July 6, 1885: Louis Pasteur gave the first in a series of injections to 9-year-old Joseph Meister who had been bitten by a rabid dog two days earlier. This was the first successful inoculation against the fatal disease. Pasteur used rabies viruses grown in rabbits and then weakened by drying, a procedure already tested in dogs.
The first step on the long road to immunizations was to correctly identify the problem. Pasteur’s early experiments confirmed the germ theory of disease. Ancient theory (36 BC) presumed that all disease was spontaneously generated. Girolamo Fracastoro (1546) thought disease came from little seed-like things that could be transferred from victim to victim. Anton van Leeuwenhoek began using a microscope in 1648 and was the first to find microorganisms.
Agostino Bassi (1835) credited deaths to insects carrying germs (vectors). Frencesco Redi grew maggots on meat only in unsealed containers and disproved the spontaneous generation of germs. John Snow (1854) halted a cholera outbreak by cutting off the source at the contaminated water pump.
Rabies is caused by a virus that can infect any mammal. The virus produces neurological disturbances causing acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and is nearly always fatal. Meister survived his bite and the 14-day treatment. He grew up admiring his savior and became a caretaker at the Pasteur Institute. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1941, Meister refused to allow the Wehrmacht to enter Pasteur’s crypt. At age 64, Meister used his WWI revolver to commit suicide rather than defile his hero’s resting place.
“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” – Pierre Pachet
“When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.” – Louis Pasteur
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur
“There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it.” – Louis Pasteur
Also on this day:
The Greatest Show on Earth – In 1944, the Hartford Circus Fire kills over 100 attendees at the circus.
Dirigible – In 1919, the first east to west Atlantic crossing in an airship successfully concluded.