Gerald Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 378 pp., ISBN 0-691-03442-7
Patrice Debré, Louis Pasteur (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), 559 pp., (January 1995), 145 francs, ISBN: 2-08-066646-0
Pierre Darmon, Pasteur (Paris: Fayard, 1995), 430 pp. (February 1995), 150 francs, ISBN: 2-213-59404-X
Reviewed by:Arthur Goldhammer
Had Louis Pasteur been English, Lytton Strachey might well have been tempted to find room for him in Eminent Victorians. Like Dr. Arnold of Rugby, Pasteur was all "energy, earnestness, and the best intentions." The Third Republic, though anticlerical in its very soul, made him its principal intercessor to the invisible world. It erected an absurdly syncretic baroque shrine to his memory at the Institut Pasteur and named more streets after him than after any other historical figure save its founder Gambetta. Somehow, though, the reducing lens of Stracheyan irony seems inadequate to bring the eminent Bonapartist into clear view. If anything still frightens us, it is disease, and Pasteur, though at times a quite insufferable prig, was also a benefactor, as the nineteenth century could say more easily than we, of humankind. Countless wall plaques, popular images, and milk cartons remind us that he was not only the promulgator of the "germ theory" but also the conqueror of fowl cholera and anthrax, the healer of silkworms (which suffered from a disease called pebrine that left them looking as though they had been sprinkled with pepper and cost the French silk industry millions of francs annually), and the man who cured the "maladies of wine" (one of which, by causing good claret to spoil in the bottle, threatened to deprive France of some of the benefits of a recently negotiated commercial treaty with England). And of course he became world-famous as the vanquisher of rabies, an age-old scourge that killed few but terrified many.
This centennial year of Pasteurís death has produced a spate of new books on the man and his work, among them a splendid biography by Patrice Debré, an AIDS researcher at La Pitié-Salpêtrière and professor, as seems only fitting, at the Institut Pasteur; a concise life by Pierre Darmon, an historian of medicine at the Centre Roland Mousnier; and a detailed examination, based on laboratory notebooks, of certain aspects of Pasteurís research, by Gerald Geison, an historian of science at Princeton University. Debréís expansive study is now the best one-volume introduction to the man and his work, replacing René Dubosís Louis Pasteur, franc-tireur de la science (1955) and the hopelessly hagiographic Vie de Pasteur (1900) by the scientistís son-in-law René Vallery-Radot. Debré, a scientist, is admirably lucid about the scientific problems that Pasteur confronted and equally impressive in surveying the cultural landscape. Darmonís march through the life is purposeful and brisk. Geisonís book, on the other hand, is essentially a series of specialized papers cobbled together for the occasion and spiced with much-publicized allegations of scientific fraud.
What kind of man was Louis Pasteur? Well, for one thing, he was famously myopic. When no microscope was at hand to magnify the world of the infinitely small, he poked his nose into his work. One story has him dropping to all fours in a pasture to discover the humble conveyance by which the anthrax bacillus traveled from the dead to the living: the earthworm, whose excrement carried the germ. But when the same nearsighted gaze took in the broken buttons on his shirt fronts, he reprimanded his wife for leaving him with nothing to wear: "Shirt number one, collar button missing. Shirt number two: bottom of button broken. Ö O, Wives! How little you know about what suits your husbands!"
His taciturnity was monumental. On the anniversary of her wedding, Mme Pasteur wrote her daughter: "Your father, very busy as always, says little to me, sleeps little, and gets up at dawnóin a word, continues the life that I began with him thirty-five years ago today." One of his assistants called him a "secretive worker, who kept his ideas and projects to himself. Ö He kept us at such a distance from his thinking that we couldnít account for his anxieties." Nothing was permitted to interfere with the all-important research. When his sonís mother-in-law threatened to visit Paris, Pasteur did not mince words: "I beg you to consider, dear Madam, that the state of my health demands the greatest consideration and that you make me the unhappiest of men when I see you coming to Paris for a stay that you say at first will last only a few days but that I know will inevitably stretch into several weeks. This will put me in an extremely grumpy mood."
