Grumpy

Arthur Goldhammer

  • The Private Science of Louis Pasteur by Gerald Geison
    Princeton, 378 pp, £24.95, June 1995, ISBN 0 691 03442 7
  • Louis Pasteur by Patrice Debré
    Flammarion, 559 pp, frs 145.00, January 1995, ISBN 2 08 066646 0
  • Pasteur by Pierre Darmon
    Fayard, 430 pp, frs 150.00, February 1995, ISBN 2 213 59404 X

Like Strachey’s Dr Arnold, Louis Pasteur was all ‘energy, earnestness and the best intentions’. The anti-clerical Third Republic made him its principal intercessor with the invisible world. It erected an absurdly baroque shrine to his memory at the Institut Pasteur and named more streets after him than after any other historical figure, save that Republic’s founder, Gambetta. Somehow, though, the reducing lens of irony seems inadequate to bring Pasteur into clear view. If anything still frightens us, it is disease, and Pasteur, though at times an insufferable prig, was also, as the 19th century could say more easily than we can, a benefactor 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 man who conquered fowl cholera and anthrax, as well as a disease called pebrine that left silkworms looking as though they had been sprinkled with pepper and cost the French silk industry millions of francs annually, and 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 recent commercial treaty with England). And he became world-famous of course as the vanquisher of rabies, an age-old scourge that killed few but terrified many.

This centennial year of Pasteur’s death has produced a spate of new books, among them a splendid biography by Patrice Debré, an Aids researcher and professor, fittingly at the Institut Pasteur; a concise life by Pierre Darmon, a historian of medicine; and a detailed examination, based on laboratory notebooks, of certain aspects of Pasteur’s research, by Gerald Geison, who is a historian of science at Princeton. Debré’s study is now the best one-volume introduction to both the man and his work, replacing René Dubos’s Louis Pasteur, franc-tireur de la science (1955) and the hopelessly hagiographic Vie de Pasteur (1900) by the scientist’s son-in-law, René Vallery-Radot. Debré is admirably lucid about the scientific problems that Pasteur confronted and equally impressive in surveying the cultural landscape; Darmon is purposeful and brisk; Geison’s book is essentially a series of specialised papers cobbled together and spiced with much-publicised allegations of scientific fraud.

What kind of man was Pasteur? First of all, he was famously myopic. When no microscope was to hand, he had to put his face very close to his work. One story has him dropping onto all fours in a pasture to discover the means by which the anthrax bacillus travelled from the dead to the living: via the earthworm, whose excrement carried the germ. He was also famously taciturn. On the anniversary of her wedding, Mme Pasteur wrote to her daughter: ‘Your father, very busy as always, says little to me, sleeps little, and gets up at dawn – in a word, continues the life that I began with him 35 years ago today.’ One of his assistants called him a ‘secretive worker, who kept his ideas and projects to himself ... He kept us at such a distance from his thinking that we couldn’t account for his anxieties.’ Nothing was permitted to interfere with his research. When his son’s 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.’

Pasteur’s remarkable social ascent became a paradigm for the French system of national education. His great-grandfather had been almost literally a serf. His father, a tanner, had served under Napoleon and reared young Louis in the cult of the Emperor. In maturity Pasteur continued to honour the imperial virtues – authoritarian order and utilitarian science – as the midwives of modernity: 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 put their own interests above those of science, Pasteur found another outlet for his nationalist passion: he patented a process for making beer that he hoped would allow France to surpass the superior brewing skills of ‘those scoundrelly Germans’. The new brew was to be marketed as the ‘Beer of Revenge’.

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