The final and certainly most famous success of Pasteur’s research was the development of a vaccine against rabies or hydrophobia as it is also known. The disease has always had a hold on the public imagination and has been looked upon with horror. It evokes visions of “raging victims, bound and howling, or asphyxiated between two mattresses” (Duclaux). The treatments applied to victims were as horrible as the supposed symptoms: this included cauterizing the bite wounds with a red-hot poker. Actually very few persons die in any year from being bitten by a rabid dog or wolf. The symptoms of the disease are variable: onset may take weeks to months to develop if they develop at all. Nonetheless, Pasteur and his colleague Roux realized that conquest of rabies would be recognized as a great achievement to the world of science and to the public at large.
Pasteur and Roux initially attempted to transfer infection by injecting healthy dogs with saliva from rabid animals. The results were variable and unpredictable. Later, recognizing that the active agent was in the spinal cord and brain, and because they were unable to detect a specific rabic microorganism, Pasteur and Roux applied extracts of rabid spinal cord directly to the brain of dogs. With this technique they could reproducibly produce rabies in the test animals in a few days.
The goal was next to develop a vaccine that would provide protection to the subject before the rabic agent moved from the bite site to the spinal cord to the brain. This was achieved by injecting into test animals suspensions of spinal cord of rabid rabbits that were attenuated in strength by air drying over a 12-day period in the now-famous Roux Bottle. A strip of spinal cord was suspended from a hanger in the center of the bottle containing a hole at the top of the bottle and one on the lower side. Air entered from the bottom opening, passed over a drying agent and exited from the top. The longer the cord was dried, the less potent was the tissue in producing rabies.
The treatment plan used to develop immunity to rabies was to inject under skin of a dog the least potent preparation of minced spinal cord, followed every day for the next 12 days with a stronger and stronger extract. At the end of this time, the animal was completely resistant to bites of rabid dogs and failed to develop rabies if the most potent extracts were applied directly to the brain.
Following confirmation of his reports in 1885 that he had made dogs refractory to rabies by vaccination, Pasteur received wide acclaim and much favorable publicity. But why not use the vaccine on humans? Frankly, Pasteur was terribly afraid of things going wrong and he was particularly uneasy about being unable to isolate the rabic substance. And so he continued to insist that many years of additional research was necessary before the treatment could be tried on humans.
But the press of events made him act sooner. On July 6, 1886, 9 year old Joseph Meister and his mother appeared at Pasteur’s laboratory. Two days earlier the young boy had been bitten repeatedly by a rabid dog. He was so badly mauled that he could hardly walk. His mother appealed to Pasteur to treat her son. At the time Pasteur had treated about 40 dogs, most of whom resisted rabies. Could he risk treating this youth who faced certain death? Pasteur, after consultation with physician colleagues, and much trepidation treated the youth. Despite Pasteur’s fears, Meister made a perfect recovery and remained in fine health for the remainder of his life.
A few months later a second victim turned up. He was a young shepherd also bitten by a mad dog. Following reports of his successful treatments, the wild acclaim for Pasteur knew no bounds! Victims of dog and wolf bites from France, Russia, the United States poured into his laboratory for treatment. The newspapers and public followed these treatments and cures with intense interest. Pasteur became a hero and a legend. The Pasteur Institute funded by public and governmental subscriptions was built in Paris initially to treat victims of rabies who were coming to Pasteur’s laboratory in increasing numbers. Later, Pasteur Institutes were built, including 3 in the United States, to deal with human rabies and other diseases.
Rabies was the last major research of the master scientist. His health was failing and a paralysis of his left side from a serious stroke he suffered in his 46th year made his working in the laboratory increasingly difficult. Pasteur died in 1895 after suffering additional strokes. He was buried, a national hero, by the French Government. His funeral was attended by thousands of people. His remains, initially interred in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, was transferred to a permanent crypt in the Pasteur Institute, Paris.
In a tragic footnote to history, Joseph Meister, the first person publicly to receive the rabies vaccine, returned to the Pasteur Institute as an employee where he served for many years as Gatekeeper. In 1940, 45 years after his treatment for rabies that made medical history, he was ordered by the German occupiers of Paris to open Pasteur’s crypt. Rather than comply, Joseph Meister committed suicide!