Evelyne Cerf-Pecher’s book on her father, Dr Charles Pecher. The Story in English. Part 1 of transcript

by nuclearhistory

Evelyne Cerf-Pecher’s book on her father, Dr Charles Pecher. The Story in English. Part 1 of transcript

The book by Evelyne Cerf- Pecher, on her father, Doctor Charles Pecher.

Title: “ Mon Pere Charles Pecher L’homme de sciences 1913-1941.”
Published by Didier Devillez Editeur.
ISBN 978-2-87396-132-9
Mise en page: Art Mature spri- cath.ruelle@skynet.be
Production: SEFF – seff.fd@skynet.be
Editeur responsable : Merzlota Production a.s.b.l.
Didier Devillez Editeur
53, rue Emmanuel Van Driessche – 1050 Bruxelles
Tel. + 32 2 215 82 05 Mobile + 32 475 931 935 devillez@skynet.be
Copyright 2011 Evelyne Cerf-Pecher.

French text with an English Annex: “Annexe II – The Story in English”

Evelyne had previously granted me permission to reproduce the English Annexe for my WordPress blog. I recently emailed Evelyne again to ensure I understood and had covered all of the conditions of the creator, who has labored so long to produce such a fine and important work. I include part of Evelyne’s reply to me here:

“Dear Paul,

After thought (and interview of my editor), here is my opinion : it is a good idea to include the English annexe in your blog.

You could introduce it as a condensed version of the French text, which comes as an annexe into the book. This would explain why there are frequent references to “Première partie”… “Quatrième partie”… etc.

I think you could suppress the first and second paragraphs at page 236 (A portrait… and: And finally…) but it’s up to you.

At this same page, you could keep the third paragraph which introduces the two letters (if you plan to keep them).

If you publish the English text on your blog, don’t forget mentioning the reference of the book (see last page, ISBN)!

I hope you are well.

My best regards, Evelyne”

So dear readers, here we go. The following is the English Annexe, a condensed version of the French text. As I don’t read and write French, this is the best I can do. I am scanning and converting to text the relevant pages of the book and will be posting them as I complete each one. Here is the first.

“ Mon Pere Charles Pecher L’homme de sciences 1913-1941.”
Page 217
Annexe II

To Carla, Bert and Paul

I never met my father, Charles Pecher. He died in late August 1941 in Joliette (near Montreal), and my birth occurred a few weeks later in Massachusetts.

Questions about his life and death did not surface until 1976, when my mother told me his death was a suicide. According to her, he had been “morally disturbed” because of conflicting demands placed upon him by the Belgian Government in exile (which expected him to render military service) and by the American authorities who insisted that his ongoing medical work
on cancer at the Ernest Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, (University of California, San Francisco) was crucial to both science and the allied war effort. This episode is introduced in the “Premiere partie” and developed, later, in the “Quatrieme partie”.

My major concern, however, came in 1998, when I was informed that my father had been asked to participate in the early stages of the elaboration of what was to become an atomic bomb. Was that possible? What was the truth? What had happened, exactly? This episode is introduced in the “Troisieme partie” and part of a response arises in the “Cinquieme partie”.

The French text details how, step by step, I discovered the scientific contributions of my father and how I could enlighten the multiple events which took place before….and after his death. Because the information came randomly from many sources and because I have tried to present the many collected data as a story, the text is rather long and does not follow chronologically.

The present account is not designed to tell how 1 discovered him, but what I discovered.
And the most amazing thing I learned is that the drug
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Commonly known as “Metastron”, now in wide use as pain killer in the
treatment of bone metastases, contains the 89-atomic mass radioactive
isotope of strontium, the Sr-89, pioneered by my father for therapeutic
irradiation of the skeleton of patients with generalized bone tumors.

