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Louis Pasteur helped to conquer many fatal diseases

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Medicine, Science on Friday, 24 January 2014

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This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.

Pasteur experiments on sheep,  picture, image, illustration

Louis Pasteur sees the results of his experiment on sheep with a vaccine for anthrax by Peter Jackson

Madame Meister of Alsace held the hand of her nine-year-old son Joseph, lying on a stretcher.

“It was a mad dog, m’sieur. Fourteen times it bit him. The doctor told me to bring him to you.”

Louis Pasteur the great French chemist, knew why the boy had been sent to him. He was experimenting with a vaccine against rabies: a disease which affects mad animals.

But Pasteur had never yet dared to try the vaccine on a human being.

By now Pasteur was well acquainted with rabies. Those people bitten by a rabid dog almost certainly developed a disease called hydrophobia, with symptoms similar to rabies.

Hydrophobia attacks the brain and spinal cord and induces madness and certain death.

In his experiments Pasteur found that when he removed and dried part of an animal which had died from rabies the virus of the disease gradually weakened.

And when he injected the weakened virus into an animal that had been bitten by a mad dog, rabies did not develop.

He had made animals immune to rabies.

But humans? How could he ever know if the vaccine he had made would ever work on them? For in injecting the virus into human beings he would in fact be injecting the dreaded germs of rabies – however much they were weakened. Pasteur made his decision.

During the next week young Joseph was given increasingly large injections of Pasteur’s vaccine. Three weeks later Joseph was cured.

Next the grape growers of France consulted Pasteur about a disease affecting their wines.

Pasteur investigated – and found germs. Many of these germs, he explained could be killed by heating the wine – and without spoiling the flavour.

Today pasteurisation – the process named after Pasteur for killing germs in liquid by heat – is compulsory for milk in this country.

Then the French silkworm industry asked Pasteur if he would find out something about the disease which had reduced the value of the industry by two-thirds.

The problem took a long time to solve. But Pasteur succeeded and saved the silkworm industry.

Fowl cholera and anthrax – the animal killing disease – were next.

Pasteur made some cultures of the deadly fowl cholera germs and then went on holiday. When he returned to his great disappointment most of the cultures were dead.

From those that were still left, however, he was able to make fresh ones and these new germs he injected into some healthy fowls.

An astonishing thing happened. The healthy fowls were not killed by the germs. The reason was that the injected germs had been weakened.

Pasteur then inoculated the same fowls with fresh cholera germs from a new stock, not developed from a culture that had been weakened. These were powerful germs and should have killed the healthiest fowls.

But again the inoculated fowls remained healthy and lived – while others not inoculated and injected with the same fresh germs died. What Pasteur had done of course was to make the fowls immune to fowl cholera germs.

Pasteur used the same technique to secure immunity from rabies. He was quick to realise that the same idea too, might be used to fight anthrax. So he took fifty sheep and vaccinated twenty-five with weakened anthrax germs.

Then all fifty of them were injected with fresh, powerful anthrax germs.

The experiment was held in a field at Melun, near Paris. Hundreds of people came to watch it. Three days after the injections the twenty-five vaccinated sheep were alive and healthy. The other twenty-five were dead.

The government of France and, indeed, people all over the world now provided funds to honour this genius of discovery. In 1888, the Pasteur Institute built with money raised by subscriptions, was opened for the continuation of medical research.

Seven years later Louis Pasteur died and was buried in the grounds of his Institute.

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