Book Review -- The Private Science of Louis Pasteur by Gerald L. Geison

Princeton University Press

378 pages; $29.95

pasteur.jpg - 18.9 K

In writing The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison has produced not just a book but a historical treatise. The strength of this work comes from its basis in fact--primarily, Louis Pasteur's own laboratory notebooks only recently available through the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Using Pasteur's notes, together with accounts given by Pasteur and his contemporaries, Geison has been able to document both the accomplishments and the foibles of this remarkable scientist. He paints a detailed picture of Pasteur, illuminating a great yet imperfect man who was both a strong, diligent, and driven researcher and teacher and a sometimes secretive and deceptive brute.

Pasteur was far from perfect, and Geison does much to debunk the myth surrounding him. Pasteur had difficulty sharing credit, and sometimes was downright deceptive. These weaknesses are well documented by Geison by closely comparing Pasteur's public statements with his private notes.

A good example was Pasteur's famous experiment at Puilly-le-Fort, a highly publicized display to show how a vaccine could prevent anthrax in sheep. Although other Europeans, most notably Jacob Henle, John Snow, and Robert Koch, promoted the germ theory in the early-to-mid 1800s, Pasteur led the way in France. At the time Robert Koch had already given credit for developing the first anthrax vaccine to another Frenchman, Jean-Joseph Henri Toussaint, who used chemical inactivation of infectious material to develop a protective vaccine. In private correspondence Pasteur wrote that Toussaint's result "overturns all the ideas I had..." and caused him to change his procedures and use chemical inactivation (potassium dichromate) to produce his vaccine. Yet he never credits Toussaint for the discovery, and in describing the details of his experiment never lets on that he used chemical inactivation. Scientists at the time believed, from Pasteur's previous statements, that the vaccine he used was "attenuated by atmospheric oxygen" (not by chemicals). Geison concludes that the fear of second place drove Pasteur to violate some of the most cherished tenets of scientific ethics.

An even more interesting reflection on Pasteur the person emanates from a description of his experiment to prevent rabies in a young boy, Joseph Meister, who had been extensively bitten by a rabid dog. At the time, Pasteur had been reporting animal experiments using an "attenuated" rabies vaccine produced by repeated passage of infectious nervous tissue though dogs or monkeys. At the same time, Emile Roux, Pasteur's able physician colleague, had been working with a killed vaccine produced by desiccating the spinal cords of infected rabbits. It appears that Pasteur appropriated Roux's idea and used this vaccine on young Joseph Meister.

Meister never developed rabies. But Pasteur concealed the process he used to make the vaccine. He allowed the scientific community to believe that the vaccine injected into Joseph Meister was an "attenuated" one; his lab notes, however, reveal that he used Roux's desiccated spinal cord process.

Geison also questions Pasteur's appreciation of the ethics of human experimentation. The safety (eg, infectiousness) of the desiccated spinal-cord vaccine had only been superficially evaluated when Joseph Meister came to Pasteur. Roux apparently decided the risk of causing rabies by possible inadequate inactivation of the infectious spinal cord tissue was too high. Pasteur decided otherwise. Although the vaccine had only been tested in 11 dogs, he injected Joseph Meister.

Fortunately, Meister never got rabies from the dog bite or the vaccine, and Pasteur was launched into a higher orbit of fame. Was his decision to inject the boy based on wisdom and courage, or was it reckless? Whatever the case, it was not Pasteur's vaccine. It was Emile Roux's. And no credit was given until Pasteur's laboratory notebooks were reviewed a century later.

Many of Pasteur's difficulties and disagreements with colleagues were a result of his training. Pasteur was a chemist and not a doctor. His lack of appreciation for the vagaries of biologic systems, and the potential danger caused by them, was well described by Joseph Meister's physician, who several years after the experiment stated, "Pasteur lacked prudence in medical matters. He had made no reservations as to the possibility of partial failures [of rabies vaccine]. Had he been a doctor, he would have instinctively taken some precautions by foreseeing the possibility of [occasional] failures."

Some of the most revealing information about Pasteur comes from Geison's vignettes of the scientist's personal life: Pasteur's childhood recollection of the screams of villagers having their wolf bites cauterized by the local blacksmith's hot iron to prevent rabies, his strong religious beliefs, his rather conservative politics, and his 12-hour day, seven-day work week.

The weakness of Geison's book comes from the same source as its strength: its detail. Often the author fails to back away from the minutiae to give the reader a larger perspective. For those who know the field of infectious disease, the parts of the book dedicated to anthrax and rabies are challenging reading, but understandable. At the same time, the first 60 pages devoted to Pasteur's work with the refraction of light by tartrate crystals was hard going. Seldom does the author assist the reader to understand the big picture.

But overall, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur is a piece of historical research indispensable for the student of medical history. With its 25 pages of appendices, including the important translations of Pasteur's laboratory notebook, and 56 pages of references, it will serve as an indispensable resource. Even for those of us with more superficial historical interests, it is most interesting reading.

Donald P. Francis, MD, DSc, is currently doing research at Genentech in San Francisco, California, to develop a vaccine against HIV. He previously directed AIDS laboratory activities at the Centers for Disease Control, where he worked with France's Institut Pasteur to prove that HIV caused AIDS. Before working on AIDS, he was involved in control of global epidemics such as smallpox, cholera, and Ebola.