Previous animal experiments allowed my father to observe and study
the selective fixation of radiostrontium in bones, suggesting its use as a
therapeutic agent (strontium, because of its chemical relationship to calcium,
was used in preference to the latter for technical reasons). He witnessed
the first clinical success, the definitely general condition improvement
in a patient with osteoblastic metastases of prostate carcinoma, and
this was his last great satisfaction before the distressing events which
occurred afterwards. This particular case was presented in a posthumous
publication but it was restricted because of wartime security concerns.
The medical usefulness of Sr-89 was independently rediscovered in the
seventies, and the anteriority and originality of Pecher’s work is largely
unnoticed: very few people are aware of it. The radioisotope Sr-89 is introduced
in the “Deuxieme partie” and its unexpected and surprising fate
is told in the “Cinquieme partie”.

Both versions of the same story are somewhat different since
English one has gained benefit from the progressive and bettering
prehension of my father’s lifetime and scientific work during the
creation process of the French text. Thus, although condensed and more
straightforward, this version contains some additional details. On the
other hand, the very colloquial and personal French version contains a
great many anecdotes which do not fit in this shorter version. And I am
sorry for it because they render how exciting were the many steps of my
discovery, and I would love to share my emotion with Carla, Bert and
Paul.. . and any other English readers who might turn these pages.

WELL, LET US START at the beginning. During the spare time of his
medical studies at the University of Brussels, my father was admitted to
a physiology laboratory to commence experimental research. Using an

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oscilloscope, a tool recently introduced in physiology (Blair and Erlanger,
1932), he could observe, like these authors and others, the responses in
stimulation of individual nerve fibres: the elementary action potentials (an
all-or-none electrical event). He could also confirm a curious phenomenon
already observed by those physiologists: the spontaneous and disordered fluctuation of the excitability of the nerve fibres (i.e. the fluctuation of the occurrence of action potentials in response to constant stimuli, within a narrow range of stimulation intensities, near the threshold of excitation).

His personal contribution to this subject, exposed in the “Sixieme partie“, was a thorough statistical analysis of the phenomenon indicating that, within this range of stimulation intensities (and at low stimulation frequency, about 1 per second), the responses occurred at random, their distribution being compatible with the laws of chance. He showed that their probability of occurrence increases from 1 to 99 % I for an increase of a few percent of the stimulus intensity,
being depicted with an S-shaped curve. In addition, he showed that the fluctuations in excitability of two fibers are independent, demonstrating that these fluctuations do not result from unstable stimuli but are an intrinsic character of the nerve fibre excitability.

This investigation resulted in three publications in French (1936, 1937, and 1939, listed and commented on in “Annexe I. Lcs publications”)… and was almost forgotten for nearly 20 years (“almost” is clarified at theend of the “Sixeme partie”).

Twenty years later, A. A. Verveen, a young student, during his waiting
between the clinical stages of his study in medicine in Amsterdam, joined the staff of the Netherlands Central Institute of Brain research to train himself in neurophysiology. Much to his surprise, his first experiment with a nerve (containing a number of nerve fibres, or axons) showed compound action potentials (the sum of individual action potentials) with Fluctuating sizes in response to constant stimuli. This was in total contradiction with the all or none textbook description of the action potential.

Improving his set-up to record responses of only axon, he discovered that the threshold of excitation does not have a definite value but a range of values, wherein a given stimulus does or does not produce an

Page 220

action potential, at random: “the nerve fibre turned out to bet”. Verveen
observed that the probability of response rises from 0 to 1 in response to
increasing stimulus intensities (in the narrow range giving fluctuating
responses). This was illustrated by an S-shaped curve. He also observed
the independent behavior of two nerve fibres.

Puzzled that this phenomenon, the spontaneous fluctuation of excitability
of the nerve fibre, was not mentioned in the textbooks, nor in
recent reports, Verveen assumed that the physiologists probably attributed
this evident variability to stimulus fluctuations. A “stimulus artefact”
does not merit interest! But he knew his stimuli were stable, and the “two
fibres experiment” was a sufficient demonstration that the fluctuation is
an inherent property of the fibres!

