Louis Pasteur Invents the Rabies Vaccine and Breaks Through an Ossified Orthodoxy

Despite its aspirational pretensions, science is an enterprise just as subject to orthodoxy, hierarchy, social desirability bias, and ass-covering as any human field. The idealism of Carl Sagan is uplifting, with science as a self-correcting collective enterprise of knowledge, but alas, it is not so! For breakthroughs to happen, scientists must approach their work with vigor and energy. They must be prepared to break through ossified establishments, careerist bureaucrats, and social climbing hacks. We have seen this more often than not in the history of science.

Put more simply, to advance good works, it’s often a requirement that strong characters “shatter the glacial rigamarole,” as Quintus Curtius just discussed.

One of the best recent examples of this was in the career of Louis Pasteur. A while ago, I found myself watching The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and though the movie is surely a romanticized version of his life, the basic premise was correct.

Louis Pasteur wasn’t a medical doctor, but a chemist. Nevertheless, he was convinced that most diseases were caused by microbes, rather than the more fantastical causes that even many 19th century doctors ascribed to them. The resistance to this “germ theory” was significant. Let us recall that even in the early 20th century, when John D. Rockefeller was contemplating funding massive improvements for it, much of medicine was little advanced from its medieval state. The medical establishment in Pasteur’s time vigorously upheld some of these orthodoxies, particularly against someone that wasn’t a doctor. It’s a natural impulse for a group to form ranks against what it perceives as an assault from an outsider.

Louis Pasteur had previously demonstrated the effectiveness of his theories with his anthrax vaccine, which saved countless livestock, but he was now to face his ultimate test, and, credit to him, he followed the great exemplars of history by putting it all on the line. He would either succeed and win undying glory or be hurled into the abyss as a persecuted footnote in history.

Louis Pasteur rabies

Louis Pasteur’s Rabies Vaccine

For centuries, rabies had been a nightmare. It is the nastiest, deadliest virus that we know of. To this day, less than 15 known people have survived rabies once they became symptomatic. Prior to Louis Pasteur, if you got rabies, you were dead, and not only were you dead, you were going to die a horrible death.

Rabies is an insidious virus, because in the first place, you get it from a frightening experience – being attacked by a mad, frothing, aggressive animal. The word “rabid” has entered into the lexicon for a reason. After that, you had a long while – maybe up to a year – to stew on your fate, as the rabies virus slowly made its way through your body not via the bloodstream, but through the central nervous system, allowing it to evade an immune response. Slowly inching its way up to your brain, it then begins to wreck its havoc.

The most infamous of its symptoms is being unable to swallow and panicking when in the presence of water, as rabies patients are unable to quench their thirst. This is why the disease was commonly known as “hydrophobia” in the days of Louis Pasteur.

Seeing such horrors, and going off his theory of microbial agents being the cause of disease, Louis Pasteur wondered whether he would be able to find a vaccine to prevent rabies. It was a simple idea, but like so many simple ideas, it took difficult, painstaking work before it showed results.

One of the problems that Louis Pasteur faced was that, unlike anthrax, which is a bacterial disease, rabies is caused by a virus, and viruses were too small to see with the microscopes of the time. It wasn’t until the 20th century that viral particles were actually observed. Because of this, he spent many years looking for way to create a vaccine for rabies with no results.

Eventually, Pasteur and his colleague, Emile Roux, used several tissues of infected rabbits, leaving each of them exposed for different time durations to weaken the microbial agents. The finished products would then be applied over a number of rounds, working their way up from the longest time exposures, and the weakest pathogens, to the shortest and strongest.

This vaccine was tested effectively in dogs, but it was still far from proven for human use when fate presented Louis Pasteur with a hard choice.

A Little Boy Begs for Aid

In the summer of 1885, a little nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister and his mother came to Paris to see Louis Pasteur. He had been bitten over a dozen times by a rabid dog. His wounds had been cauterized, as was the standard treatment for rabies in those days, but a miserable death was certain. On the recommendation of two physicians familiar with Pasteur’s work and his study of the disease, the two came to ask the already-famous man if he had any way to treat rabies.

Louis Pasteur Rabies vaccine

To give Meister the experimental vaccine was not, as it seems now, an easy decision for Louis Pasteur to make. He was not a licensed physician and could face severe repercussions, especially given that he had many enemies in the medical establishment who would love to see him fall. On the other hand, if the boy didn’t get the vaccine, he would surely die.

So Louis Pasteur would now grab fortune by the hair. If the vaccine succeeded, no one would dare charge him. If it failed, he would go down with his patient. It was a courageous decision, and with such decisions, the wheel of history is turned.

The vaccine did work. Joseph Meister became the first person to be successfully treated for rabies. He would live on through the tumultuous decades and ironically enough, suffer a violent death anyway. Fate had it that he would be in Paris, as caretaker of the Pasteur Institute, when the Nazis took the city in the summer of 1940. The romantic story is that he committed suicide rather than see the Nazis defile Pasteur’s crypt, but that is likely a fantasy. Nevertheless, we see in Meister’s life just how dramatic the winds of fate and the turn of fortune’s wheel can be.

Pasteur’s Courage

I have avoided too many technical details in favor of the big picture. What really matters in this story is the courage shown in proving the rabies vaccine. Louis Pasteur understood all of the risks involved and, like other great figures, decided that his odds were good. He understood the microbial origin of these diseases, had developed his vaccine, and successfully tested it on dogs.

Nevertheless, we must continually give praise to Pasteur’s courage! Men of less mighty dispositions would have shrunk at the prospect of severe punishment. The stories of the rabies vaccine is one that shows how often courageous men are needed in the face of unimaginative, ossified establishments, whose enforcers are more worried about profiteering and staying high on the social ladder instead of making new discoveries or producing work that benefits humanity. Because of his courage, an ancient scourge was lifted from the world, and with more attention, rabies can be completely eradicated. What did Pasteur’s bureaucratic critics, with their fond attachments to their old, inaccurate medical theories do for us in the long run?

Think of the fearmongering establishment of 2020, with its religious and destructive attachment to their “coronavirus is the next Spanish Flu” theory, and we see just how much courageous men like Pasteur are needed to retake the lead for humanity’s benefit.

It is on the shoulders of men like Louis Pasteur that history is made and it is through courage that kleos is won. As Diomedes said, it truly is the greatest gift of all, worth more than any riches or social status.

Read Stumped to find skills and examples that will help you build your courage.

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