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Tribute to Yves Laporte

Alain Berthoz, Jacques Glowinski et Alain PROCHIANTZ
p. 64-65

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Prof. Yves Laporte, Chair of Neurophysiology from 1972 to 1991 and Administrateur of the Collège de France from 1980 to 1991

1Yves Laporte was born in Toulouse on 21 December 1920. During the Second World War he was a member of the French Resistance and in 1945, following his demobilization from the First French Army, he was awarded the Médaille de la résistance and the Croix de Guerre.

2On the advice of Alfred Fessard, then Chair of Neuro­physiology at the Collège de France, he left for a two-year period in the United States, owing to the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then of the Rockefeller Foundation. There he studied under the supervision of the renowned American physiologist Stephen Kuffler, who also mentored David Hubel, Torsten Wiesel and Eric Kandel. On his return to France in 1947, he was awarded his PhD in medicine in Toulouse, where he settled until 1971, with the exception of a second two-year stay (1949-1951) at the Rockefeller Institute, working with Lorente de Nó and David Lloyd. During his years in Toulouse he was Professor of Physiology at the Rangueil Faculty of Medicine, until he succeeded Alfred Fessard as Chair of Neurophysiology at the Collège de France, in 1972. As Administrateur, he directed the Collège from 1980 to 1991, the year of his retirement. In 1985 he was elected to the Académie des sciences and was promoted to the rank of commandeur of the Légion d’honneur in 1999. He was decorated with the Grande Croix of the Ordre national du mérite in 2006.

3Most of Yves Laporte’s work was concerned with the muscular mechanoreceptors called spindles. These are highly complex sensors found in mammals, in all the muscles whose contraction allows the limbs and the body to move. Spindles are essentially comprised of a small fascicule of special muscle fibres – intrafusal fibres – that support the sensory endings innervated by afferent nerve fibres with a high conduction speed. These sensors send the central nervous system messages to signal voluntary or involuntary changes in muscle length. These messages are combined with those that come from other sensorial sensors (visual system and vestibular system). In addition to this first control, the spindles’ sensitivity is modulated through a central motor innervation transmitted by the axons of the gamma motoneurons, situated in the spinal cord, of which two types exist, known as “static” and “dynamic”. The latter increase the signal of change in muscle length when the former increase the frequency of afferent nerve fibres’ discharge. This complex neuronal circuitry, which allows for the integration of information on muscles’ state of contraction and of central instructions, plays a fundamental role in controlling movement. A large part of what we know about the properties of muscle spindles and their central innervation comes from Yves Laporte and his collaborators’ works.

4These discoveries owe a great deal to outstanding experi­mental skills. With Paul Bessou, Yves Laporte developed a revolutionary method to study the afferent messages of a single muscle ­spindle. The same method is used to isolate specific motor fibres stemming from gamma motoneurons situated in the spinal cord, in the same motor nucleus as the alpha motoneurons which innervate muscle fibres. With Françoise Emonet-Denand, he discovered the existence of skeletal-fusimotor motoneurons whose axons simultaneously innervate spindles and “ordinary” muscle fibres. These are the beta motoneurons, of which there are two types: dynamic and static. With Julien Petit, he worked on afferent nerve fibres and with David Barker he studied the nerve fibre endings that ensure the motor innervation of the spindle’s muscle fibres. He also studied these fibres’ histo­chemistry, demonstrating that their enzymatic equipment is very similar to that of ordinary muscle fibres.

5At the Collège de France, alongside the above-mentioned work which earned him international recognition, he hosted brilliant and innovative teams, and supported certain, and sometimes risky, scientific ventures. Michel Imbert’s team evidently comes to mind, which pioneered work on the development of the visual system. Or Pierre Buisseret’s and Léna Jami’s teams, who worked with him for a long time on spinal motoneurons. This generosity and his success are evidenced, for example, by his support of the INSERM 114 Unit, which was hosted on the Collège’s ­premises before its Director, Jacques Glowinski, was himself elected to the Chair of Neuropharmacology in 1981. Yves Laporte was also highly attentive to the French neurophysi­ology scene, which is how he came to notice and help several young teams outside our institution, including that of Alain Berthoz who was developing a promising line of research on ocular motricity at the Centre de recherche des Cordeliers (CRC).

6Yves Laporte was not only a master in neuroscience and a discoverer and protector of young talent: he also dedicated several years, as the Administrateur of the Collège de France, to the evolution and modernization of our institution. With great tenacity and highly effective discretion, he worked for the Collège de France and its development. Without his efforts, it is unlikely that the Collège de France would have had the Cardinal-Lemoine buildings and those of the Rue d’Ulm today, and it is he who was behind the creation of the Fondation Hugot. As a man of consensus, who knew how to be firm but preferred to avoid un­necessary conflict, he readily­ consulted with his colleagues, especially Professors François Morel, François Gros and Jacques Glowinski. He furthermore launched important reforms, including the establishment of a governing board that bore witness to the importance he attributed­ to staff’s participation­ in the life of the institution.

7To sum up what Yves Laporte’s name echoes for many, beyond his scientific excellence and his role as a pioneer, he was a man devoted to the collectivity, who was able to listen; a man of immense modesty and remarkable tolerance, which in no way detracted from the acuity of his judgement. Characterized by tranquil patience, he knew how to “gauge things” with a wonderful mix of seriousness and humour.

8Those who benefited from Yves Laporte’s teaching, from his advice, his fair criticisms always given courteously, and his encouragements, in fact, all those who had anything to do with this man will, for a long time to come, legitimately be moved by the mention of his name and the memory of his silhouette of indescribable elegance.

Tribute to Yves Laporte. Papers are available at, on Yves Laporte’s page
Serge Haroche, Administrateur of the Collège de France
Chairperson: Jacques Glowinski
The Neuromuscular Spindle. From Toulouse to Paris.
Michel Imbert
When a Deputy Director Meets an Administrateur
Pierre Buisseret
Performing an Experiment with Mr Laporte
Lena Jami
At “Yves Laporte’s School”
Daniel Zytnicki
Yves Laporte, “An Exemplary Head of Laboratory”
Chantal Milleret
Chairperson: Léna Jami
Between the Spinal and the Cerebral, such a Lasting Friendship Pierre Buser
Yves Laporte: a Human Neurophysiology Master too
Emmanuel Pierrot Deseilligny
Yves Laporte’s Footsteps: from Muscle Spindles to the
Spinal Cord
Elzbleta Jankowska
From the Marey Institute to the Collège de France, Unforgettable Encounters
Jean Azerad
Chairperson: Michel Imbert
My First Administrateur
Jean-François Rigoni
The Administrateur of the Collège and the Vice-Administrateur of the Faculty Gilbert Dagron
A Determined Man
André Miquel
Courtesy at the Service of Rigour and Tenacity
Jacques Glowinski
Six Years as Administrateur in Yves Laporte’s Footsteps
Pierre Corvol
Yves Laporte and the Notion of Motor Anticipation
Alain Berthoz
Yves Laporte: the Collège de France and the Académie des sciences
François Gros
An Impressive Neuroscientist
Émile-Étienne Baulieu
Gallant and Courteous
Michel Zink
At the Comité consultatif national d’éthique (CCNE)
Anne Fagot-Largeault
Yves Laporte and the Singer-Polignac Foundation
Yves Pouliquen
With the support of the Fondation Hugot of the Collège de France

9Source: La lettre, no. 36, May 2013

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Alain Berthoz, Jacques Glowinski et Alain PROCHIANTZ, « Tribute to Yves Laporte », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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