Pasteurís remarkable social ascent became a paradigm for the possibilities of the French system of "national education." His great-grandfather had been a serf. His father, a tanner, had served Napoleon and reared young Louis in the cult of the Emperor. In maturity Pasteur continued to honor the imperial virtuesóauthoritarian order and utilitarian scienceóas the midwives of modernity: while campaigning for the Senate from his native Jura in 1876, he told voters that "while politics with its senseless divisions saps our strength and fills our enemies with joy, steam, the telegraph, and countless other miracles are transforming the world," and he promised that, if elected, he would represent "Science in all its purity." When the voters preferred a candidate who professed to put their interests above those of science, Pasteur found another outlet for his nationalist passions: he patented a process for making beer that he hoped would allow France to surpass the superior brewing skills of "those scoundrelly Germans" who had recently demonstrated supremacy of another kind at Sedan. The new brew was to be marketed as the "Beer of Revenge." If Pasteurís uncompromising imperiousness doomed his political ambitions under the Republic, his humorless inflexibility had already complicated his academic career under the Empire. As an administrator at the Ecole Normale, he once reprimanded the future geographer Paul Vidal de La Blache for "inappropriate dress" and an "abstracted attitude." He conducted searches of the studentsí rooms and punished those found with contraband literature: a Rabelais, Goetheís Werther, Micheletís Sorcière. And he precipitated a governmental crisis when he expelled a student who had written an injudicious letter to the critic Sainte-Beuve. The furor subsided only after Pasteur was sacked, but as a consolation prize Napoleon the Small personally ordered that a laboratory in "physiological chemistry" be created for him at the Ecole.
This happy outcome was yet another instance of Pasteurís uncanny luck. "Chance favors the prepared mind," he is famous for having said, but clearly fortune also favored the blundering if well-connected martinet. He came by his connections honestly, though: the Emperor, a kindly, intermittently intelligent despot, took a benevolent interest in science, and Pasteurís work on optical isomers and the problems of brewers drew the imperial eye. As it happens, the same two areas of Pasteurís research also draw the eye of Gerald Geison, whose book is concerned with what he calls Pasteurís "private science."
Geison defines "private science" as "those scientific activities, techniques, practices, and thoughts that take place more or less Ďbehind the scenes.í" Disarmingly, he calls this definition "informal." It is also circular. In plainer language, what he means is that he has been able to study, for some years now, 144 "holographic notebooks" that Pasteurís grandson donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1964. Pasteur was particularly possessive about these records. In 1878 he told his family never to show them to anyone. Geisonís premise is that the "discrepancies" between private records and published accounts can reveal important truths about the process of discovery and the nature of scientific knowledge. He explicitly cites as models the work of M. D. Grmek and F. L. Holmes on Pasteurís contemporary Claude Bernard and especially Holmesí later work on the chemist Antoine Lavoisier and the biochemist Hans Krebs. Geison cautions us that common "formulaic discrepancies" between the public and private record should not be taken as evidence of deliberate deception. Rather, the massaging of data and polishing of results that one finds in scientific papers are intended "to provide an efficient and authoritative public presentation of the most pertinent results to an expert audience with little need of elaborate additional detail." In Pasteurís case, however, Geison notes a further reason for attending to the private side of science: Pasteurís "carefully orchestrated public performances," he writes, "invite a close examination of the private dress rehearsals." Indeed, Bruno Latour, in his much-controverted Pasteurization of France, went so far as to say that "Pasteurís genius was in what might be called the theater of the proof." Geison, though tempermentally less inclined to iconoclasm than Latour, nevertheless chooses to construct his book around episodes in Pasteurís long career in which the scientistís genius for theatricalization was crucial. Of course with his allegations that Pasteur may have perpetrated scientific fraud, Geison demonstrates something of a flair for the theatrical himself.
