What Are Louis Pasteur's Contributions To The Study Of Disease?

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Although French chemist and microbiologist (a person who studies microorganisms, organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye) Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) may be best known for developing pasteurization, (the process of heating food or beverages to kill organisms that cause disease) he contributed to medicine in other important ways as well. For example, he discovered vaccines to prevent diseases caused by bacteria, such as anthrax in cattle and cholera (a serious, often fatal disease of the intestines) in chickens. In 1876 German doctor Robert Koch (1843–1910) identified the bacteria that causes anthrax. Building on this knowledge, Pasteur weakened the anthrax germ in his laboratory. Then he injected the weakened microbe into test animals, which developed immunity (resistance) to anthrax.

In 1881 Pasteur turned his attention to rabies, a painful and fatal disease caused by a virus, which was transferred to humans by bites from infected animals. With the help of his assistant, Pierre-Paul Emile Roux, Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies. He had tested it only on animals, however, but soon discovered its effectiveness in humans. On July 6, 1885, a frantic mother with her nine-year-old son, Joseph, rushed to see Pasteur. Joseph had been bitten fourteen times by a rabid dog, and unless Pasteur's vaccine would work on humans, Joseph would certainly die. After receiving twelve injections over a period of time, Joseph did not die. Upon hearing the news that Pasteur had created a vaccine for the incurable disease, dog-bite victims flocked to his laboratory. Today the prevention and treatment of rabies continues to be based on Pasteur's research. Pet owners are required to vaccinate their pets against rabies, and natural resource managers try to limit the spread of rabies in wild animal populations by placing vaccine-laced bait where susceptible animals, such as raccoons and skunks, will eat it.

Further Information: Curtis, Robert H. Great Lives: Medicine. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993, pp. 128–43; Mulcahy, Robert. Diseases: Finding the Cure. Minneapolis, Minn.: Oliver Press, 1996; Newfield, Marcia. The Life of Louis Pasteur. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 1995; Tiner, John H. Louis Pasteur. Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1991.

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