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LESSONS FROM HISTORY: Louis Pasteur – his research saved the lives of millions

By MIRJA HOLTROP

Louis Pasteur (1822-95) was a French chemist who taught at Strasbourg, Lille, and Paris. He discovered that the real causes of epidemics were bacteria and other microorganisms. However, like many visionary ideas that are born ahead of their time, acceptance didn’t come easily.

During his early years of research, the French silkworm industry had asked Pasteur for help in finding out the causes of an epidemic that was killing their worm colonies, and whether there was a possible cure. His eventual discovery – that microorganisms were causing the colony deaths – saved the French silk industry from bankruptcy. This gave him the first hint that he was on the right path. He then spent the rest of his life researching germs and developing vaccines against them.

He presented his findings to fellow researchers from the French Academy of Sciences. At first, however, they didn’t take him seriously.

Some scientists, such as Robert Koch, categorized microorganisms as phenomena of nature that temporarily appeared and then disappeared but were not actually alive.

This criticism didn’t sit well with Pasteur. “I give them experiments and they respond with speeches!”, he once said. In his mind, the fixed ideas and inflexible thinking patterns at that time were dangerous both for millions of lives and the future of medicine. He saw the need for a ‘living flame of research’ to bring light into the darkness.  

So Pasteur persisted with his work and became even more determined. He had a wife, and five children – of which sadly only two survived – and he hardly saw them. He dedicated every minute of his waking days to research, as he felt he could save many more children’s lives if he was right. His numerous experiments proved that microorganisms do not make sudden, temporary appearances but that they emerge when in contact with oxygen. He isolated microorganisms, named and categorized them, and found in them the causes for many diseases of animals and humans.

After he eventually published his findings, suddenly veterinarians and doctors became his opponents. They could not get used to the fact that a chemist and microbiologist now had a say on the matter of diseases, a subject which had – until then – been entirely their own field.  

But Pasteur never gave up. He went into hospitals and taught doctors to sterilize their surgical instruments. They could see the results quickly – less people got infections – and so became more and more convinced that Pasteur was right.

A new path for research was created: medical microbiology and bacteriology.

Microorganisms under a microscope.

Pasteur carried on working in hospitals, developed vaccines, and became successful. When he saved a 9-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabies-infected animal, he, his life, and his research finally became legendary. As news of his work spread, he became famous all over Europe.

But it was not only humans that he helped. Anthrax was a common disease in sheep, and his vaccine prevented many farmers from financial loss.

Pasteur, by now a national celebrity in France, published his own scientific newspaper and opened the famous ‘Pasteur Institute’. He managed this institute right up until his death in 1895. In his last speech to young researchers he reprimanded them to not simply measure their work by the credit they receive at the time, but to stay on track no matter what happens.

“In the last hour of one’s life, everyone has to say: I have done all that I could.”

Pasteur’s life is an example of commitment and strength. Even when times were tough, he never gave up believing in what he was doing.

“Science is the torch that illuminates the world”

19 December, 2016