Marthe Gautier (born 10 September 1925) is a French medical doctor and researcher, best known for her role in discovering the link of diseases to chromosome abnormalities.
Marthe Gautier discovered a vocation for pediatrics at an early age. In 1942 she joined her sister Paulette who was about to complete her medical studies in Paris intending to become a pediatrician. She passed the entrance exam of the “Internat des hôpitaux de Paris” and spent the next four years as an intern gaining clinical experience in pediatrics.
In 1955 she submitted and defended her thesis in pediatric cardiology under the direction of Robert Debré. Her thesis focused on the study of clinical and anatomical pathology of fatal forms of rheumatic fever (rheumatic endocarditis) due to streptococcus infection.
Robert Debré, in charge of pediatrics in France at the time, offered Gautier a scholarship for one year at Harvard University in order to acquire knowledge in pediatric cardiology with two main objectives. The first was to eradicate rheumatic fever, using penicillin and the treatment of sometimes life-threatening cardiovascular disease with cortisone; the second was to create a department for diagnosis and surgery of congenital heart diseases for newborns and young children.
In September 1955, Gautier left for Boston. She was accompanied by Jean Alcardi and Jacques Couvreur, both Fulbright scholars, and the three became the first interns of the Hôpitaux de Paris to be awarded scholarships for the US. At Harvard, one of the tasks of her internship was to be trained as a laboratory technician working on cell culture. Besides the two objectives that had been set initially, Gautier was also working half-time as a technician in a laboratory for cell culture to obtain in-vitro cultures of fibroblast starting from aorta fragments.
After a year in Boston, Gautier returned to Paris. Meanwhile, her job in the pediatric cardiology service at the Bicêtre Hospital in Paris had been given to a colleague during her absence. However, she learned that there was a position available at the Trousseau Hospital, in Raymond Turpin’s team.
Turpin’s research was focused on polymalformative syndromes, of which the most common is trisomy, characterized by intellectual disability and morphological abnormalities. At the time, Turpin favored the hypothesis of a chromosomal origin of trisomy but there was no laboratory for cell culture in France and the number of human chromosomes was estimated at 48, but without any certainty.
In 1956, biologists from Lund University in Sweden announced that humans have exactly 46 chromosomes. Turpin had many years earlier proposed the idea of culturing cells to count the number of chromosomes in trisomy. Gautier had recently joined the pediatrics group he headed at the Armand-Trousseau Hospital, and she offered to attempt this, since she had been trained in both cell culture and tissue staining techniques in the United States. Turpin agreed to provide her with tissue samples from patients with Down syndrome. With very limited resources Gautier set up the first in vitro cell culture laboratory in France.
In order to count the chromosomes, Gautier worked on fibroblasts derived from connective tissue, which were easier to obtain under local anesthesia. Although the principle of cell culture is simple, there were many practical obstacles to getting it to work under the primitive conditions available to Gautier, who was forced to use a personal loan to purchase laboratory glassware and, at times, her own blood as a source of human serum. She eventually confirmed that the protocol worked, using connective tissue from a neighbouring surgeon, taken during planned interventions in children. She used the “hypotonic shock” method followed by drying the slide after attachment in order to disperse the chromosomes of dividing cells and make them easier to count.
Using this protocol, Gautier found that the cells of normal children have 46 chromosomes. In May 1958, she observed an additional chromosome in the cells of a trisomic boy, the first evidence of chromosomal abnormalities in individuals with Down syndrome.