A scandal for sceptics

A scandal for sceptics Alexis Carrel (second from left) pictured with some French surgeons during World War I
Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Lourdes poses serious challenges for honest inquiring minds, writes Greg Daly


There is something inexplicable about the miracles of Lourdes, according to the Nobel-prize-winning doctor who was one of three scientists credited with having discovered HIV.

A non-believer, Prof. Luc Montagnier is currently based at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, but was many years a researcher at Paris’s Pasteur Institute where he first isolated the virus that is the cause of AIDS, being honoured for his achievement with the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008.

In the 2009 book Le Nobel et le Moine (‘The Nobel [Laureate] and the Monk’) he discussed this subject among others with the Cistercian Michel Niassaut, with Bro. Michel asking Prof. Montagnier what he thought – as a non-believer – of the remarkable healings at Lourdes.

“When a phenomenon is inexplicable, if it really exists, then there’s no reason to deny it,” he said, maintaining that such phenomena should be studied rather than denied.

“In the miracles of Lourdes, there is something inexplicable,” he said, criticising those scientists who, he said, “commit the error of rejecting what they don’t understand.”

“I don’t like this attitude,” he continued, adding, “I frequently quote the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.”

He continued: “As far as the miracles of Lourdes that I’ve studied, I believe it really is something inexplicable. I don’t have an explanation for these miracles, and I recognize that there are healings that are not included within the current limits of science.”


Prof. Montagnier has not converted in the face of the miracles of Lourdes, though they clearly challenge him, but others have had their whole worldviews changed by Lourdes, not least Prof. Montagnier’s Nobel-prize-winning predecessor Alexis Carrel.

Carrel, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912 for pioneering vascular suturing techniques that helped pave the way for organ transplants, was an agnostic by the time he began college, despite having been raised in a Catholic family in a small French town, been educated in Jesuit-run schools, and having regularly attended Mass.

As an agnostic, he was not sure if God existed, and rejected Catholicism in its entirety.

In 1902, however, he and a fellow doctor took a train to Lourdes to see for themselves what he regarded as the hysteria around the shrine, the French medical establishment of the day having been utterly opposed to the notion that there was anything supernatural about Lourdes.

On the train he encountered a girl named Marie Bailly, who had a fatal disease called tuberculous peritonitis that had left her only half-conscious with a swelled belly. Carrel gave her morphine in an attempt to help, but he said doubted she would live even to make it to Lourdes, with other doctors on the train concurring.

Despite this, Marie survived to reach the station in Lourdes, where her friends took her from the train and carried her to the grotto. There they began to pour water – three pitchers full – from the shrine onto her, and with each pour she felt, she said, a searing pain throughout her body. Her belly started to flatten to a normal size, amazing the doctors who were watching, and her pulse also returned to normal.

She was so much better that evening that she was able to eat a normal dinner.

Carrel was left baffled by what he had witnessed, as what he had seen seemed to confound his medical knowledge, such that it was hard to deny that something supernatural – even miraculous – had happened.

At the same time, however, he knew that given the views of France’s medical establishment his career would be ruined if he was publicly to state that he had witnessed a miracle, and so opted to maintain a discreet silence around the affair, even playing down the fact that he had travelled to Lourdes.

His discretion availed him little in the end, as Marie’s cure was reported throughout France, with news outlets revealing that Carrel had been present but that he did not believe there was anything supernatural or miraculous about the cure.

Carrel, then, felt obliged to correct the record, and published a public response. Taking religious believers to task for what could be a gullible eagerness to claim as miraculous matters that were merely unusual, he also challenged his peers in the medical profession for their stubborn prejudice against the possibility of miracles, saying that Marie’s cure might indeed have been miraculous.

Predictably enough, Carrel’s comments caused a public scandal, with the medical establishment outraged that an accomplished doctor with the extensive scientific education Carrel had had could have ventured such an outlandish view, and with his career in France effectively over, he moved to Canada in 1903, before relocating to Chicago in the US.

His pioneering work with Jean-Claude Guthrie would win him the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1912, by which point he was based in New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, where he would spend the rest of his career.

The following decades saw Carrel drawn towards eugenic ideas, with him attending rallies of the French Popular Party (PPF) in the late 1930s, while he became firm friends with American hero turned fascist sympathiser Charles Lindbergh. All this time, though, he grappled with the reality of what he had witnessed at Lourdes, knowing that what he had seen had implications if only he would face them.

After decades of pondering the issue, in 1939, he was advised to meet the Trappist monk Alexis Presse, and though he was sceptical of the wisdom of so doing, he did so and became friends with the priest.

Two years later, in 1942, he had finally reached a point where he could in conscience say: “I believe in the existence of God, in the immortality of the soul, in Revelation and in all the Catholic Church teaches.”

Two years later, in November 1944, he died, but not before Fr Presse had come to his bedside to administer the Last Rites.