Pasteur performed at first on a very modest stage. His report of a remarkable discovery concerning the interaction of certain crystals with light drew the attention of the eminent scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot, who in the spring of 1848, even as Paris was caught up in yet another revolution, summoned the young researcher to the Collège de France to examine Pasteurís claim that he could take a solution of paratartaric acid, which has no effect on polarized light, and from it produce crystals of two kinds, chemical "isomers," one of which would rotate the plane of polarization to the left, the other to the right. This optical asymmetry was linked, moreover, to a physical asymmetry in the crystals themselves. What Pasteur had found, in short, was the fons et origo of modern biochemistry. He later recounted how he was obliged to carry out the crucial experiment "before [Biotís] very eyes"óquite literally a theatrical proof. What do the notebooks reveal? That Pasteur, before he arrived at his discovery, was confused about what he was looking for. That he was guided in his search by the work of Auguste Laurent, whom he later wrote out of the record for possibly self-interested reasons. That, when he presented his results publicly, he expressed the clarity of his mature understanding rather than the confused path that had led him there. And that we should therefore be skeptical of scientistsí accounts of their own work.
Such is Geisonís summary of his joint work with James Secord. Pasteur would scarcely have been surprised. His reflection on the teaching of science had given him a lively appreciation of the issues that matter to the historian. "I know," wrote Pasteur in a passage quoted by Debré,
that most scientific discoveries can be stated in a few words and that their demonstration calls for only a small number of decisive experiments. But if one tries to discover their origins, if one rigorously traces their development, one sees how slowly those discoveries emerged. Hence one can adopt two methods for expounding them. One is to state a law and promptly demonstrate it. Ö The other, more historical, is to recall the individual efforts of the principal inventors.
The classical concision of Pasteurís dramatic presentation had won Biotís crucial support for his research. Pasteur now hungered after success on a wider stage. Not even the Académie des Sciences was enough to satisfy his growing ambitions. Debré speculates that it was the loss of two daughters to typhoid fever that drove Pasteur to "seek, even more than the esteem of his peers, that of the public." A debate over spontaneous generation gave him his opening. The naturalist Félix Pouchet, who had studied medicine under Dr. Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, the novelistís father, had propounded a theory of "heterogenesis," a variation of classical theories of spontaneous generation according to which, as Geison summarizes the doctrine, life is the result of a "mysterious and unknowable Ďplastic forceí" that produces "not adult organisms Ö but rather their eggs." Pouchet, a Protestant, held that his theory was perfectly compatible with religion: "The laws of heterogenesis, far from weakening the attributes of the Creator, can only augment the Divine Majesty." But his cause was taken up by the positivists, who saw heterogenesis as offering a purely chemical understanding of the origin of life. Clearly this was a debate that had all the makings of a cause célèbre, and Pasteur did not shrink from the challenge. He devised a remarkable series of experiments to make his case, which was not without gaps, as Pouchet and his supporters repeatedly pointed out. But beyond the experiments, Pasteur also devised, for a command performance at the Sorbonne before Princess Mathilde and other august personages, an equally remarkable staging of his scientific argument, which "made dramatic use of light and darkness, beams, shades, and shadows" and of "tangible Ďpropsí such as Ö swan-necked flasks, bubbling chemicals, metallic tubes, etc." Geison, revisiting an earlier paper on this debate in which he had judged Pasteur rather harshly, now deems the scientistís official victory, duly proclaimed by a (thoroughly biased) panel of hand-picked academicians, justifiable if not spotless: Pasteur was not only the "more ingenious and more skillful experimentalist" but also the "more effective rhetorician."
