Editor's Note: This remembrance of pioneering pain researcher Jean-Marie Besson was co-authored by Tony Dickenson, University College London, UK, and Luis Villaneuva, Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurosciences, INSERM UMR 894, Paris, France. We invite you to share your memories of Jean-Marie Besson by posting a comment below.
Jean-Marie Besson was born on June 28, 1938, in Belfort, France, down near the Swiss border. His high schooling was in Belfort, and then he took his pharmacy degree and a BSc in physiology at the University of Nancy. These early experiences formed the basis for much of his scientific career, where his joy of science and pharmacology were behind much of what he loved to do.
He was appointed as a pharmacist in 1962, but things were about to change when Jean-Marie gained his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Paris 6 (Pierre et Marie Curie University) in 1969 and was integrated into the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the national research council; then he became a director of research in 1972. His early work was on the brain at the Institute Marey. Soon, descending controls from the brain to the spinal cord were being studied with John Liebeskind, Jean Louis Oliveras, and Gisèle Guilbaud.
Even at this early stage, the themes that dominated his research were fully developed. Jean-Marie soon moved to include the spinal cord with studies on selective activation of pain neurons and the effects of morphine in producing neuronal inhibition. Above all, the studies were original and beautifully designed, but most importantly, they combined many approaches that would include electrophysiology, neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, pharmacology, and behavior. Jean-Marie’s seminal contributions to our understanding of pain mechanisms include the first demonstration of a selective antinociceptive action of opiates on spinal dorsal horn neurons and the participation of descending brainstem systems in the modulation of pain.
In 1976 he was made director of the INSERM Unit U161, Neurophysiologie Pharmacologique, which became the foremost pain laboratory in the world. He remained as director until 2003.
Among many honors and scientific duties he carried out, Jean-Marie was a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), joining in 1975; the first president of the French Neuroscience Society; and president of the IASP from 1996-1999. As president, he fought for the developing world and translational research, and wrote some wonderful, inspiring president’s letters to the members of the IASP. At congresses, Jean-Marie would be available for everyone, and he co-organized some remarkable meetings including a Descending Controls Symposium in Beaune, France, in 1987 and a Dahlem Conference on Pain Pharmacology in 1989 in Berlin, at the same time the wall was opened. He was also key to the huge success of the IASP meeting in Paris in 1984. Jean-Marie was a friend to so many people, both within France and around the world.
The people in the unit were amazing, and so many went on to make major contributions to pain research. Some of the stellar original members of the team included Daniel Menétrey, Gisèle Guilbaud, Daniel Le Bars, Jeanne Weil-Fugazza, Jean Paul Rivot, and Yvon Lamour, working with all the above approaches and techniques and studying pain processing in the spinal cord, brainstem, and brain. The systems of processing and control of pain were the main themes, and pharmacology always played a major role. Later, the list of researchers expanded with Marc Peschanski, Jean Francois Bernard, Marie-Christine Lombard, Bernard Calvino, Valerie Kayser, Nadine Attal, and Didier Bouhassirra, with the last two clinicians now leading the way in French clinical pain research. Further waves came, including PhD students and postdocs such as Prisca Honoré, Catherine Abbadie, Hervé Bester, Vicky Chapman, Gwenaelle Catheline, Serge Perrot, Jarka Buritova, and many others.
Jean-Marie was the most remarkable boss. He inspired, supported, and aided so many people, especially the younger members of his laboratory. I (Tony) went to join his group in early 1978 and stayed for over a year. This was my first postdoc, and what I learned has formed the basis for everything I have done since. I (Luis) joined his unit in 1981 with a French PhD scholarship obtained thanks to Jean-Marie’s support. Under his crucial influence, I decided to quit clinical practice and devote my professional life to basic research on pain. The teaching and support we got from Jean-Marie with his friendship and kindness meant that we had a mentor for the rest of his life. He was passionate about young researchers, hated “science show biz,” and understood before many others the importance of translational research. He had time for everyone and for many years of the unit would read over every paper in detail, make suggestions, and inspire the next study. He loved conversation, politics, family, and culture, accompanied by a beer or champagne but not wine or cheese.
We will never be sure what he loved more or knew most about—neuroscience, football, or opera. But something we are sure about and thoroughly appreciated was to meet such a wonderful, distinguished mentor and friend.