Pasteur’s first scientific contact with rabies dates from 11 December 1880: a contaminated child is signalled at Sainte-Eugenie Hospital. He looks for the microbe in the child’s saliva, but doesn’t find it. Disappointed, he hands his test-tubes over to Doctor Roux who is testing attentuation techniques, while he himself continues to work on the virulence idea. The experiments are high-risk for the scholars, the danger of contamination is everywhere, witness this scene: one day, Pasteur has a rabid dog brought to him, wanting to take a saliva sample from it. Two assistants take the frothing bulldog out of an iron cage, they throw a rope with a sliding knot around its neck and pick it up. The dog which is struggling, furious, is stretched out on a table, its partly muzzled jaw slightly open. The assistants hold the rabid dog still while Pasteur, a slim glass tube between his lips, his head leaning over the dog’s muzzle, sucks a few drops of frothy saliva into the tube. The experiment is useless: trial after trial, Pasteur determines that the saliva secretions of the dogs are not virulent enough, and that the microbe, after incubation in its victim’s body, becomes localised in the marrow of the spine. More samples need to be taken. Doctor Roux’ niece, Mary Cressac, reports:
“Roux, Chamberland and Thuillier are all leaning over the table. If the animal gives them a jolt, if one of them cuts himself with his scalpel, if one little piece of rabid marrow penetrates the wound, then it would have been the perspective of weeks of anguishedly asking: will rabies declare itself or not? At the beginning of each seance, a loaded revolver was placed within reach… if something unfortunate occurred to one of the three, the one of the other two with the most courage would shoot him in the head…”
Excessive dramatisation? Probably not: the unfortunate Thuillier, aged twenty-six, would be struck down by cholera in Alexandria, while accompanying a French Mission charged with studying the epidemic of this illness in Egypt. Had he neglected a few of the prescriptions that Pasteur had written down for him before the Mission’s departure, or had they been found to have been too exaggerated because they were so minutious? Whatever happened, the young man died within forty-eight hours, despite the presence at his side of Roux and a battalion of French and Italian Doctors who treated him until the end. Doctor Koch, who was also in Alexandria, nailed two wreaths on the coffin, saying:
“They are modest, but they are of laurier; they are those given to the glorious.”
Roux puts together a protocol. With potassium, he dries the spinal marrow of rabbits contaminated with rabies, suspended in glass bottles. The technique is efficient. An infected marrow dried in this position for fourteen days becomes inactive. Extracts of spinal marrow dried for fourteen, then for thirteen, then for eleven days are injected into dogs and produce in them a state that is refractory to the illness, which is confirmed by a last injection of virulent marrow, which has then become without danger for the animal. Experiments on a big scale have to be done… This means money. Pasteur asks for the meeting of a Commission from the Ministry of Instruction. After enquiry, this Commission considers that Pasteur’s laboratory at the Ecole normale has become “master of the refractory state”; which means that the animals vaccinated by the contaminated marrow of rabbits have all become refractory to rabies. A former property of the Imperial Family, at Villeneuve-l’Etang, to the West of Paris, is bought by the State and affected to Pasteur and his team to perform experiments on a greater scale. Packs of rabid and healthy dogs are brought there from the Pound and locked up in the former stables, transformed into kennels by the Scientists. Day and night, the animals’ whining and barking can be heard, which creates some conflict with the neighbours, who are worried about the presence of rabid guard dogs. The scholar and his team move in, basic repairs are made in the Commons. A Financier who is passing through would say, astounded by the Spartan installation:
“It’s not the comfort that is going to get in your way”.
Pasteur pursues two series of experiments in parallel on one hundred and twenty-five dogs. The first consists in making preventive innoculations to render the dogs refractory to rabies, the second is to prevent rabies from erupting in dogs which have been bitten or innoculated. The results are way beyond the scholar’s expectations. He knows that he is on the right path, but he doesn’t know how his procedure “functions”. During a seance of the Academie francaise where work is being done on the dictionary, Pasteur, entirely absorbed by his subject, is not listening and scribbles on a paper that has come into his hand:
“I am led to believe that the rabies virus must be accompanied by a matter which, by impregnating the nervous system, makes it improper for the culture of the figured microbe. From there, vaccinal immunity. If this is so, the theory could well be very general. This would be an immense discovery.”
One point is however established: preventive innoculation. But the months pass by without him being able to understand how the antirabies vaccination works.
One Monday morning, 6 July 1885, he sees arriving in his laboratory a little boy from Alsace, aged nine, Joseph Meister, bitten two days before by a rabid dog. His mother is with him. She tells him all about the accident. Her child was going alone to school on a little pathway when a dog leaped onto him. Knocked down, incapable of defending himself, the child only thought to cover his face with his hands. A mason, who had seen from a distance what was happening, rushed over, armed with an iron bar, and obliged the furious dog to let go by hitting it repeatedly, then he had lifted up the little Meister covered in saliva and blood. The dog went home to its master, the grocer Theodore Vone, and bit him, without however its teeth succeeding in penetrating his clothes. The grocer killed the dog by shooting it. The autopsy revealed that its stomach was filled with hay, straw, pieces of wood. Doctor Weber, from Vulle, after having cauterized the wounds with phenol, advised the Meisters to take the train to Paris.
To be continued.