Life Stories: Pioneer researcher helped put Duke on the map

CorrespondentJuly 22, 2013 

  • Alphonse Joseph Langlois

    Born March 6, 1929, in Manchester, N.H.

    1950 enlists in the U.S. Air Force

    1951 marries Marilyn (Marsh) Langlois

    1952 first of his six children is born

    1954 leaves the military, begins college on the G.I. Bill

    1958 graduates with a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire

    1959 moves to Durham to pursue doctoral degree from Duke University

    1966 finishes his Ph.D. in microbiology from Duke University, becomes assistant professor and researcher

    1968 purchases first home

    1992 diagnosed with colon cancer, also named a top AIDS researcher in the world by Science Magazine based on the number of citations of his work in other people’s work

    1995 retires from Duke University

    2005 diagnosed with polyps in his nose and throat

    Dies July 2

— Alphonse Langlois was an early riser. Throughout a Duke University career dedicated to cancer and AIDS research, he was often in the lab by 6 a.m., including most Saturdays.

With a doctoral degree in microbiology, Langlois at work in his Duke lab represented the culmination of science-fueled voyage from his New Hampshire childhood as the son of immigrants. Langlois became a much-celebrated scientist, establishing the first cell line for breast cancer, improving detection methods for the HIV virus and conducting some of the earliest research on AZT, a drug used to slow the progression of the disease.

His parents came from Canada looking for work in the 1920s, and his father was employed by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal effort in which previously unemployed people built public works projects.

Though he did not complain about his upbringing, the few details he slipped out over the years gave his children pause. Langlois, who as a teen worked in both a shoe store, and then a bakery until midnight, slept on a pallet in the laundry area in the family’s tenement apartment. He wore the same clothes for days at a time. They had no bathtub, instead using a large basin.

“He said he got a bath every week whether he wanted it or not,” chuckled Allen Langlois of Apex, one of Langlois’ six children.

“He turned over a lot of what he made to his parents to help support the family.”

Amid a large French-Canadian community, Langlois attended French-speaking schools until high school, his son said. This meant that many of his classmates were unable to speak English well enough to pass their freshman year in high school.

Not only did Alphonse Langlois graduate (a first in his family), but he also earned first an undergraduate degree, then earned a doctorate from Duke University. Along the way, he married and the family grew.

“It would have been easy for him to drop into an existence up there working in the mills. But he had a drive to succeed,” Allen said.

His interest in science was evident early on, when he did basic experiments at home with his older sister, Valentine. After high school, Langlois was quick to enlist in the military. The G.I. Bill would be his only chance at affording higher education.

He married Marilyn Marsh – the smartest thing he ever did, he told his children – and their first child, a daughter, was born a year later while the family was stationed in California.

While in the military Langlois worked as a medical corpsman at Travis Air Force Base. His family believes this is when his interest in medical research took root.

After his service ended, he hurried back east to enroll at the University of New Hampshire. His wife worked as a nurse, and during the four years he was an undergrad, his family grew to include four children. He did odd jobs, like turning the heat off during the day, then back on again at night for folks who left town.

“He did pretty much anything for a little extra money. His parents, of course, were unable to help him. They didn’t have anything,” said his youngest son, David Langlois of Durham.

He began his graduate work at UNH as well, but was recruited by Dr. Joseph Beard, a pioneer in vaccine development, to continue his studies at Duke University. Langlois obliged, moving his growing brood to Durham and embarking on a 36-year career at Duke.

Langlois always said he was a researcher above all else.

“Al was definitely an ‘old school,’ no-nonsense investigator in the laboratory who made a number of extraordinarily important contributions to the broad research arena,” his friend and colleague, Dr. Kent Weinhold, said at his funeral service.

Early in his career Langlois and his mentor, Beard, developed tissue culture systems and infected cell lines to propagate a virus that would become the first to transform cells in culture, Weinhold said.

“Al’s work also . . . enabled many laboratories to carry out pioneering studies on viral integration and transformation.”

He went on to play an integral role in early HIV/AIDS research, developing the first reproducible HIV-1 neutralization assay using a novel B-cell line.

“This work helped to put the Duke Lab . . . on the map in the AIDS research field. Al was also heavily involved in the original early studies demonstrating the anti-HIV activity of AZT, as well as screening literally hundreds of compounds for similar activity,” Weinhold said.

But his talents – and value – extended beyond what lay under his microscope.

“As a mentor to many of us, it is important to note that Al had the capacity of wading through the most complex of political or current events issues, coming up with simple, straightforward explanations, most of which were interjected with a large helping of humor,” Weinhold said.

When he got home from work, it was Langlois who took over the kitchen duties. He was also known for his woodworking, beer making and green thumb.

“Daddy was always very generous, in his own way. For years we would set up a grill on the front porch for Halloween. All the children and their parents were treated to hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, drinks, etcetera,” recalled his daughter, Janice Albaugh, of Hillsborough.

In 1968, Langlois and his wife bought their first home in which there were finally enough bedrooms for all, and lived in it the rest of his life. In the end he died from complications resulting from radiation therapy he underwent to treat throat and nose polyps. Before that he successfully battled colon cancer.

“He was the center of the family,” Allen Langlois said. “He accomplished so much; he was just a shining example and a huge presence in everyone’s life.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service