F Heritage History | Story Lives of Great Scientists by F. J. Rowbotham

Story Lives of Great Scientists - F. J. Rowbotham

Louis Pasteur



In the Place du Pantheon, at Paris, a noisy crowd had gathered round a wooden stage, bearing these words: "Autel de la Patric." Two or three weeks before, Louis Philippe had fled to England. Republicanism was to be the hope and glory of France, and hearing that money might be offered for the cause, a young student in the crowd hastened back to the Ecole Normale, where he had worked for the last five years, emptied his savings out of a drawer, and returned to "deposit them in thankful hands ".

Then, certain that his action would meet with approval and sympathy, he wrote home to his father. Was not Jean Joseph Pasteur an old soldier of the Empire? By trade he was a tanner, like his father and grandfather before him, but as a conscript he had served through the Peninsular War, and it was not till Napoleon had retired to Elba that Jean Joseph and his young wife settled in the "Street of the Tanners" at Dole. Later, he moved to Arbois, and the little boy, Louis, and his three sisters used to play all day in the tannery yard. Louis's first school was the Ecole Primaire, attached to the Arbois college, and here he seems to have worked hard, taken a few prizes, and shown a marked preference for drawing with coloured chalks. He was slow, though imaginative; very sweet-natured, though shy; and "he never affirmed anything of which he was not absolutely sure". His parents, poor and toiling from morning till night, considered their children's education almost as essential as their daily bread, and in 1838, when Louis was sixteen, he was sent to M. Barbet's school at Paris, a forty-eight hours' journey from Arbois, with its square-towered church and distant view of the grey Jura heights.



At the Barbet school Louis Pasteur went about white-faced and miserable; he was eager to learn, but, said he to the friend who had accompanied him from Arbois, "if I could only get a whiff of the tannery yard I feel I should be cured." Eventually Jean Joseph came to fetch him; it was a bitter disappointment, but since Louis could not get the better of his homesickness there was no Help for it. He went home to his chalks, and at the end of the year entered the college at Besancon, forty kilometers from Arbois; it was obvious that further separation would be necessary if Louis was to become as he wished, a Professor of Science, and, determined to nerve himself for the ordeal, he prepared for the examinations of the Ecole Normale at Paris. His sisters, who seem to have been less industrious, constantly received long affectionate letters from Louis, urging them to study: "To will  is a great thing", he wrote, "and Work usually follows Will, and almost always Work is accompanied by success." For his own part, he was thinking daily of Paris—"Paris, where study is deeper," and in 1842 he returned as pupil-teacher to M. Barbet's boarding-school.

Twenty years of age, tall and confident, the separation from home was still a painful ordeal to him: "I have but one pleasure," he cried, ". . . oh, do write often, very long letters!" He passed fourth on the list, into the Ecole Normale, in 1843, and in every letter his father implored him not to work too hard, not to deny himself sleep and exercise. This father, who had taught his little boy to read and write, now became his son's pupil. He had never had the instruction he desired, but now Jean Joseph would sit up half the night working out the problems and rules that Louis sent him. The "Normalien" was chiefly anxious to qualify himself to assist in experiments; in the examination-room students passed him whom he should easily have beaten, but Pasteur was never satisfied unless step by step his knowledge had been proved.  A "laboratory pillar" he was called ironically, and only his friend Chappuis would look wise and shake his head, and say: "You will see what Pasteur will be!" Balard, one of the great men of Parisian science, had an inkling that Chappuis was right. He took Pasteur into his laboratory, and it was here that he first came under the notice of Auguste Laurent, poet and scientist, professor of the Bordeaux Faculty and correspondent of the Academie des Sciences. Already Pasteur had shown the keenest interest in crystallography, but now, with Laurent's help, he experimented, published papers on the formations of a very fine series of combinations, all very easily crystallized, tartaric acid and tartrates, and presently began to be known for his researches, In his excitement he would rush out into the street, embrace the curator or Chappuis, or indeed anybody who crossed his path, and drag him into the Luxembourg garden to explain his discovery. His thirst for knowledge could not be satisfied; he spent his holidays learning German, but in 1848 Pasteur was stationed as a member of the city militia at the Orleans Railway. France was "standing on the top of golden hours"; Lamartine, both as politician and visionary, moved the whole nation, and it was in this year that Louis emptied the drawer of his savings and poured them out on "l'autel de la patrie."

