Louis Pasteur: A Big Reason Many of Us are Alive

On this date in 1822, Louis Pasteur, a man responsible for saving the lives of millions was born in Dole, France.  He should receive far more honor and acclaim for his vast contributions to the world.  As a matter of fact, he is one of many scientists that does not get the credit and appreciation he deserves. Come to think of it, respect for science itself needs to make a comeback.

Growing up, Pasteur did little academically to make anyone foresee the impact he would have on the world.  He earned his bachelor of arts degree (1840) and bachelor of science degree (1842) at the Royal College of Besançon.  He went on to earn a doctorate (1847) from the École Normale in Paris. In 1849, he became a professor at the University of Strasbourg.  It was there that he began to undertake research and development that would make all of our lives better.  He has been called the “father of microbiology” and the “founder of modern medicine”…..two pretty impressive titles.  Perhaps we should all know a little more about him.

Some of Pasteur’s major accomplishments:

Fermentation and Pasteurization:
Pasteur’s father served heroically for France in the Napoleonic wars, and instilled a deep love of France into his son.  When Napolean asked scientists to try to figure out why beer and wine soured so easily, the patriotic Louis Pasteur was eager to find an answer for his country.  France’s wine and beer industry, which were both of major importance to the French economy, were struggling.  Pasteur believed that the souring was a result of microorganisms, or “germs.”  He performed a series of tests which rapidly heated and cooled the liquid until the germs were neutralized, creating the process of making our drinks exponentially safer.  We now simply call this life saving process “pasteurization.”

The most significant liquid effected by pasteurization is milk.  Milk has been a cornerstone of human consumption for nearly 8000 years.  However, it has also been responsible for millions of deaths.  Because of its content, milk is very succeptible to illness and disease caused by microorganisms including tuberculosis, salmonella, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and many others.  In the 20th century, about one fourth of all food related disease was caused by cow milk.  Today, largely because of pasteurization, only three deaths each year in the United States are considered to be caused by milk.

Substantial improvement in the germ theory:
Prior to the 19th century most people, including scientists, believed that disease and illness came from inside the body rather than outside.  Pasteur’s development of fermentation and advances in microbiology helped persuade people to understand that many diseases are actually caused by the invasion of microorganisms.

In 1865, since he had already saved the Beer and Wine industry of France, he was asked to do the same for the silk industry.  The French silk industry was nearly bankrupt as the silkworms were being killed off by a mysterious disease. After intensive research, he discovered that two diseases were involved, both caused by bacteria on the mulberry leaves that provided food for the worms.  Pasteur then developed a method for silkworm breeders to identify the healthy eggs, destroy the infected ones, and prevent the growth of the disease on the mulberry leaves.

After years of researching the damage caused by the spread of germs, Pasteur began to write and speak about his beliefs on the need for sterilization of hospital equipment and medical tools.  Initially he was mocked, but he nonetheless kept going.  It was actually of student of Pasteur’s, Charles Chamberland, who developed the first steam based sterilizer of medical equipment.  Obviously, knowledge of germs and how to prevent the spread of them has saved millions of lives and the importance of it can not be stated strongly enough.

Vaccines for Rabies:

Pasteur was eager to continue developing his research and theories to tackle pressing problems for humans in 19th century France.  One of them was rabies. Although human deaths for rabies were not all that prevalent, it had captured the fascination of the French people.  When people died from rabies they did so painfully and dramatically,  often screaming and foaming at the mouth.  Pasteur and others began working on a vaccine for rabies in 1860, but had not found success in the first five years.

On July 4, 1865, a nine year old boy named Joseph Meister was attacked by a crazed dog in Alsace, France.  He was thrown to the ground and bit 14 times.  The woulds were so bad, the boy could barely walk.  His mother was immediately concerned that Joseph had contracted rabies, and sought to find the already famous Pasteur, who she knew was working on finding a vaccine for rabies.  To this point, Pasteur had only been working with dogs and had not yet administered his experimental vaccine to humans.  It was also illegal for him to do so, since he was not a Doctor.  Pasteur had a soft spot for kids, as he had already had three of his own die as children.  He decided to administer the vaccine to the boy, even though he could get in a lot of trouble for it.  The vaccine worked, and Meister was saved.  The scientific and medical community decided to overlook the illegality of Pasteur’s actions because of the importance of his success.  Pasteur used his vaccine on another victim in October, and then presented it to the French Academy of Medicine.

There is an interesting side story to this:  The boy Pasteur saved, Joseph Meister, would later work as an assistant to Pasteur.  Meister continued to work at the Pasteur institute for decades after Pasteur himself had passed away.  In 1940, ten days after the Germans invaded Paris, Meister took his own life.  He believed his wife and daughter had been killed by the Nazis. They had indeed fled, but were alive.  They returned to Paris to find Meister, only to learn that he had killed himself earlier that day.

The Pasteur Institute:

After developing the vaccine for rabies, Pasteur now had significant money and world wide fame.  He wanted to use both to save more lives.  He founded the Pasteur Institute in Paris to investigate and fight disease in 1888.  He immediately gathered many of the world’s top scientists in a variety of fields to conduct research and experimentation there.  Since it was opened, the Pasteur Institute has made some of the most important breakthroughs and discoveries in the history of mankind.  Here is a partial list of some of the more notable ones:

  • An early detection test for colon cancer (2000s)
  • Identification of the role nicotine plays in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Identification of new susceptibility genes for Autism (2000s)
  • First identification of the genes involved in deafness (2000s)
  • Development of vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus (1920s)
  • Vaccine against yellow fever (1920s)
  • Discovery of the anti-infectious power of sulfa drugs (1960)
  • First to isolate HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (1983)
  • Development of the AIDS blood test (1984)
  • Isolation of the second AIDS virus, HIV-2 (1985)
  • Genetically-engineered vaccine against hepatitis B (1989)
  • First probe to detect listeria in food (1990)
  • Rapid tests to detect multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (1993)

    louis-pasteur-bust
    The Pasteur Institute
    Photo credit: The Pasteur Institute

Why is it important to remember Louis Pasteur today?

Science, especially in the United States, has been seemingly devalued and often under attack in the last couple of years.  By recognizing and encouraging the study the incredibly important contributions of people like Louis Pasteur, we realize that we must promote and support people like him today and in the future.  This article only mentions a portion of the contributions made by Pasteur.  It is not far fetched to think that without him, you and I might not be alive.  Maybe one of the diseases that he fought would not have killed us, but it would have killed one of our ancestors so that we might have never even existed in the first place.  It is essential that we recognize all of the people and potential that were allowed to flourish because of people like Louis Pasteur, and make sure and protect and support the future Pasteurs.

“When I approach a child, they inspire two sentiments in me: tenderness for what they are, and respect for what they might become.” – Louis Pasteur

“One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, that is enough for me.”- Louis Pasteur

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.”

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