Louis Pasteur Essay - Critical Context

Laura N. Wood

Critical Context

Wood’s biography was completed in the late 1940’s, a time of complete faith in the work of science. The harnessing of atomic energy had caught the public’s imagination, the discovery of antibiotics offered hope for elimination of disease, and with better hospitals and improved treatments for health problems, infant mortality was decreasing. It was against this backdrop that Wood wrote the story of a scientist who was instrumental in finding solutions to some of these problems.

The story of Pasteur is also one that describes the profound effect that a single person may have. Pasteur demonstrated that one individual, knowing that an answer to a question exists, can make a significant difference. By eliminating any possible alternative, Pasteur knew his answers were correct and simply overwhelmed his adversaries with his data.

In her descriptions of Pasteur’s work, Wood illustrates the methodology of what, by modern standards, were crude conditions. Pasteur did not have years of scientific discovery to draw upon for his thinking; after all, Koch’s germ theory of disease was contemporary with Pasteur’s work. He was, literally, breaking new ground with his experiments. In addition, to anyone interested in science as a career, Wood is describing exciting work. The story of Joseph Meister, with his rescue from a horrible death, sounds like a plot from a film.

Finally, as Wood points out in her introduction, Pasteur was also a master at staging events; the demonstration of the efficacy of his anthrax vaccine is a classic example. He was satisfied with nothing less than the full acceptance of his beliefs, and he was generally correct.