Geisonís treatment of the contextual issues in the debate is rather narrowly focused, however. He makes a general case that Pasteur rejected the possibility of spontaneous generation owing to his commitment, alluded to in the notebooks, to an "asymmetric cosmic force" in all organic processes. No doubt it did please him to think that his work on crystals and his later work on living organisms were thus profoundly linked. But he also delighted in his ingenuity as an experimenter and relished exposing the flaws in his rivalsí techniques. "Attack my experiments," he challenged his critics. "Prove that they are incorrect instead of trying new ones that are merely variants of mine, but into which you introduce errors that then have to be pointed out to you." Moreover, Geison is so intent on the performer at the Sorbonne that he neglects the audience, whose composition is equally instructive. Among those in attendance was an influential official well disposed to Pasteur, Victor Duruy, the Minister of Public Instruction and architect of an ambitious program of educational reform that met with strenuous clerical opposition. While Geison is not wrong to argue that Pasteur, in opposing spontaneous generation, took the orthodox Catholic side of the question, he did so in a manner that made it clear, as liberal ultramontanist Catholics like Montalembert had been doing for some years, that the time had come for God and Caesar to divvy up the territory here below. As Pasteur put it, "In each of us there are two men, the scientist and the man of faith or doubt. The two domains are distinct, and woe unto him who seeks to make the one encroach upon the other in the current imperfect state of our knowledge." Like Duruy, who helped to keep the scientistís career on track, Pasteur was a conservative reformer, not the obscurantist reactionary, the "latter-day Paracelsus," for whom Pouchet mistook him. As such, Pasteur was in many ways an ally of the positivists whom he so doggedly opposed: both wished to circumscribe the intellectual authority of religion. They largely agreed about the kinds of questions that science could and should adjudicate; about the rest they differed only as to whether one should or should not remain silent. In Pasteurís reception speech at the Académie Française, he was obliged, as was customary, to offer a eulogy of his predecessor, the arch-positivist Emile Littré. A preliminary draft of this speech included a rather venomous sentence not present in the final version: "I must recount for you the life of a free thinker whose independence consisted in a self-imposed duty not to think at all about certain subjects." This judgment of Littré can be applied to Pasteur himself: he drew a firm line between religion and science, declared the two compatible, and imposed a duty on himself not to question this settled understanding. After the death of his second daughter, he gave Duruyís daughter a rosary, as if tacitly marking the boundary between the two realms.
Pasteur knew, moreover, that science, like religion, could endure only if spirit built itself a suitable tabernacle. He chose his words carefully in a letter to Napoleon III: "This research, which corresponds in my mind to the great act by which organic matter is transformed after death and to the obligatory return of everything that has lived on the earth or in the atmosphere, is compatible only with the establishment of a vast and rich laboratory." Experience had taught him that "vast and rich" laboratories came to those who impressed the public with the incontrovertibility and utility of their results. And what was more incontrovertible than death? What more useful than life? So when challenged to demonstrate the effectiveness of his announced anthrax vaccine at the farm of Hippolyte Rossignol, a veterinary surgeon, in the village of Pouilly-le-Fort, he accepted. The agreed protocol stipulated that twenty-five sheep were to be inoculated with a vaccine prepared in Pasteurís laboratory and that another twenty-five were to be left unvaccinated. All were then injected with the anthrax bacillus. Pasteurís prophecy that the vaccinated would live and the others die was duly confirmed, and at this demonstration of manís power over life and death skeptics fell to their knees, converted: one veterinarian who had gone so far as to agitate the tubes containing the lethal serum (lest Pasteur inject some sheep from the top of the liquid and others from the bottom) forswore his doubts once the results were in and even proposed to inoculate himself with the most virulent strain of anthraxóafter immunization, of course, with Pasteurís vaccine.
Geison, however, revisits the scene of the miracle with a less ardent heart. The tell-tale notebooks reveal the "secret of Pouilly-le-Fort": namely, that Pasteur used a vaccine prepared not by himself but by his assistant Chamberland, who had attenuated the anthrax with potassium bichromate rather than by Pasteurís method of exposure to oxygen. Of course Pasteur never actually said he had used an oxygen-attenuated vaccine. He merely implied it, and he did so in part because his commitment to a vitalist (anti-heterogenist) philosophy had led him to question the work of a rival, Jean-Joseph Toussaint, who had attempted to produce a vaccine by exposing the anthrax bacillus to carbolic acid. Such a vaccine, containing only the chemical residue of dead bacilli, would have contradicted Pasteurís understanding of immunity. As it turns out, Toussaintís vaccine didnít work, Pasteurís understanding of immunity was incorrect, he later did produce an oxygen-attenuated vaccine in any case, and Chamberlandís method of attenuation borrowed from Toussaintís approach, albeit with a different chemical agent and to a different end. Should we be grateful that we now possess the event in all its richly dispiriting confusion, or peeved that the stark dramatic contrast between the bleating survivors and the lifeless animals in the next pen has been spoiled by so much harsh new light? Historians of science will admire Geisonís industrious sleuthing, yet the faithful will continue to believe in Pasteurís miracle. Though the caravans have long since passed, the dogs still bark.
