This Day in History (6-Jul-1885) – Louis Pasteur successfully tests an anti-rabies vaccine

In 1880, a Parisian veterinarian sent Louis Pasteur samples from two dogs that had died of rabies. The number of rabid dogs had increased in Paris, and veterinarians had become concerned about the problem. Pasteur then began careful work on rabies, attempting to infect other animals with rabies and identify the site and cause of infection. Pasteur would continue to work with rabies over the next several years. In 1884, having tried to attenuate the rabies virus in monkeys, Pasteur turned to a different method to produce the vaccine. Pasteur predicted that drying of the infected tissue might weaken the virus. Pasteur was able to use a series of less-attenuated vaccines over several days to prevent rabies in dogs that had been infected. The work was dangerous: he and his assistants often had to handle the rabid animals and take samples from them. Pasteur announced to the French Academy of Sciences that he had successfully protected dogs from fatal rabies by use of his attenuated rabies vaccine.

On 6th July 1885, nine-year-old Joseph Meister was brought to Pasteur who was severely bitten by a rabid dog. Several factors made Pasteur’s potential involvement in the boy’s care controversial. Pasteur had never before successfully used the vaccine on a human. The concept of attenuation of viruses and bacteria was in its infancy at this time. Injecting a human with a disease agent, even a weakened one, was a new and controversial action. Pasteur was not a medical doctor and might have faced serious consequences had Meister not survived the injections. Pasteur felt certain that the boy would die from rabies infection if he did nothing. So he began the course of 13 injections, one each day, of vaccine made from rabbit nervous system tissue. Each successive injection contained a less-attenuated (stronger) virus.

Meister never developed rabies, and the incident was regarded as a success. Later in life, Meister worked as caretaker of Pasteur’s tomb at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.




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