Early the following year he was made Professor of Chemistry at Strasburg. It was hard for him to leave masters and colleagues; in Pasteur's opinion his researches should have been permitted to stand first, whereas at Strasburg the preparation of lectures naturally took up much of his time. He did not conceive greater happiness than his laboratory life, but the appointment was made by the Minister of Public Instruction; he was bound to go, and in the same year Pasteur became engaged to the daughter of Auguste Laurent. He was, perhaps, though very happy and hopeful, little surprised that his affection for Mlle. Marie drew him so constantly from his laboratory: "I, who did so love my crystals!" They were married later in the year, and Mme. Pasteur seems readily to have agreed that science should take a foremost place in her own life as well as in her husband's. She had seen him at work, she had seen him raise his head from the crystals, eyes shining with enthusiasm, and she was content that "the laboratory should come before everything else".

In the summer vacation, 1850, Pasteur was able to draw up an "extract" of the result of his researches, and present it to the Academie des Sciences; his work was praised by Biot, the famous French physicist, who even in his old age kept an open mind, willing to learn from this young scientist, not yet thirty years of age. He offered Pasteur affectionate advice, insisting that his researches gave him a place in chemistry rather than in physics, and adding, in a letter dated 1852, "be assured that my interest in hard workers is the only thing which yet makes me wish to live."

For Pasteur the days were too short, the nights too long. He was already on the "verge of mysteries", and when Mme. Pasteur begged him to rest, he assured her that he should bring her fame. He was at this time concerned with the manner in which he could modify the crystalline forms of certain substances . . ."and speaking of molecular dissymmetry", he said: "The universe is dissymetrical; for, if the whole of the bodies which compose the solar system were placed before a glass moving with their individual movements, the image in the glass could not be superposed to the reality." These studies subsequently gave birth to a new science: "stereo-chemistry", or the chemistry of space.

In 1853 Pasteur sent his triumphant telegram to Blot: "I transform tartaric acid into racemic acid." "The discovery," he adds, "will have incalculable consequences." He was granted the Legion of Honour, and in the following year appointed Professor and Dean of the Faculte des Sciences at Lille. Among his new students was the son of M. Bigo, who had recently met with failure and disappointment in manufacturing beet-root alcohol. It was natural that he should ask advice of his son's Professor, and Pasteur consented to experiment, spending a certain number of hours each day at the factory, and in his little laboratory at home, where he had only a student's microscope and a most primitive coke-fed stove, he watched the yeast-cells change their shape and multiply. He studied also the fermentation, known as lactic fermentation, in sour milk, drawing in his notebook the tiny globules that he found in a grey substance where fermentation had taken place. Hitherto these globules had escaped observation, but, as Pasteur saw, "that grey substance was indeed the ferment. . . . Whence came those ferments, those microscopic bodies, those transforming agents, so weak in appearance, so powerful in reality?"

Tremendous issues were at stake; but until Pasteur actually held the proofs he would not make the facts public. "I am pursuing as best I can," he wrote in January, 1859, "these studies on fermentation, which are of great interest, connected as they are with the impenetrable mystery of Life and Death. I am hoping to mark a decisive step very soon by solving without the least confusion the celebrated questions of spontaneous generation."

M. Pouchet, director of the Natural History Museum at Rouen, believed, and professed that he was able to prove, that the minute living organisms, seen under the microscope, "sprang into life"; they "came into being out of dead matter", "spontaneously generated in Artificial Air and in Oxygen Gas." Pasteur, on the other hand, held that, in experimental science, it is a mistake to believe anything, unless the facts compel affirmation. What was it in the air which "provokes organization"?

After a year's study Pasteur was ready to refute Pochet's "proofs". He insisted that putrefaction took place only when the living organisms in the air reached the putrescible matter, and to begin with, he opened twenty flasks, in which putrescible matter had been sealed, on a high road near his parents' home in Arbois. Eight showed "putrefactive changes", but when Pasteur climbed a mountain only five out of twenty showed putrefaction. He would have liked to go up in a balloon; instead, however, he opened flasks on the Mer de Glace; only one showed putrefaction, though of twenty opened in a crowded lecture-room all had changed. Pasteur went on to declare that the dust in the air contains 'germs of inferior organized beings'. He once more half-filled a flask with putrescible matter, heated the neck, and when the glass was soft bent it downwards. In order to reach the matter air had to creep up the drawn-out neck, depositing its dust in the neck. No dust reached the putrescible fluid. It remained pure, "limpid as distilled water," because, Pasteur explained in the great lecture he delivered at the Sorbonne on April 7, 1864, "I have kept it from the only thing man cannot produce, from the germs which float in the air, from Life, for Life is a germ, and a germ is Life. Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment."