The dogs in Pasteurís kennels, often in the final stages of rabies, did more than just bark. Pasteurís son-in-law Vallery-Radot describes one "enormous bulldog screaming and howling in its cage. It hurled itself upon an iron bar, and the lads had the greatest difficulty wresting the metal from the dogís bloody claws. Ö They lassoed the beast Ö and tied its jaw. The dog was choking with rage, its eyes were bloodshot, and a furious spasm shook its body as it was stretched out on a table and held down while M. Pasteur, bending down to within a fingerís breadth of the foaming mouth, aspirated a few drops of its spittle with a tapered glass tube." The disease was as terrifying as the afflicted animals: not only was it invariably fatal, but it gnawed at human pride, reducing to a thin sliver the boundary between reason and madness, man and beast. It is not without irony, therefore, that Joseph Meister, whose recovery from rabies made Pasteur world-famous, committed suicide after being obliged by Nazi invaders to open Pasteurís mausoleum, where he was employed as a guard: madness bit the poor man twice. In any case, Geison again turns to the notebooks and finds that Pasteur was not entirely candid about his experimentation on human subjects. For one thing, he had previously tried a rabies vaccine on two patients, a man named Girard, who recovered but may not have had rabies at all, and a girl named Julie-Antoinette Poughon, who died. For another, Geison writes, Pasteur "had never tried, not even once, to cure symptomatic rabies in animals by any method before he decided to treat Girard." He began animal experiments a few days afterward, but "the animal died three days after the first series of injections."
Was Pasteur reckless? Geison thinks so. He sees a "headlong and headstrong quest for vaccines" in which Pasteur, continually experimenting with new recipes for preparing rabies treatments from the dried spinal cords of rabbits, was always ready to try the latest formulation on a human patient even though it had yet to be tested on animals. Clearly the knowledge that rabies was always fatal eased his scruples, but the disease was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Apparently Pasteur himself was among those awed by his stunning demonstrations of power over life and death. He developed a remarkably robust faith that he could do no harm. When, in an incident that Geison omits, Dr. Grancher, one of his assistants, accidentally stuck himself with a syringe filled with a virulent emulsion, Pasteur proposed that Grancher inoculate himself with the rabies vaccine and then, as if to conjure away any possible doubt about the wisdom of this procedure, offered to receive the first injection himself. Grancher, while more than willing to risk his own life, refused to jeopardize Pasteurís. Pasteur then ordered his nephew, Adrien Loir, to inoculate him. Loir refused but offered to submit to inoculation himself. Finally, Loir inoculated Grancher, whereupon Grancher treated Loir and a third assistant, while Pasteur looked on. It is hard to read this episode as anything other than a ritual of expiation: for all their profession of faith in science, these were men anxious at tampering with the deepest mysteries. Geison evidently feels that their behavior needs to be measured against a later standard of medical and scientific ethics. I doubt that such retrospective arraignment has much to teach us.
Perhaps, though, there is a lesson in the readiness of these Pasteurians to become martyrs to science. When Pasteur was laid to rest in one of those grandiose state funerals at which the French excel, Edmond de Goncourt remarked that "the honors bestowed on great menóPasteurs though they may beóare, I think, becoming a bit excessive; they may have inherited too much of what used to belong to God." In this legacy there was consolation of a sort for Godís death: witness the quite astonishing pseudo-religious symbolism of the Pasteur mausoleum, its pendentives adorned with symmetrical images of the fluttering angels "Charity" and "Science," its walls decorated with hagiographic scenes of Pasteur among the dogs and chickens. Religion and science, the twin realms of the spirit that Pasteur had delineated with such serene certitude, had all but coalesced under the not disinterested patronage of the state. But now that science too has become the object of withering skepticism, what consolation remains?
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