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GIFFORD-JONES: Inspired experiments

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Louis Pasteur’s work in the field of bacteriology changed the world for the better

Today, we face a recurrence of measles because some parents have refused to have their children vaccinated.

This error reminded me of a time several years ago when I interviewed Professor Etienne-Emile Baulieu, a researcher at the famous Pasteur Institute in Paris. Today, parents and children should be grateful for the discoveries of this great scientist.

Before Louis Pasteur’s time, the world was ravaged by plagues. Women in childbirth died of puerperal fever, and surgical operations frequently caused death due to infection. Not too long ago, infections had control over us, but now we usually, though not always, have control over them.

Pasteur’s initial experiments showed that cultures of organisms lost their strength with age. They also showed that by inoculating fowl with weak organisms he could produce immunity against virulent ones. This was a huge discovery.

But skeptics did not believe his research. And since large numbers of sheep were dying of anthrax, Pasteur was challenged to conduct a dangerous public experiment that could have gone terribly wrong.

A flock of 50 sheep was assembled, and 25 were marked so they could be distinguished from other sheep. Pasteur claimed, by his experiments, that the marked sheep would be saved and the others would die of anthrax.

On May 2, 1881, sheep raisers, veterinarians and doctors watched as Pasteur inoculated only the marked sheep with his vaccine. He asked that all the sheep be brought back in two weeks. This time they were all exposed to the anthrax virus. Farmers were told to bring the sheep back again in another two weeks. But only the marked sheep were alive. All the others had died. Pasteur had proven his point, and the science of bacteriology had begun.

Later, shortly after he had developed a vaccine for rabies, Pasteur faced a difficult decision. A shepherd boy had been badly bitten by a rabid dog when he tried to save friends from the animal. Pasteur was asked to inject his vaccine. But he hesitated as it had never been tested on humans. But since the boy was destined to die, he was persuaded to provide the vaccine. The boy survived.

Today there is a statue in the courtyard of the Pasteur Institute in Paris showing the shepherd boy struggling with the rabid dog.

Pasteur died in 1895. Fortunately, he lived to see his work recognized around the world. Equally important, Pasteur’s scientific achievements were soon followed by the discovery of germs that caused tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid fever, tetanus, cholera, pneumonia and gonorrhea.

Following my interview with Baulieu, he asked if I’d like to visit the tomb of Pasteur that lies below the institute. Cemeteries and tombs have never been high on my list of priorities, but this is one grave I’ve never forgotten. It brought back my days as a young boy when I read the book, “Microbe Hunters”, the story of Pasteur and other microbe researchers.

No doubt it was one of the reasons I became a doctor.

Engraved on the walls of Pasteur’s tomb are scenes of his many discoveries. It’s an awe-inspiring atmosphere capturing a great moment in history. The statue is not one that celebrates a war that resulted in the loss of millions of innocent lives. Rather, it’s one that shows how vaccination has saved millions in the past and continues to do so.

As my visit to Pasteur’s tomb ended, a group of young school children entered, no doubt for a history lesson on how infectious disease can affect humanity and how Pasteur saved it.

Since then, this memory makes me wonder why we have not used the same approach in Canada and the U.S. to honour great scientists. Years ago, during my pre-medical training, I worked on a research project at The Banting Institute in Toronto. Banting, discoverer of insulin, had also saved millions of lives from death due to diabetes.

But Banting is buried in a Toronto cemetery. What a wasted opportunity for history. Children cannot come to The Banting Institute, visit his tomb and learn about historic research engraved on its walls.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a syndicated columnist whose medical column appears in The Guardian every Tuesday. Check out his website, docgiff.com, which provides easy access to past columns and medical tips. For comments, readers are invited to email him at info@docgiff.com. He can also be found on Twitter @GiffordJonesMD.

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