The Rescue And Death Of Joseph Meister
By Mel Goldberg
A doctor at a meeting of the French Academy of Medicine in 1842 rose to his feet and shouted. “Louis Pasteur is a criminal and should be guillotined. Who does he think he is, telling us what we ought to do.”
This diatribe occurred after a grief-stricken man shot his wife’s doctor dead. The woman had died of infection during childbirth. The Academy blamed Pasteur who had published a pamphlet condemning doctors because they refused to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments. He was unable to convince surgeons that germs existed and carried diseases.
Pasteur returned to Arbois, the countryside of his childhood, where in May, 1882, he demonstrated his anthrax vaccine for sheep.
Fifty sheep were infected with Anthrax blood. The twenty-five sheep that survived had been injected with Pasteur’s vaccine. Pasteur then began research into a cure for rabies.
He conducted experiments treating rabid dogs. Opening the skulls of the dogs, he introduced infected tissue. He transferred the infection to rabbits and then removed and dried their spinal cords. Then he reinjected the substance into infected dogs. The dogs lived.
Unfortunately, he found it necessary to wait months to be assured the rabies infection had abated. A rabid animal could not wait that long. Working tirelessly, he developed a practicable and rapid procedure. Each day he inoculated a dog with a strain of rabies, beginning with a weak one. He increased the strength of the virus each day until the dog was rendered immune. He treated fifty dogs without a single failure.
On July 6, 1886, Louis Pasteur was awakened by barking dogs and knocking on his door. Opening the door, he was confronted by a man and a distraught woman holding her son in her arms. “Monsieur Pasteur, Please help my poor son. He has been bitten by this man’s rabid dog.”
Standing next to her was the local grocer, Theodore Vone.
“Madam Meister, I understand your anguish but I am afraid that. . .”
She cut him off. “I read in the newspaper that you saved sheep from anthrax. And everyone knows you have been working with dogs. Please, please, help my poor Joseph. He is only nine years old. We took him to Doctor Weber but all he could do was to cauterize the wounds with carbolic acid.”
Pasteur brought the three into his laboratory and looked at the boy. He knew Joseph was dying. The wounds on his hands and legs, now festering and burned, were badly swollen, inflamed and purple.
Pasteur had witnessed rabies when he was a child. He remembered the foaming jaws, the futile attempts to treat the wounds by cauterizing with red hot iron, the smell of burning flesh, the paralysis, the coma, and the inevitable death.
Madam Meister related the events. “My son was bitten on the hand, legs, thighs at 8 yesterday morning. The bites were so deep that he had difficulty walking.”
Pasteur understood that with the intensity and the number of bites, Joseph Meister would certainly develop rabies. His heart went out to the stricken boy and his mother knowing that young Joseph would die in a most horrible way. On July 6, 1885, Joseph became the first human to receive injections of a rabies virus vaccine grown in rabbits and weakened by drying. The serum had risks. Dogs had recovered but that did not mean a human would. If the boy died after treatment, Pasteur knew he would lose credibility. But because Joseph’s death was inevitable, Pasteur went ahead with the procedure.
He carried out thirteen inoculations over ten days. Joseph recovered. Pasteur was exonerated as a genius and his reputation was not only restored, it became legendary.
Joseph Meister revered Pasteur’s memory. After surviving the “Great War” he obtained a job as gate keeper of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The arc of his life had curved from his childhood in Arbois to the City of Light.
In 1940 he was devastated by the fall of France. On June 14, 1940, the thump of a German soldier’s rifle-butt on the gate of the Institute depressed him. He was unable to prevent them from entering although they wanted to put a decoration on Pasteur’s tomb.
Meister went home and took his life with a single shot from his World War I service revolver.
Todo lo estará bien al final. Si no es bueno, entonces no es todavía el fin.
(Everything will be good in the end. If it is not good, then it is not yet the end.)
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