The Vaccine for Rabies | Who Was Louis Pasteur?

(Last Updated On: March 1, 2019)
Who Was Louis Pasteur?

The vaccine for rabies was invented by a man named Louis Pasteur back in 1855. Pasteur’s work is widely praised because of his numerous breakthroughs in relation to germ theory. Many subsequent scientific breakthroughs relating to the field of immunization and disease prevention can be traced back to Pasteur, not to mention a lot of what is known today about how to treat food to make it safe for consumption. As such, he is considered one of the main fathers of germ theory. But who was Louis Pasteur, really?

Who Was Louis Pasteur and Why Was His Work so Important?

The short answer is that Louis Pasteur was a French chemist who specialized in microbiology and bacteriology. He is best known for developing a vaccine for rabies, but he has many other notable accomplishments to his name, including creating a widely used process of fermentation known as pasteurization and also developing a vaccine for anthrax. Furthermore, he was one of the first scientists to push for doctors to wash their hands and sanitize their equipment. At the time, these practices that are known as standard were generally taken for granted.

In tribute to his work, numerous streets bearing Pasteur’s namesake can be found across the globe, from Irvine, California, to Phnom Phen, Cambodia. There is also a host of reputable institutes and schools named after him. Most notably, The Pasteur Institute, which was founded by Pasteur himself back in 1888, is devoted to the study of contagious disease and has since expanded to 32 chapters located in 30 countries worldwide.  

It is easy to take for granted the fact that most life threatening contagious diseases that once were responsible for wiping out large portions of the human population can now be easily controlled with vaccinations and further prevented with pasteurization. But without the work of Pasteur, this would not be the case.

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What Is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus that causes brain inflation. It is easily spread by scratching or biting, and when uncontrolled, is commonly contracted by dogs. While the symptoms might take a few months to appear, once they show up, almost nothing can be done to save the unlucky person who contracts it.

Rabies was so prevalent in the 19th century that it was considered a scourge, and basically, everybody who contracted the virus was fated to die from it. Furthermore, until Pasteur brought science into the equation, most “cures” were based in superstition and magical thinking, and were invariably ineffective. As such, there was a terror surrounding the disease that still survives to this day, despite the fact that the number of people who contract the disease annually continues to drop. Today, the disease is largely isolated to areas that lack effective immunization programs to thwart infection.

Louis Pasteur and the Rabies Vaccine

Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine by first growing it in rabbits, and then making it less powerful by aging and drying the cells so it could be safely administered in microdoses to human beings. Vaccinations work because when humans are exposed to a small and manageable dose of a disease, they tend to naturally develop immunity. Pasteur’s rabies vaccine is so effective that it can save a victim even after infection, providing the virus is detected within 10 days of contraction.

However, because the virus is so deadly, Pasteur was initially reluctant to test his newly developed vaccine on human subjects. Even though it had already been tested and proven effective on more than 50 dogs, Pasteur was still hesitant due to the risk of exposure. However, when a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was seriously mauled by a rabid dog, the prospects for survival looked so grim that Pasteur finally decided to use the vaccine. The results? Meister became one of the first people in history to survive rabies, and the world rejoiced.

Pasteur would later go on to develop another widely used vaccine for anthrax, a disease that was prevalent in cattle at the time.

What Is Pasteurization and Why Is It so Important?

As if finding a vaccine for a deadly scourge wasn’t enough, Pasteur is responsible for another invention that continues to save millions of lives. In the 19th century, fermentation processes were often unsafe and resulted in a lot of sickness and death due to bacterial infection. Although fermentation had been studied before, the causes of issues with fermented foods were still largely misunderstood.

Pasteur originally took an interest in the fermentation of alcohol after a student raised a question about issues in the production process of beetroot wine. He would go on to write about how the spoiling of popular foods like cheese, milk, and wine could be attributed to the growth of mycobacteria and how these bacteria could be killed by simply heating the fermented product to a temperature between 140 to 212 degrees fahrenheit prior to consumption.

Today, this process is known as pasteurization, and it is so effective in preventing illness that it is typically considered illegal to sell unpasteurized fermented products like milk or cheese.

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