Louis Pasteur, The Hero And Legend

HEROES | December 1, 2018

Louis Pasteur (Dole, 1822-Marnes-la-Coquette, 1895), French chemist, biologist, and microbiologist, in his laboratory. Painting by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), 1885, detail. Paris, Musée D'Orsay (Art Gallery) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

A name everyone is familiar with – Pasteurization. The name comes from Louis Pasteur who invented many things, with pasteurization being just one of them.

To begin with, he was born in 1822 in Dole, France and was a middle child out of five children. Louis Pasteur is responsible for creating the first vaccines for many diseases which include anthrax, rabies, and fowl cholera. Through much research, he showed how diseases and fermentation are caused by microorganisms. In that time period, many did not accept the idea that germs could cause diseases.  


Beginning his studies with chemistry, Pasteur moved on to studying life sciences. Launching his studies on fermentation, he agreed with the minority view that each fermentation is carried out by a living microorganism. The majority belief was that fermentation was generated spontaneously by a series of chemical reactions where enzymes not yet being recognized with life played a major part. In 1857, in a modest laboratory that he was allowed to establish, he continued to do his studies on fermentation, fighting many battles against the majority belief of spontaneity. By 1865, he had invented and patented the pasteurization process. Determining that the cause of “diseases” of wine were from unwanted microorganisms. These could be destroyed by just heating the wine to a temperature between 60 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius. Later, the same process was used for other substances such as milk.  

Pasteur Institute in Paris


Simultaneous with his fermentation studies, Pasteur also had a similar belief about the cause of diseases. Along with the minority of fellow scientists, he believed that diseases came from active microorganisms – in other words, germs. Those who disagreed with him believed that major diseases came from some sort of weakness or imbalance. In the 1860s, he was able to determine the cause of the blight of the silkworms that were so important to France’s silk industry. He discovered that it was related to two microorganisms and not just one.

In 1868, after suffering from a stroke, he became partially paralyzed on his left side. Not long after, France was defeated by the Prussians and Napoleon was overthrown. The new government allowed him to continue and even built a new laboratory for him.  

Louis Pasteur discovered the principal of vaccination while studying rabies in the 1880s.

Pasteur learned how to make vaccines by weakening the microbe involved. He did a study on fowl cholera. After months of experiments, he let the cultures stand idle while he went on vacation. When he came back, he performed the same procedures on the chickens that he had before, but this time the chickens did not become diseased. Extending the technique to other diseases, he produced vaccines that would protect sheep and other animals from anthrax. He performed public demonstrations using sheep, goats, and cows in two different groups, one group being vaccinated while the other group was not. The vaccinated group all survived while the other group did not.

Pasteur’s funeral

Pasteur wanted to go a step further and do experiments that affected both humans and animals. Even though Rabies was rare among humans, it still was something that the population feared. The common treatment for one who had been bitten by an animal that was rabid was cauterization with a red-hot iron. The purpose was to “hopefully” destroy the unknown cause of the disease. This venture for a vaccine was not an easy one for Pasteur because the microorganism could not be identified or cultured in the lab or the animal. After some time, he was able to successfully test and treat 40 dogs. The public was ecstatic and the pressure was on him to try it on humans. In 1885, he was able to test his first human patient, Joseph Meister, who was only 9 years old. Joseph Meister was already looking at near-certain death after being bitten repeatedly by a rabid dog. Joseph recovered, remaining healthy for 45 years, and Pasteur became a legend from his success.

Pasteur’s success went international which included the building of institutions carrying his name to produce vaccines and treat patients. His success continued up until his death in 1895 from numerous strokes. On a sad note, Joseph Meister, who received the first vaccine for Rabies for humans and also became an employee at the Pasteur Institute, committed suicide because the German occupiers of Paris ordered him to open Pasteur’s crypt but he refused.

Tags: 1800s, louis pasteur, people, rabies, invention

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