Article Text

Louis Pasteur (1822-95)
  1. L F HAAS

    Statistics from Altmetric.com

    Pasteur, the son of a tanner, was not a physician but became the most important medical scientist working in the 19th century. His earlier work which led to the discovery of the molecular asymmetry of tartaric and racaemic acid had a profound consequence for structural chemistry. The crystals of tartaric and racaemic acid had the same chemical structure but had different effects on polarised light. By 1856 he had begun his work on fermentation beginning with fermentation of milk into lactic acid. He reported the presence of micro-organisms which continued to bud and multiply. He was able to declare that the multiplication of the micro-organism resulted in true fermentations and caused wine and milk to become sour. Heating or “pasteurisation” as it was called prevented this occurring. This early work on fermentation and the demonstration that if heated, wines no longer went sour saved the French wine industry. Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation and demonstrated that life floated in the air as countless bacteria. Pasteur’s proof of the existence of atmospheric germs led Lister to apply the principle to surgery with amazing results. In 1865 he began investigating a disease devastating silk worms in southern France. Despite a stroke in 1868 (left sided) and considerable confusion caused by two independent infections, he was able to provide a comprehensive analysis of the disease and its prevention. In 1877, turning to human disease he pioneered effective methods of treatment against virulent infections. The breakthrough came in 1880, as a result of a batch of chicken cholera standing in the laboratory over the long hot summer. Injection of this chicken cholera into healthy chickens produced only mild transient disease and then when the chickens were injected with fresh bacillus they survived unscathed. Pasteur had accidentally discovered an attenuated vaccine. By May 1882 he had produced a comparable vaccine against anthrax and in 1885 he used rabies vaccine, recently developed by him, in a badly bitten 9 year old Alsatian boy, Joseph Meister. (Meister committed suicide 55 years later in 1940 when, as a caretaker of the Pasteur Institute, he preferred to die rather than open the tomb of Pasteur to the invading Nazi forces.) A few months later Pasteur successfully inoculated a shepherd from Jura named Jupille who had been bitten by a rabid dog while grappling with it in an effort to save his comrades. Pasteur had not only administered the first protective treatment for rabies in humans on 6 July 1885, but was also responsible for launching the science of immunology and protective vaccination. Pasteur concluded that the agent causing rabies had its seat in the nervous system. In 1903 Adelchi Negri (1876-1912), an Italian physician and pathologist, described the hallmark of the infection, small round oval occlusions—Negri bodies—in the protoplasm and the processes of the nerve cells, but especially in the hippocampus of rabid animals.

    Agriculture, industry, medicine, and humanity are indebted to this remarkable scientist. Pasteur is shown here on a stamp issued in 1936 (Stanley Gibbons 566, Scott B53) Surtax was used for the relief of unemployed intellectuals. Alongside, another stamp issued in 1985 commemorates the centenary of antirabies vaccination (Stanley Gibbons 2684, Scott 1979). Pasteur is shown at the inoculation of the patient.

    View Abstract

    Request permissions

    If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.