Some Awesome People

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Louis Pasteur - Part 1

A Great Benefactor

Part I

"MAD dog! Mad dog!" With shrieks of terror people fled in all directions as the savage animal with its bloodshot eyes and foaming mouth rushed howling down the street. Alas, one small girl of five, fearful and hesitant, stood in its path. With a mad fury it sprang at her biting her face. Taken to hospital she began to develop the symptoms of hydrophobia, a disease accompanied by convulsions, intense thirst and an inability to swallow for which there was no remedy. A month later a middle-aged man, his expression one of acute suffering, stood watching her as she lay dying in agony.
"Poor child, poor child!" he murmured. "Oh, if only I could discover how to cure or prevent this terrible disease."
He was not, as might be thought, the father. The child was a stranger to him. But Louis Pasteur could never forget that he himself had lost three little daughters from tuberculosis and typhoid fever so, as a famous scientist, he was trying to discover the cause and cure for these and other dreaded diseases. Now the sight of this child in her anguish made him determine to embark on new experiments with regard to hydrophobia. He set to work.

Such experiments entailed keeping mad dogs kennelled near his laboratory. The work was excessively dangerous for these were the days when there were no anaesthetics to render such animals unconscious. There was, for example, the occasion when two of his assistants, having dragged a mad bulldog from its cage with a lasso, had to hold down the struggling beast with their hands while Pasteur drew up a few drops of the deadly foaming saliva into a tube held between his lips. One drop of that saliva into a scratch, one bite from that snapping jaw and those heroic men would have paid the penalty of madness and death. Using small animals for his purpose after extensive research and trial, the scientist believed that through inoculation of the disease in a very mild form he held the secret, not of a cure but of a preventive.
"But how can it be tested out on a human being?" he asked himself "No one would take the risk of being inoculated with hydrophobia. Perhaps I shall have to try it out on myself."
It was while he was considering this idea that a little peasant boy was brought to him in a pitiful state.
"He was on his way to school," sobbed the mother, "when he was attacked by a mad dog. See, he is bitten in fourteen places!"
Louis Pasteur surveyed the child thoughtfully. He was doomed to die an agonizing death from hydrophobia in any case. Surely then this was a God-given opportunity to try his new treatment! The mother gave her consent, his colleagues urged that there was not a moment to be lost. Realizing full well the seriousness of such an act, Pasteur administered the first injection.

During the next few days, racked with anxiety at the thought that he was deliberately injecting a helpless child with the virus of a deadly disease, he could scarcely eat or sleep. The boy, however, developed none of the usual symptoms and at last the final dose was given. Breathless those beside him watched and waited, but the boy remained unaffected. At the end of a month little Joseph Meister was quite well. Louis Pasteur had conquered the terror of hydrophobia. This was but one of the many discoveries made by this brilliant scientist yet, except that he was particularly good at drawing, as a young boy he had not appeared to be specially gifted.

He had been born on December 27th, 1822, in a humble home and of humble parents, his mother being the daughter of a gardener, his father
who had once served as a conscript in the army of Napoleon a tanner, first at Dole and later at Arbois. The child received the name of Louis at his baptism as a Catholic in the village church but he was not brought up as a practising Catholic. A few years previously the French Revolution had swept away many of the priests and the Religious with their schools and good works so, although when Louis was born those days were a thing of the past much of the faith in France had been destroyed as in England at the time of Henry VIII.
Louis, therefore, received no religious instruction either at home or at the village school which he attended. He was a quiet boy and worked well at his lessons, but like many of his companions he much preferred holidays to school. What greater joy than to ramble with them over the countryside or to go on fishing expeditions up the river which flowed past the tannery! He enjoyed, too, the simple pleasures of home and the companionship of his three sisters. And sometimes on a Sunday he would walk proudly beside his father whose military frock- coat bore the coveted ribbon of the Legion of Honour which, as a simple sergeant-major, he had received from the hands of Napoleon himself, on the field of battle.

Meanwhile it had been discovered that Louis had a real gift of catching a likeness with his pencil or crayons. One can picture his school-fellows clustering round his sketch book with admiring exclamations:
"Look, there's Charles
and Pierre and Jean. Oh, Louis, they are good!"
"He'll be a famous artist when he grows up. We'll call him "the artist"!
And they did. But Divine Providence had ordained another kind of fame for Louis Pasteur. His father, despite the fact that he was but a poor ignorant tanner, had determined to give his son a good education. So Louis left the village school for the college at Arbois, and every evening his father would try to encourage in him a love of learning by helping him with his homework. In after-life Pasteur said of his father:
"I owe everything to him
he had a passion to know and to study."

Meanwhile, discovering that the new pupil's apparent slowness sprang from a reflective and analytical mind, M. Romanet, the Principal of the college, also set himself to enkindle the lad's ambition. Louis, who greatly admired his master, willingly responded. When he was sixteen M. Romanet had a talk with his father.
"Your son has exceptional gifts. I suggest that he should be sent to Paris to work up for the entrance examinations to the Ecole Normale, the training college for professors and scientists."
Although it was no easy matter to find the necessary funds, the worthy tanner readily agreed, so one fine morning young Louis set off for Paris thrilled and excited at this new venture. We can imagine his parents' fond pride in the thought that their son was now embarked on the first step towards a professional career. What then must have been their dismay to hear from the head of the students' hostel that he considered it advisable that Louis should return home! A wild young student's prank? Not a bit of it. He was so unhappy that he could not work. He was homesick!

Strange, incredible and even contemptible such home-sickness might appear to the English boy accustomed from an early age to boarding school. But as subsequent events were to prove, he who was to become renowned as a benefactor of mankind was no cold-blooded scientist actuated solely by pride and ambition. That warm-hearted, affectionate nature which manifested itself in his boyhood in an intense love of his father, mother and sisters
and later for his wife, children and friends was to develop into that love of humanity summed up in the word "service", a service to which he devoted his life, a love which as will be seen had its roots in the love of God.

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