He then turned to explore the earlier physiological literature, which
was not an easy task at that time: no key-words for quick retrieval, no
Internet of course, and copying was a tedious and expensive procedure.
He visited many university libraries, surveying numerous physiological
journals covering several decades, in English, German and French. After
several months of unavailing search, he finally came upon the work of
Charles Pecher and his predecessors in this matter.

Thanks to Prof. Dr. A. A. Verveen (now a retired Professor at the
University of Leiden) reference to Charles Pecher has entered into the
modern biological literature, for his fine statistical analysis of the fluctuation
of nerve membrane excitability. But Verveen had to fight to make
the random nature of those fluctuations a recognized nerve membrane
property: people were still considering the fluctuations to be an artefact
caused by stimulus variability. Randomness, uncertainty and chance,
were not welcome in neurophysiology at that time! After his thesis on
this subject in 1961, he modified and improved his methods and analysis,
began to use computers, and, in collaboration, developed a methodology
designed to the direct measure, at the microvolt level, of the voltage over
the nerve membrane. Those extremely fine measurements of membrane
voltage displayed random fluctuations (the so-called “membrane noise”)
but, once more, this result was questioned for the same reason. Verveen’s
work was finally accepted for publication in 1965, and appeared in the
journal Science in 1966, and in Nature in 1967.

After this long period of disfavor, analysis of fluctuation and membrane noise became
recognized and useful tools in the study of the ionic membrane-channels (these newly discovered membrane proteins underlying the permeability changes related to the nervous electrical activity),
was thoroughly advocated in 1977 in a Review Article of the journal Nature, by Ch. Stevens.
Random processes in the nervous system were gaining credit!

After discovering Charles Pecher’s publications, Verveen could not find any other trace of him and finally had to assume that he was no long alive. Years passed. Verveen turned to new interests, but he never forgot Pecher. In early 2009 he received an e-mail from a cousin of mine, Carla Webbles. Several months earlier, Carla had been informed by her mother, Janine Pecher Webbles, (a first-cousin of my father), that she had a cousin, a scientist, Charles Pecher, who had committed suicide in 1941 under questionable circumstances.
Intrigued, Carla began exploring the Internet for information on her newly discovered relative when she found references to Verveen. She emailed him. Verveen was thunderstruck! He told her Pecher was his hero! He and I then began to communicate and provided us (Carla, her mother and me) with an overview of Pecher’s scientific contributions and the extension of the quest by himself and others: “Flucuations in excitability. A personal account in honour of Charles Pecher”. This most fortunate and remarkable episode is described in “Sixieme Partie”. Verveen account was for me a mother lode of information. It was invaluable to me in the writing of my French text and….of course, this English one!

Verveen, who introduces himself as “Bert”, notes several observations in my father’s 1939 report which were, in fact, prophetic: that the (calculated) small number of ions necessary to “trigger” an action potential could, by its statistical fluctuations, be responsible of its random occurrence, and that discontinuity of matter does certainly play a role. He wonders if similar fluctuations exist in physiological conditions and elsewhere in the nervous system, and if, in neural processes involving only a few neurons, these fluctuations could have a function. These discussions and questions, viewed from the present day, did absolutely did not loose their pertinence and modernity. Bert lists a number of possible functions of random processes in the nervous system, and mentions a practical application in the construction of an hearing implant.

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Uncertainty and stochasticity, are at present quite acknowledged and much studied phenomena, not only in the field of neurophysiology but in many other domains as well (as shown in the November 2009 issue of Pour la Science, the French edition of Scientific American). Thanks to Bert’s tenacity and continuing professional interest, my father has a little but unquestionable in place in this vast subject!

End part one of Paul’s transcript. Paul’s note: I add that modern digital theory and practice owes a lot to the 1930s discoveries of Dr Pecher. It was Carla Webbles who informed me of this fact. And, as I cannot resist it, an example of the human result of the facts of nature found by Pecher et al regarding the spontaneous fluctuation of excitability of the nerve fibre follows below.