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Pasteur, Louis

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Louis Pasteur
(December 27, 1822 - September 28, 1895)
Born in France
Years of Discoveries: 1862, 1864, 1864, 1885

A Multi-Faceted Scientific Genius: Germ Theory, Founder of Vaccination, Microbiology and Pasteurization

Louis Pasteur, born two days after Christmas in 1822, grew up in a small town in eastern France. As a child, he was drawn to art and it was not until his college days that he discovered an interest in science, especially chemistry. He was an exacting researcher, with an imaginative mind, who would not let go of an issue until he had discovered its root cause. He was as comfortable working with real world applications as he was working in the laboratory, and this led to some of his most significant discoveries. Pasteur is credited with proving germ theory, which revolutionized the practice of medicine, and established him as the founder of microbiology. His knowledge of microbes also allowed him to develop the process of pasteurization, used worldwide to preserve a variety of foods. One of Pasteur's greatest contributions was the development of vaccination, responsible for saving countless lives.

Pasteur was intrigued with the overlap of science and the "real world." He believed he could learn as much, if not more, out in the workplace where practical problems required solutions that only science could deliver. His first opportunity came in the wine industry - an area of critical importance to the French economy. His research, at the request of a wine producer, revealed that the fermentation process depended on the presence and activity of small organisms, known as microbes. If these microbes were absent, or the wrong microbes were present, the result would be an unsatisfactory batch of wine - or, in the same manner, a batch of sour milk. This understanding of the activity of microbes laid the foundation for the field of microbiology. 

His knowledge of microbes set the stage for his next scientific advance. The prevailing theory of his time was "spontaneous generation," a belief that living organisms sprang to life from decaying organic matter. Scientists had previously discarded the idea that larger animals came into being this way (mice from dirty hay, or maggots from decaying meat). But, most scientists still believed that microscopic organisms were the result of spontaneous generation. It was Pasteur who proved them wrong, utilizing a well-designed experiment. Working in the high Alps, he used an ingenious method of filtering the air to prove decomposing food produces no new organisms - new organisms only occur when they're introduced from the outside, through non-filtered air. This germ theory became the foundation upon which hygienic principles of medical care were based.

Once again, he turned his attention to the wine industry. This time his interest was in helping the wine producers develop a way to keep wine from spoiling. The key was to be found, not surprisingly, in microbes. Pasteur found it was harmful microbes within the wine that caused it to sour. But he also found he could destroy most of the microbes, leaving too few to be harmful, by heating the wine to a temperature well below the boiling point. This process became known as pasteurization, and is used to protect a wide variety of foods.

Pasteur continued to seek opportunity to blend science and industry. He spent three years working with the silk industry, finding a means by which silkworm breeders could identify diseased worms. This project, dealing with the bacteria responsible for the disease, laid the foundation for his next significant discovery - vaccination. Following the same theory of bacteria being responsible for disease, he began to work on the issues of anthrax and chicken cholera. While working with the chickens, one batch of cholera bacteria spoiled, and he found it did not kill the chickens. When he later re-infected them with  fresh bacteria they still lived. Pasteur theorized that the chickens had received immunity from the first, weakened bacteria. He reproduced his results using sheep and anthrax. Then he turned his attention to humans and the deadly rabies disease. At great personal risk, he collected saliva from a rabid dog to isolate the germ. He used this to develop the weakened vaccine for treatment. In the summer of 1885 a nine-year-old boy, who had been ravaged by a rabid dog, was brought to Pasteur. Though he was not a licensed physician, and knew he faced serious consequences should anything go wrong, Pasteur knew the boy would die without his help. So, the young Joseph Meister became the first patient treated for rabies. Pasteur and the others watched anxiously as they treated the boy for several weeks. The treatment was a stunning success. It not only provided a vital treatment against rabies, it opened the door for the development of numerous other life-saving vaccines.

Pasteur himself was struck by disease when he was 45, suffering a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. Though this made his work extremely difficult, many of his discoveries, including vaccination, were made after the stroke occurred.

Introduction by Tim Anderson



Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

Louis Pasteur, by Debré, explores Pasteur's life:

A lecture at the University of Louisville about Pasteur's life: article on Pasteur: complete biography:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Science Heroes of the 19th Century

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Robert Koch

Koch was an ingenious innovator

Isolated the bacterium that causes tuberculosis

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Paul Ehrlich

Developed the commercial serum therapy against diphtheria

Ehrlich established exacting standards for measuring the content of antitoxins. This critical process allowed for the mass production of standardized serums against diphtheria and tetanus.

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Edward Jenner

Did earliest work on the smallpox vaccine

Jenner's early efforts proved that cowpox virus (vaccinia) could provide immunity to the smallpox virus. This discovery gave birth to the concept of vaccination.

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Joseph Lister

Lister ushered in the era of sterile surgical practices

Lister, the "Father of Modern Surgery," developed the antiseptic surgical technique, ushering in the era of sterile surgical practices.

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Louis Pasteur

Pasteur was responsible for several major scientific discoveries

Pasteur was a multi-faceted scientific genius who proved germ theory, and was the founder of vaccination, microbiology, and pasteurization.

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John Snow

developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics

Snow, widely known as the "Father of Epidemiology," developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics. He also was the first to calculate precise doses of anesthesia.

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Click the thumbnail image to jump to the scientist.  Click the large image, scientist's name or "read more" to go to the scientist's page.


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Key Contributing Scientists to the Discovery

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

Alphin, Elaine. Germ Hunter: A Story About Louis Pasteur (Creative Minds Biographies) (Ages 9-12) Lerner Publishing Group, 2003. 

Sabin. Louis Pasteur (Ages 9-12) Troll Communications, 1997.

Vallery-Radot, Pasteur. Louis Pasteur;: A great life in brief. Knopf, 1958. 

Spengler, Kremena. Louis Pasteur: A Photo-Illustrated Biography. (Ages 4-8) Bridgestone Books, 2003.

Debre, P. Louis Pasteur (Grandes biographies) (French Edition). Flammarion, 1994.

Dubos, Rene. Louis Pasteur (Da Capo Series in Science). Da Capo Press, 1986.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science