The final years 1877-1887

Between the age of 55 and 65 Louis Pasteur developed microbiology, applying it to medicine and surgery. Having established that diseases were caused by microorganisms, he then sought to identify and find a means of fighting them. His finest accomplishment was rabies.


Edward jenner invented vaccination, louis pasteur invented vaccines

In 1877 he closely studied infectious diseases, discovering in turn:

  • staphylococcus as the cause of furuncles (boils) and osteomyelitis

  • streptococcus as the microbe responsible for puerperal infection

  • pneumococcus

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) had discovered that human beings could be protected against smallpox by inoculating them with the vaccine, a disease generally seen in cattle and identical to smallpox yet harmless in humans. Jenner’s discovery was based on exceptional circumstances - the existence of a disease similar to the human disease, but in animals, with a causative agent that triggers a protective response in humans.

Based on this principle, Louis Pasteur used the infectious agents themselves to achieve immunization. The processes were then applied to numerous diseases such as cholera (1878) and anthrax (1881).

He developed his method for attenuating microbial virulence for:

  • fowl cholera, through aging in contact with oxygen in the air, leading to development of a vaccine in 1878.
  • ovine (sheep) anthrax, through the culture of Bacillus anthracis at 43° attenuated by oxygen in the air. The vaccine was ready in 1881.
  • erysipelothrix infection

By applying his method to the study of infectious diseases (microbial agents), their prevention (asepsis), and their prophylaxis by immunization (vaccination), Louis Pasteur had founded the science of immunology.


Rabies and its invisible virus

In 1880, Louis Pasteur’s experimental method was in full swing. He decided to apply it to the study of a human disease. He chose rabies because it affected not only humans, but also animals on which he could experiment.

Louis Pasteur’s initial efforts to isolate the rabies virus proved unsuccessful as the virus remained invisible. Viruses could not be seen due to the poor resolution of the microscopes used. The virus was not seen until almost a century later, in 1962, with the advent of electron microscopy.

But as rabies is a disease of the nervous system, together with Emile Roux, Louis Pasteur then had the idea of inoculating part of a rabid dog’s brain directly into another dog’s brain. The inoculated dog subsequently died.

The experiment was then conducted on rabbits as the risk for the experimentalists was less than with rabid dogs. After serial passage through several rabbits, the rabies incubation period was still six days. He had therefore produced a vaccine with stable virulence.

Louis Pasteur then attempted to develop a vaccine with attenuated virulence. He suspended sections of spinal cord from rabid rabbits inside flasks to dry in a moisture-free atmosphere. Virulence gradually declined until finally disappearing.

Louis Pasteur injected these spinal cord sections into rabid dogs, followed by preparations of increasing virulence. They did not develop rabies.

He then established a protocol to fight the disease effectively.

On February 25, 1884, together with Charles Chamberland and Emile Roux, Louis Pasteur announced the discovery to the French Academy of Science which appointed a study commission to assess the method’s efficacy. The method was deemed conclusive and approved.

However, despite the satisfactory results with dogs, Louis Pasteur feared testing it on humans.

Rabies overcome

On the morning on July 6, 1885, Louis Pasteur was given the opportunity to overcome his fears and test his treatment on humans when Joseph Meister was brought to him. The nine-year-old boy from Alsace had been bitten by a rabid dog fourteen times.

As Louis Pasteur was not a physician he requested Dr Grancher to inoculate the child. In the space of 10 days, Joseph Meister received a total 13 injections of rabid spinal cord that were progressively fresher (more virulent).

This first vaccination was a success. Joseph Meister never developed rabies and became the first ever human being to be vaccinated.

However, Louis Pasteur kept quiet about his success as the experiment had been conducted in relative secrecy.

It was a different story the second time round.

In September 1885, Jean-Baptiste Jupille, a 15-year-old shepherd, arrived at the Ulm street laboratory. He had been severely bitten by a rabid dog who had attacked six other shepherds. Jean-Baptiste Jupille had jumped on the dog to allow his friends to escape.

Louis Pasteur administered his treatment and was successful again. This time he vowed to tell the whole world his story.

Soon, vast numbers of people bitten by rabid animals came from all over France and abroad to the Ecole normale supérieure.

Given the numbers, Louis Pasteur set up a special rabies vaccination clinic which also doubled as a research and teaching center.

> Three years later the Institut Pasteur opened its doors.

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