While the world eagerly awaits a vaccine from COVID-19 and hundreds of laboratories work 24/7 in trying to find one, we would do well in looking back to the discovery and invention of the first vaccine. We take so many of our benefits for granted. We often forget the immense struggles and sacrifices that a few brilliant scientists have gone through to give us the advantages we enjoy today.
Louis Pasteur was one of the greatest scientists. His early life provides two important lessons we should always remember:
- Pasteur was born in 1822 to a poor family. Pasteur’s father was a barely literate tanner. We must keep in mind that extraordinary people come from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds.
- Pasteur was a mediocre student and even failed a college exam. Great advances are made by those with sincerity and imagination and not only by those who show high academic grades.
Pasteur’s work resulted in many discoveries, but perhaps the three most exceptional findings were:
- Before Pasteur, most people thought that diseases were caused spontaneously by “bad air” that arose from dead matter. It was Pasteur who demonstrated through a series of careful experiments that diseases were caused by germs that were tiny microorganisms. These germs are so small that they cannot be seen without microscopes. Pasteur showed that it was through careful experiments made over a long period (1860 to 1864), not blind beliefs, that a real understanding of diseases can be obtained.
- Before Pasteur discovered the process of vaccination, thousands of people around the world died each year from rabies. It took a great leap of imagination and creativity for Pasteur to think of injecting a weak form of the disease into a person. This resulted in the person developing anti-bodies that learned how to combat the disease. Can you imagine the creative leap in even thinking of such a scheme? Putting a form of the disease into a human being was radical, but it worked!
Pasteur tried many different strategies before succeeding with a rabies vaccine. Even then he was full of caution. He first tried it out on animals and was thinking of trying it on himself when a nine-year-old boy was attacked by a mad dog. The boy’s mother pleaded and insisted Pasteur try the cure on her son. Reluctantly Pasteur gave the first rabies vaccine to Joseph Meister on 6 July 1885. The success of this first vaccine has resulted in many other types of vaccines against a range of diseases.
- Pasteur worked closely with businesses and industry. He helped the French silk industry survive by finding a cure to a disease affecting silkworms. He was asked to help French winemakers, some of whose wine was mysteriously becoming spoilt. Pasteur spent years in his laboratory doing experiments in the 1880s till finally, he developed a process we now called pasteurization. Pasteurization is now used for milk and a wide range of processed foods. Without this, we would not have the abundant supply of these important foods.
Throughout his life, Pasteur faced many failures but each time he persevered and used his creative drive to keep searching for cures for diseases. Towards the end of his life, Pasteur gave a speech on his seventieth birthday. He said, “Do not let yourself be tainted by a deprecating and barren skepticism, do not let yourself be discouraged by the sadness of certain hours. Live in the serene peace of laboratories and libraries… a time [will] come when you will have the immense happiness of thinking that you have contributed in some way to the progress and good of humanity.”
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala