Beets, Silk and Rabies

Studio portrait of Louis Pasteur, restored by Felix Nadar

Students and dignitaries were filing out of the large lecture room. Louis Pasteur was able to draw large crowds for his lectures on chemistry, physics and natural history because of his passion. Though he was only 32, Pasteur was not only a professor, but the Dean of Science at the University of Lille, in Lille, France. So far Pasteur had made a name for himself through hard work and ingenuity. He had discovered molecular asymmetry in crystals left over from wine, which led to the study of molecular structure.

As he walked away from this lecture in 1856. One of his students had a father that made alcohol from beet roots. But lately, the liquor was going sour before he could sell it. The student was asking for advice and Pasteur saw an opportunity to solve a problem.

As he worked on this problem, he learned that it was bacteria in liquors as well as milk that caused the liquids to go sour. He developed a system of heating and then cooling the liquid that would kill enough bacteria and germs that food borne diseases were mitigated and controlled. It also extended the shelf life of those liquids.

In 9 more years, Pasteur was asked to tackle a disease that was depleting the silk industry. Silk worms were contracting diseases that caused the larvae to not spin silk needed to make the fine cloth needed for one of France’s largest exports. France’s minister of agriculture asked Pasteur to solve the riddle of how to control and eradicate the disease. Many farmers and experts doubted Pasteur’s ability to help them considering he didn’t know anything about the industry or silk. Pasteur knew he had overcome such obstacles before and believed he could solve the problem. He figured out that the disease was being spread when infected larvae and moths scratched the healthy silk worms. So Pasteur taught farmers how to look through microscopes and find signs of the disease in infected bugs and eggs. Then they destroyed the worms that were infected. By teaching the farmers, they were able to understand the cause and be part of the solution. Pasteur had saved two of France’s major industries.

Along with other contributions to understanding germs and disease, Pasteur would face a disease that had alluded doctors for centuries. In 1885, Pasteur and his colleagues had developed an effective means of inoculating dogs that had been bitten by rabid animals. By taking spinal cords from infected rabbits and drying them, Pasteur would inject a small amount of the spinal cord into the dogs repeatedly before symptoms would surface. This had worked on dogs well, but on July 6, 1885 Pasteur would find out if it worked on humans. A 6-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was brought to Pasteur after having been bitten 14 times by a rabid dog. The boy would surly die. But with the help of a doctor administering the doses, young Joseph was given a shot and Joseph never developed the symptoms of rabies. He lived. He was the first human to receive Pasteur’s treatment and the only treatment for rabies invented. This success not only saved Joseph’s life, but made Pasteur a national hero and helped to start the first Pasteur Institute.

For you:

In the face of new or unique circumstances, it’s only human to doubt yourself. At 19 years old, even after having a tutor, Pasteur failed his first exam but was finally able to pass with a general science degree in 1842. He was not excelling at chemistry. When he took the entrance exams for École Normale Supérieure later that year, he passed but decided to wait a year before continuing with the university due to low scores. He worked hard and studied so that the next year when he took the exam he was near the top of the incoming class.

By working hard and focusing on his desire to learn and study science, Pasteur developed a confidence that served him well the rest of his life.

Look back at your life and consider how your experiences are helping you achieve your vision or goal. Don’t be too quick to discount the experience you have gained. Life has a way of building on itself. Before others will believe in you, you need to believe in yourself. Confidence will grow as you work, learn and solve the problems that come your way.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

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