Tuesday July 6, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The First Rabies Innoculation

On this Day:

In 1885, Joseph Meister (21 February 1876 – 24 June 1940) was the first person to have been inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur, as well as the first person to be successfully treated for the infection.  Well, perhaps you might be a touch rapid in believing so…

Nine-year-old Meister had been badly bitten by a rabid dog. After consulting with Alfred Vulpian and Jacques-Joseph Grancher and obtaining their assistance, Louis Pasteur agreed to inoculate the boy with spinal tissue from rabid rabbits, which he had successfully used to prevent rabies in dogs. The treatment was successful and the boy did not develop rabies.

As an adult, Meister served as a caretaker at the Pasteur Institute until his death in 1940 at age 64. On 24 June 1940, ten days after the German army occupied Paris during World War II, Meister committed suicide with his gas gun.

Although often repeated, the version of his suicide stating he chose to take his life rather than allow the Wehrmacht to enter the Pasteurs’ crypt is not sustainable. Instead, a contemporary journal article as well as the testimony of Meister’s granddaughter indicate that, fearing for his family’s safety, Meister asked them to leave, while he stayed behind to protect the Pasteur institute from the German soldiers. He incorrectly believed this had resulted in them being captured by the Nazis. In a tragic irony, his family returned to the institute a few hours after Meister took his own life.

Meister was played by Dickie Moore in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur. The story of Meister’s potentially dangerous inoculation against rabies by Pasteur was also featured in an episode of the TV series Dark Matters: Twisted But True and the 1974 BBC drama-documentary series Microbes and Men.

Louis Pasteur  (27 December 1822 – 28 September 1895) was a French chemist and microbiologist renowned for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization. His research in chemistry led to remarkable breakthroughs in the understanding of the causes and preventions of diseases, which laid down the foundations of hygiene, public health and much of modern medicine. His works are credited to saving millions of lives through the developments of vaccines for rabies and anthrax. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern bacteriology and has been honoured as the “father of bacteriology” and as the “father of microbiology” (together with Robert Koch, and the latter epithet also attributed to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek).

Pasteur was responsible for disproving the doctrine of spontaneous generation. Under the auspices of the French Academy of Sciences, his experiment demonstrated that in sterilized and sealed flasks, nothing ever developed; and, conversely, in sterilized but open flasks, microorganisms could grow. For this experiment, the academy awarded him the Alhumbert Prize carrying 2,500 francs in 1862.

Pasteur is also regarded as one of the fathers of germ theory of diseases, which was a minor medical concept at the time. His many experiments showed that diseases could be prevented by killing or stopping germs, thereby directly supporting the germ theory and its application in clinical medicine. He is best known to the general public for his invention of the technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination, a process now called pasteurization. Pasteur also made significant discoveries in chemistry, most notably on the molecular basis for the asymmetry of certain crystals and racemization. Early in his career, his investigation of tartaric acid resulted in the first resolution of what is now called optical isomers. His work led the way to the current understanding of a fundamental principle in the structure of organic compounds.

He was the director of the Pasteur Institute, established in 1887, until his death, and his body was interred in a vault beneath the institute. Although Pasteur made groundbreaking experiments, his reputation became associated with various controversies. Historical reassessment of his notebook revealed that he practiced deception to overcome his rivals.

Pasteur produced the first vaccine for rabies by growing the virus in rabbits, and then weakening it by drying the affected nerve tissue. The rabies vaccine was initially created by Emile Roux, a French doctor and a colleague of Pasteur, who had produced a killed vaccine using this method. The vaccine had been tested in 50 dogs before its first human trial. This vaccine was used on 9-year-old Joseph Meister, on July 6, 1885, after the boy was badly mauled by a rabid dog. This was done at some personal risk for Pasteur, since he was not a licensed physician and could have faced prosecution for treating the boy. After consulting with physicians, he decided to go ahead with the treatment. Over 11 days, Meister received 13 inoculations, each inoculation using viruses that had been weakened for a shorter period of time. Three months later he examined Meister and found that he was in good health.

