Life in Translation

In 1959 a car accident left Nathalie Dusoulier unable to stand for any length of time. What was a polyglot pharmaceutical researcher to do?

By Kelly Tuttle | March 26, 2013

Looking for the latest research published in other countries? Don't speak the language or know where to look? Never fear: librarians and abstractors will come to the rescue. But until the 1960s researchers, at least in Europe, were mostly on their own.

In France, in 1959, Nathalie Dusoulier was anticipating a new job as a pharmaceutical researcher when she was thrown from a car in a traffic collision and seriously injured. A year later she remained unable to stand for any length of time. Unsure as to what she might do, Dusoulier placed an advertisement in Le Monde: “Doctor of pharmacy . . . knowing French, English, German, Russian, and Spanish, would like to find a job that doesn’t require standing.” No one responded, until the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), a government-funded research association with institutes across France, asked her “to analyze, abstract, and index” Russian- and German-language journals in pharmacology, biochemistry, and biophysics. In her oral history with CHF, Dusoulier recalls thinking, “That’s stupid. I could never do that kind of job.” But it was the only one offered, so she took it.

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Library reading room at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City.

Library reading room at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City. Nathalie Dusoulier served as director of the U.N. library.

Jean-Michel Turpin/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Dusoulier arrived at her new job to find a giant office crammed with people scribbling away like schoolchildren, summarizing various scientific articles. Dusoulier thought, “I’ll do this for a while, recover, and then try to do something else.” But to her surprise, she found the work interesting. Not only the content—new scientific research—but the languages themselves were pleasantly challenging. “I knew Russian,” she says, ”but they gave me Bulgarian, Polish, and many Czech-related languages. I told them, ‘I know Russian, not Ukrainian, or any of these other ones.’ They answered, ‘Yes, but if you cannot do it, who can?’” From that point on Dusoulier became the go-to woman when a difficult project arose.

She spent a year summarizing scientific research from around the world and translating it into French because, as Dusoulier confided, “the French basically didn’t want information in another language.” Her next project was in the biological sciences section of Bulletin Signalétique, which published abstracts of the latest scientific research. When Dusoulier began her new work, she found 20 to 30 people sitting at long tables. Information was written on pieces of paper: authors’ names on top, topics on the side, and abstracts in the middle. Workers classified first by author and then by index—indexes were put on one set of tables, authors on another. Clerical workers sifted through the authors while scientists classified subject indexes by topic, such as chemical engineering, paints and coatings, pollution. “They tried to organize it. [But] you know, [they were] not a machine,” Dusoulier says. Her job was to get information processed more quickly. Automation was necessary; otherwise French researchers would find it difficult to stay up to date.

In 1964 Dusoulier took over the mathematical, physical, and human sciences departments. She and Pierre Buffet, head of the international-relations section of Questel, a computer hosting company, came up with a plan. Their brainchild, the PASCAL database, would combine the three branches of Bulletin Signalétique and other European science and technology abstracts into one searchable place. PASCAL made searching remotely for specialized topics in science and industry possible.

Dusoulier left the CNRS in 1965 but stayed in library work. She served as director of the documentation center and then the library at the United Nations in New York. In 1986 she transferred to the U.N. library in Geneva where there were rooms full of books. “If you opened the door, you just had to run very fast because, otherwise, everything was going to fall on you. It was terrible. I started buying computers, doing automation, putting things in order.” In the midst of all this activity she suddenly had another call from the CNRS who demanded Dusoulier return to work for them. “Look, lady,” Dusoulier recalls saying to the secretary on the phone, “I am not working for you. The U.N. is paying me, and I cannot just [come over].” The secretary simply said, “So when can you come?” and a defeated Dusoulier replied, “I can come on Saturday.” That Saturday, after some cajoling and a few threats, Dusoulier was told she would establish and lead the Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (INIST) in Nancy, France.

It wasn’t easy. None of CNRS’s Parisian employees wanted to move to Nancy. A new building was required for the 27,000 periodical titles, and a staff of over 300 needed to be evaluated, hired, and trained. But INIST soon became one of the leading European centers for the distribution of scientific research and Dusoulier its first CEO. After five years as CEO, in 1993 Dusoulier became vice president of the INIST Group. She died in 2010.