Above, young boy Joseph Meister received the first rabies vaccination. – Time, Inc.
by William “Doc” Halliday
Imagine that your child faces almost certain death. Would you allow an unlicensed physician to use an untested (not just unproven) procedure on your child? If you were the unlicensed physician would you perform the procedure if it meant that you might be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license since you were not a medical doctor? More specifically, your child is a nine-year old boy who has been bitten fourteen times by a large dog that had developed rabies and become wild? There have been fewer than 10 documented cases of survival once symptoms of rabies appear. This scenario did occur before the rabies vaccine was developed.
I normally write about United States history. However this story grabbed my attention, and had world-wide implications. One hundred and thirty-one years ago today, on July 6, 1885, there was a knock on the door at 45 Rue d’Ulm in Paris, France. At that address was the laboratory of Louis Pasteur. There were three people responsible for the knock on the Louis Pasteur’s laboratory. Standing at the door was Monsieur Theodore Vone who owned the dog that had developed rabies; Joseph Meister, the nine year old boy who had been bitten by the dog; and Joseph Meister’s understandably distressed mother. The mother knew that her son would die if he developed rabies, and until that time there had been no treatment. The Meisters were neighbors of Monsieur Vone in the Alsace Region of France.
The success of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine brought him instantaneous celebrity. Louis Pasteur is perhaps best known for pasteurization.
This was not a random visit. By early July of 1885, Pasteur and his research team had developed a extraordinarily effective process of inoculating rabies-infected dogs. They used a concoction of dried spinal cord material which had been harvested from rabid rabbits. Pasteur thought that the virus in his dried jars was still alive but had much lessened potency. He believed that this significantly reduced its ability to cause the disease. But he could not be certain. Anyone who contracted rabies always suffered terribly, before their suffering ended in death. He had no infallible method of testing his hypothesis other than by giving it to a human, even though his team had saved the lives of fifty rabies-infected dogs at that point. Louis Pasteur tested his vaccine against rabies on Joseph Meister by administering a total of 13 injections over an eleven day period.
The young Meister boy did live! He was the initial patient to receive Pasteur’s vaccination. This prevented the lyssavirus (rabies) in his body from developing into a full-scale infection. Here is no doubt that the injections saved the boy’s life, as the disease would have certainly been fatal. Pasteur was idolized and the violation of the law was not pursued.
Pasteur had looked into the work of a French veterinarian from Lyon named Pierre-Victoire Galtier. Galtier had reported in 1879 that rabies could be transmitted from dogs to rabbits. Because rabies has a long incubation period from first infection (via animal bite) to the onset of symptoms, Galtier believed something could be done to help individuals after the infection entered their bodies. But whatever was done would need to be initiated before the symptoms appeared. This is what led Pasteur to think about drying the spinal cords of rabbits that had been infected with rabies. He forever changed the world for people infected with the deadly disease.
The success of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine brought him instantaneous celebrity. Louis Pasteur is perhaps best known for pasteurization. This is the process, named for this scientist that destroys pathogens through simple heat, and is responsible for making milk and juices safe for consumption. An international fundraising campaign to build the Pasteur Institute in Paris was initiated. The establishment opened in 1888. Pasteur died in 1895. His remains were transferred to a crypt at the Pasteur Institute the following year.
When he became an adult, Joseph Meister worked as a janitor at the Pasteur Institute. Meister entertained visitors with tales of his time as the pioneering bacteriologist’s patient: “I shall see always Pasteur’s good face focused on me,” he would tell them. In June of 1940, Joseph Meister committed suicide.
William “Doc” Halliday, historian and writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org