Pasteur is one of the most important scientists of the 19th century and a French national hero whose work saved people, animals, and entire industries. He is best known for the process named after him, pasteurization, which destroys harmful germs by heat, enabling the preservation of wine, beer, and milk. However, his most important work may have been his vaccine to combat rabies, a widespread disease of the time. He was also the first to use vaccines to combat the anthrax plague, which killed livestock, and chicken cholera. Pasteur saved the French silk and vinegar industries when their products were threatened with spoilage as a result of microorganisms. His insistence that medical instruments be sterilized and bandages steamed had a dramatic effect on helping save wounded soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War. At a more fundamental level, his work on microorganisms and crystallization would serve as a foundation for later scientific work by others.
Pasteur came from a long line of tanners (people who convert animal hide to leather). His only interest as a child was drawing, but, despite his modest family circumstances, he received a good formal education. His work on crystallization made him famous at age 26. The rest of his career focused on applying his scientific insights to solve practical problems of his time. Questions brought to him by a producer of vinegar lead to his work on fermentation. He lost two of his daughters to typhoid fever in 1866 and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1868 that left him partially paralyzed, yet he continued his work. In 1888 the Pasteur Institute was founded; it later became one of the world’s most productive centers of biological research.
When he died in 1895 Pasteur was buried in a crypt in the Pasteur Institute. In 1940 the gate to his tomb was guarded by Joseph Meister, who, after having been savagely attacked by a dog as a nine year-old boy, had been Pasteur’s first rabies patient. Pasteur had saved the boy’s life; when a German officer wished to visit Pasteur’s tomb, Meister, now 64, committed suicide rather than allow his savior’s tomb to be defiled by the presence of a Nazi.