Pasteur was hailed as a hero and the legal matter was not pursued. Analysis of his laboratory notebooks shows that Pasteur had treated two people before his vaccination of Meister. One survived but may not actually have had rabies, and the other died of rabies. Pasteur began treatment of Jean-Baptiste Jupille on October 20, 1885, and the treatment was successful. Later in 1885, people, including four children from the United States, went to Pasteur’s laboratory to be inoculated. In 1886, he treated 350 people, of which only one developed rabies. The treatment’s success laid the foundations for the manufacture of many other vaccines. The first of the Pasteur Institutes was also built on the basis of this achievement.

In The Story of San Michele, Axel Munthe writes of some risks Pasteur undertook in the rabies vaccine research:

Pasteur himself was absolutely fearless. Anxious to secure a sample of saliva straight from the jaws of a rabid dog, I once saw him with the glass tube held between his lips draw a few drops of the deadly saliva from the mouth of a rabid bull-dog, held on the table by two assistants, their hands protected by leather gloves (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

A bunny…used to be a bunny, but after a dog with rabies bit it, it’s rabbit. 

Second, a Song:

Rainer Hersch (born 7 November 1962) is a British conductor, actor, writer and comedian known for his comical take on classical music. He has toured in more than 30 countries and has broadcast extensively, principally for the BBC. His radio series include All Classical Music Explained (BBC Radio 4, 1997); Rainer Hersch’s 20th Century Retrospective (BBC Radio 3, 1999) and All the Right Notes, Not Necessarily in the Right Order (BBC Radio 4, 2003 and 2006).

Hersch read Economics at Lancaster University, where his fellow students included Andy Serkis and James May. A Monty Python fan in his youth, he joined the Revue Group, the university’s student comedy troupe, and began his writing career. He was a member of Cartmel College and served as JCR president – a position usually held by final year students – during his first term. In July 2015 he was presented with an Alumni Award by Lancaster University for graduates who have made a substantial contribution to their field and developed an outstanding international reputation.

In December 1987 Hersch made his debut on the London stand-up circuit as part of a comic double act The Tebbits with fellow student Peter Wylie. In 1992 he gave up his job as Touring Manager of the London Festival Orchestra to become a professional comedian and since that time has performed exclusively as a solo artist. In 1996 Rainer wrote and presented his stand-up show All Classical Music Explained (ACME) at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of thirteen such Edinburgh appearances. Billed as “a simple and stupid guide to questions like ‘why is organ music so boring?’; ‘what does a conductor actually do?’ and ‘how to clap in the wrong place and mean it'” ACME has since been performed over 300 times in four continents. It established him as an original comic voice and the classical music theme, which has dominated all his subsequent activities.

Hersch continues to tour the world presenting his one-man shows or as guest conductor in comedy concerts with orchestra. Among his many other commitments, he is currently conductor/host of the annual Johann Strauss Gala – an extensive, UK-wide tour promoted by Raymond Gubbay Ltd. and Artistic Director of the April Fools Day Concert at the Royal Festival Hall, an event he instigated in 2009.

Hersch studied piano as a private pupil of Norma Fisher. He studied conducting for three years at The Conservatoire in London with Denise Ham and in masterclasses at the Royal Academy of Music with János Fürst and George Hurst. He has conducted many orchestras around the world including The Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Soloists who have participated in his comedy concerts include Alfred Brendel, Nicola Benedetti, Marc-André Hamelin, Paul Lewis and Dame Evelyn Glennie (per Wikipedia).

In this clip, Rainer Hersch introduces the Rainer Hersch Singers and Orkestra to perform his take on Nathan Evans’s The Wellerman (Sea Shanty).  Performed live at the Cadogan Hall in London on 29th May 2021 under socially-distanced conditions.  Singers: Graham Foote (Tenor), Luce-Mae Sumner (soprano), Rebecca Ridout (mezzo soprano), Christopher Ragland (baritone). Violin soloist Willemijn Steenbakkers.  Lyrics (c) Rainer Hersch 2021

The Rainer Hersch Orkestra consists of violin, viola, cello bass, clarinet, horn, piano and percussion. 

Here is the Rainer Hersch Orkestra performing “Waiting for the Vaccine” from London’s iconic Cadogan Hall on 29th May 2021 (per YouTube.com). I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day

“It is surmounting difficulties that makes heroes.” – Louis Pasteur

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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