassin's bullet severed one of his major arteries. Carrel began actual experimentation on the problem after he had been attached, in 1898, to the laboratory of J. L. Testut, a famed anatomist, at the University of Lyons.

But ultimately, the year 1902 became crucial in Carrel's life for another reason. On May 25 of that year Carrel yielded to the entreaties of a colleague who, at the last minute, could not accompany a "white train" carrying scores of sick from Lyons to Lourdes. Carrel's own interest in rapid healings would hardly have been sufficient to persuade him to go to Lourdes and study the medically startling facts for which Lourdes had already been famous—or infamous, in the eyes of much of the scientific and academic establishment.

It was even more unplanned that on the same train Carrel would find a 23 year-old woman, Marie Bailly, dying of tubercular peritonitis. Hers was a well-attested case in the medical circles of Lyons. In April 1902 doctors refused to operate on her lest they hasten her death. Because of her desperate condition, she had no hope to obtain a doctor's permission to get on the train. But through the ruse of a nurse, she was spirited on board just a few seconds before the train departed from Lyons at 1 PM on May 26. During the night Carrel, fearing she would die aboard the train, gave her morphine injections. Marie Bailly was half-unconscious when the train arrived at Lourdes, around noon on May 27. She did not realize she was in Lourdes until evening of that day.

Some (though far from all) basic details of what happened on the train and during the next two days were narrated by Carrel himself in his <Le Voyage a Lourdes>, published in 1949, four years after his death. The next year, there followed an English translation, <The Voyage to Lourdes>. It is possibly the most moving account of a miracle in Lourdes and of an agnostic doctor's wrestling with his conscience. But precisely because Carrel's account is so personal and moving, it lacks many scientific and documentary details. Such details alone would have turned the book into a major scientific testimony to a scientifically unexplainable event.

The missing data

In 1949 and 1950, when the French and English-speaking worlds were regaled by that book, its major credibility lay solely in the fact that Carrel was a Nobel laureate and that he refrained, as much as he could, from accepting the cure of Marie Bailly as a miracle.

Of course, a miracle it was. At 2 PM on May 28, when Marie Bailly was taken, against all medical advice, from the hospital to the grotto and the baths next to it, she was literally dying. After her hugely swollen abdomen, with hard lumps and hardly any liquid within it, had been washed three times with water from the baths, she began her spectacular recovery. By 4 PM her abdomen was flat; by the evening she was sitting up—chatting, eating and not vomiting at all, although she had hardly been able to retain any food for the previous five months.

On the next morning, May 29, she got dressed and, a day later, with no one's help, she boarded the train back to Lyons, getting better and better on the 24-hour train ride. On arriving in Lyons, at noon on May 31, she walked through the station without leaning on anyone, took the streetcar to the home of her relatives who could not believe that it was Marie Bailly—and threw herself in their arms.

Carrel's book does not contain data on the following crucial matters: Marie Bailly's tubercular parents and two of her siblings; her own detailed medical history; the depositions made in Lourdes on that memorable afternoon; Carrel's own notes, made between 2 PM on May 28 and 6 PM on May 29—from hour to hour, and during that memorable afternoon of May 28, from minute to minute; the failure of Carrel and other doctors in Lyons to find traces of hysteria in Marie Bailly; the astonishing steps of her recovery to full physical strength during the following six months.

There is nothing in Carrel's book about the close scrutiny to which the Sisters of Charity had subjected Marie Bailly's health. Only when they were fully satisfied did they accept her as a postulant, so that she could depart in late November, 1892, from Lyons, to begin her novitiate in Paris. There is nothing about the medical data referring to her health until 1906; nothing about the clinically attested disappearance from her entire body, including her lungs, of traces of tuberculosis (decades before the discovery of antibiotics); and finally, nothing about the fact that she lived the arduous life of a Sister of Charity for 30 more years, without ever contracting any other malady than old age.

The scientist's conversion

Nor did Carrel make any reference to a most curious coincidence. Only a few months after Marie Bailly died on February 22, 1937, Carrel—who had met many an ecclesiastic before (some of them famed intellectuals)—encountered for the first time one in whom he found a trusted guide. Obviously, Marie Bailly pulled a string or two in heaven. By 1942 Carrel firmly stated his faith in the Catholic creed.

Not that Carrel's return to the faith of his childhood and of his most devout and much-beloved mother had come easily for him. Throughout much of his adult life Carrel felt that Immanuel Kant had once and for all disposed of a rationally respectable belief in God, revelation, and—last but not least—miracles.

Carrel was not Kant's only memorable intellectual victim among Catholics. Many more of such latter-day victims fancy themselves to be transcendental Thomists, but are in reality mere AquiKantists (the infertile offspring of a miscegenation of Aquinas and Kant). They are the sad architects of a Thomism on which they have grafted Immanuel Kant. The result is that their brand of Thomism ceased to be a testimony to the true Emmanual, or that God who wants to be with us not only as emotional but also as genuinely intellectual beings.

In his famed book Man the Unknown, Carrel still claimed that science would discover a secret natural force which would generate the finest spiritual values, and effect miracles as well. Yet he could never explain Marie Bailly's cure, nor another cure—that of a child born blind, 18 months old. On his third trip to Lourdes, in 1910, Carrel saw that child, who certainly could not be the beneficiary of autosuggestion, regain his ability to see. Few medical scientists have had the good fortune to attest such cures. Carrel is the only Nobel laureate to witness not one but two miracles, and both in Lourdes.

Apologetics from a scientist's view

All these details and many more are now available in a new edition by Real-View-Books, of The Voyage to Lourdes, with an introduction by the author of this brief essay.

From the Catholic viewpoint, Carrel and his case should seem of enormous significance. He was one of those who saw and for a long time still did not believe. Yet he kept claiming that medical science must keep its eyes open to unusual cures, even if they took place at Lourdes and other pilgrimage places. His book does not contain his priceless admission, made a year after Marie Bailly's cure, to the director of the Medical Bureau of Lourdes. He congratulated that director, Dr. Boissarie, on a clinic where "tumors disappear, the blind see, the cripples walk," adding that "if pilgrimages did not exist, they should be invented."

For such an attitude toward Lourdes, Carrel was declared unwelcome in the medical establishment in free-thinking and anti-clerical Lyons. Their leaders had to eat humble pie upon Carrel's return for a brief visit to France in 1912 with the halo of a Nobel Prize around his head.

Carrel's case should seem important to Catholics, but not so much for the convincing of non-believers. Most of these will persist in their unbelief; Carrel's book will at most give second thoughts to some of them. Most of them will continue in the tracks of Emile Zola, who upon arriving at the Lourdes train station in 1898 declared to an army of newsmen that he would not believe that a miracle had occurred even if it did under his very eyes. (In fact, a famous cure did occur at Lourdes while Zola was on his pseudo-scientific fieldtrip.)

The faith is still under heavy cultural suspicion in an era which boasts of its many agnostic—and at times rudely materialist—Nobel laureates. They are always ready, as shown by a recent paid advertisement in the <New York Times> (August 30,1994), signed by 87 Nobel laureates, to support a radically secularist bioethics.

In an age of religious subjectivism and widespread theological slighting of the reality and credibility of miracles—biblical and post-biblical— Carrel's book may very well serve the principal purpose of all genuine apologetics. While relatively few abandon their disbelief on being exposed to good apologetics, many are the believers who thank the same kind of apologetics for their assurance about the full intellectual respectability of their faith.

Father Stanley L. Jaki, Distinguished University Professor at Seton Hall University and winner of the Templeton Prize for 1987 for his work on science and religion, is an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

This article appeared in the November 1994 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.