Louis Pasteur is recognized around the world as the man whose discoveries have most affected the practice of medicine. He discovered and identified many germs which cause disease. He invented the process of pasteurization, and developed vaccines for tetanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria and rabies.
Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822, in the ancient town of Dole, France. His father was a tanner by trade. The family moved to the small town of Arbois, where Louis attended primary and secondary school. After graduation, he went to the Royal College in Besancon, where he obtained his B.A. in 1840 and a Bachelor of Science degree at the age of 20 in 1842.
He traveled to Paris to study chemistry at the respected Ecole Normale Superieure, and he received a doctorate degree. His doctoral thesis on crystallography won him the position of professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg.
In 1849, he married Marie Laurent. The marriage produced five children, but only two survived infancy.
In 1854, Pasteur was named Dean of the new College of Science in Lille. In 1857, he was made administrator and director of scientific studies at the Ecole Normale Superieure, his alma mater.
At that time in France, the souring of wine and beer was a major problem for brewers. When Pasteur studied a few droplets of bad beer under a microscope, he found it contained tiny rod-shaped creatures instead of the expected round yeast cells. He named these micro-organisms “germs” and determined that they had caused the spoilage.
He discovered if the wine was gently heated to a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius for a short time, the growth of harmful bacteria was prevented, and the wine did not go sour.
Pasteur extended the process to milk. By heating it to a high temperature he was able to destroy disease-causing germs. Today milk is still “pasteurized”, making it is safe for infants, children and adults to drink.
He next turned his attention to the silk industry. In southern France, silk producers were being ruined by a disease which infected all the silk worms. They died before making their silk cocoons. Pasteur was able to show that the disease was caused by bacteria or germs in their environment. When healthy worms were placed in clean quarters, the disease disappeared.
Pasteur had discovered that germs caused disease. He encouraged doctors to wash their hands and equipment thoroughly before performing surgery or delivering babies. Many lives have been saved by this simple procedure.
In France at that time, many cows and sheep were dying from a disease called anthrax. Pasteur found that if he injected animals with a weakened culture of the anthrax bacteria, they would be immune to the more serious and often fatal variety of the disease.
He worked the rest of his life on isolating the germs which caused a variety of diseases, and finding vaccines which could prevent them.
On July 6, 1885, Pasteur tested a vaccine he had developed for rabies, a disease which until that time, had been invariably fatal. A young man, Joseph Meister, had been bitten by a rabid dog. Everyone believed he was doomed.
Pasteur tested the vaccine he had prepared on Joseph. The treatment lasted for ten days. The young man recovered and remained healthy. Since then, the rabies vaccine has saved thousands of lives.
In 1888, the Pasteur Institute was founded in Paris, and Pasteur directed it personally until his death on September 28, 1895. He succumbed to the effects of a series of strokes.
The Pasteur Institute remains today, one of the most important centers for scientific research in the world. More than 2,700 scientists are employed there, and each year at least 600 scientists from 70 different nations visit the Institute to study and to contribute to research.
Pasteur died as a national hero. He was given a state funeral at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. His body rests in a permanent memorial at the Pasteur Institute.