The applause was enthusiastic; the Academie des Sciences accepted his demonstration, and indeed it had never been doubted that the study of putrefaction was supremely important. "For a long time men had hoped to gain thereby a knowledge of diseases, and especially of those grouped together as putrid. . . . Certain microbes could actually live like fish without free oxygen, and died when exposed to it. These microbes caused putrefaction in the deep lavers of putrescible fluid, and took their oxygen again, like fish, from the fluid itself, turning it into carbonic acid gas. Other microbes preferred to live upon the surface, and took their oxygen directly from the air. Thus putrefaction could be superficial or it could be deep. It occurred where there was no free air, provided only the microbes had access to the putrescible stuff. In all dead, putrescible matter one condition, and one condition only, was necessary to its putrefaction, namely the presence of microbes." This is the excellent summary of Pasteur's discoveries given in the Life of Lord Lister, by G. T. Wrench, M.D. (Lond.), and of all the doctors and surgeons the one mind ready to receive enlightenment was Lister's.

Pasteur himself, though not a doctor, desired both to cure and to prevent disease. Unhappily, two of his daughters had died of typhoid fever; these personal sorrows seem only to have intensified Pasteur's longing to serve humanity. Gradually the germ theory was extended to disease. Those infinitely small organisms preyed not only on putrid but on living tissues, and Pasteur insisted on the importance of absolute cleanliness in surgical operations, the sterilizing of instruments, etc., etc. He met with jealousy, suspicion, ignorance, and was often indignant. "They will have to see, I will make them see," he cried once, enraged by what he considered the doctors' indifference or apathy. By diseases of silkworms, the silk industry of France had been almost ruined. Pasteur was induced to investigate this subject, and was able to suggest precautions. He had been made Professor of Chemistry at the Sorbonne, and was happy in his laboratory, stimulating the young men who worked under him to enthusiasm and scientific curiosity. "I am sorry to die," he cried, in a serious illness in 1868, "I wanted to do much more for my country."

From this illness, however, Pasteur recovered, and was soon at work again investigating beer, as, some years earlier, he had investigated wine, and he presently attacked the problem of splenic fever. The bacillus had already been discovered by Davaine (1862), but Pasteur showed that it was possible to attenuate the virulence of these micro-organisms by culture, or by transmission through various organisms (see "Pasteur" in Chambers' Encyclopedia). Finally, in 188o, he entered on the study of hydrophobia. This terrible disease is communicated (through the saliva) by one animal biting another, and after many experiments and long investigation Pasteur discovered a system of innoculation: that is to say, the product of the disease could be artificially introduced into the patient, and in the case of hydrophobia the special value of the discovery was that if the preventive innoculation was made soon after a bite from a rabid animal the usual subsequent attack of rabies was counteracted. Patients, children especially, were brought to Pasteur from the ends of the earth. He "enjoyed days of incomparable happiness during that period of enthusiasm, joys of the mind in its full power, joys of the heart in all its expansion; for good was being done".

A characteristic story is told in the Life of Pasteur:  J. B. Jupille, a fourteen-year-old shepherd boy, seeing six of his companions attacked by a mad dog, bravely turned on the foaming animal to protect them. Armed with a whip, he wrestled with the dog, succeeded in kneeling on him, and holding him by the neck securely fastened its jaws with the lash. Then, taking his wooden sabot, he battered the dog's head, and dragged the body down to a little stream, where he held the head under water for several minutes. Death was now certain, but unfortunately the boy was bitten on both hands, and the Mayor of that town wrote to Pasteur, telling him that the lad would die of his own courage unless the new treatment intervened. "The answer came immediately: Pasteur declared that after five years' study he had succeeded in making dogs refractory to rabies, even six or eight days after being bitten; that he had only once yet applied his method to a human being, but that once with success, and that, if Jupille's family consented, the boy might be sent to him. 'I shall keep him near me in a room, of my laboratory; he will be watched and need not go to bed; he will merely receive a daily prick, not more painful than a pin-prick.'"

The treatment was entirely successful; the boy's life was saved, and "Pasteur's solicitude did not confine itself to his first two patients, but was extended to all those who had come under his care; his kindness was like a living flame". For the last twenty-five years of his life, he worked at the Pasteur Institute, and on September 28, 1895, he died: "his weakened hand might now drop the torch which had set so many others alight". Just as in his student days he had poured out his savings on "L'Autel de la Patrie", so all his life he had devoted toil and thought to the glory of France.