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The Great Minds:


Louis Pasteur-

&  The Dawn of Microbiology

Born: 27th December 1822

Died: 28th September 1895


Known for:


1.Discovering that certain chemical molecules can exist in two, mirror-image forms (Enantiomers) and that biological molecules are always left-handed version of the molecule, therefore he discovered the entire field of Stereochemistry,


2.Showing that food goes off because of contamination by microbes in the air,


3.Developing the Germ theory of disease, arguing that infectious diseases were caused by invisible germs,


4.Developing the heat-treatment method known as “pasteurisation” to prevent food going off and to make it safer to eat,


5.Producing a method to eliminate costly “pébrine” disease from silk-worm colonies,


6.Realising that vaccination with a weakened strain of bacteria could give protection against full blown illness. (This built upon the earlier work on vaccines by Edward Jenner and allowed vaccines to be created for the first time by artificially weakening disease-causing bacteria),


7.Developing a vaccine that protected animals from Anthrax,


8.Vaccinating a boy against Rabies,


9.Founding the Pasteur Institute to continue research into infectious diseases- leading to the creation of a vaccine against Diphtheria there.


Awards Included:


   Rumford Medal (1856)

   Fellowship of the Royal Society (of London) (1869)

   Copley Medal (1874)

   Albert Medal (1882)

   Leeuwenhoek Medal (1895)

   Order of the Medjidie (of the Ottoman Turkish Empire)

[Although The Nobel Prize was created in 1895, it was first awarded in 1901- 6 years after Pasteur’s death]


Brief Bio:


     Througout history, very few people have saved more lives than Louis Pasteur. As one of the greatest revolutionaries in microbial medicine, he realised that germs cause disease and discovered new ways to make our food safe to eat. It is no exageration to state that the field of microbiology was initiated by Pasteur and that he fundamentally changed humanity’s understanding of biology.


     Born on 27th December 1822 in the tranquil town Dôle, in the Jura region of France, French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was the son of a poor tanner. Despite these fairly humble origins, Pastuer eventually became one of France’s outstanding scientific brains and one of history’s most productive great minds. He managed to gain degrees in both Letters and Mathematical Sciences, by earning Bachelor of Arts degree (1840) and a Bachelor of Science degree (1842) at the École Normale in Paris. Consequently, Pasteur’s early education was not primarily in the life sciences where he was later to produce his greatest inventions.


     After receiving his doctorate in his 20s, the young Louis, spent several years researching and teaching at Dijon Lycée. In 1848, he became a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, where he met Marie Laurent, the daughter of the university's rector. They were married on May 29, 1849 and Marie became his scientific assitant thereafter. Although the couple had 5 children, 3 of them died during their childhoods from infectious diseases, meaning that only two – Jean-Baptiste and Marie Louise- survived. This deep personal loss galvanised Pasteur’s determination to find methods to prevent such diseases in the future. Indeed, of all Pasteur’s discoveries, the greatest were related to something called “The Germ Theory of Disease”, which basically explained infectious diseases as resulting from harmful microorganisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. This seems so obvious to a modern mind, that it is hard to remember that in the 1840s, the idea was contraversial and as paradigm-shifting as it is now, to think of a world where no one knew about germs.


     Pasteur was not the first scientist to suggest the existence of germs, nor was he the first to suspect that they were responsible for diseases, but he was pivotal in providing solid, verifiable evidence of their existence and activities and methods to kill them. The wikipedia article on germ theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease) explains that “The Italian scholar and physician Girolamo Fracastoro [first] proposed in 1546 in his book De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable seed-like entities (seminaria morbi) that transmit infection by direct or indirect contact, or even without contact over long distances.” By the time Pasteur was working in the 1850s and 1860s, the idea of germs that had originated with Fracastoro, had been considered by other scientists.  These included people like Agostino Bassi working on the subject in 1800-1813 and, during Pasteur’s early career, doctors like the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis and the British doctors/scientists Gideon Mantell and John Snow. None-the-less, the scientific rigour of Pasteur’s work and his focus on eliminating and preventing the harmful activities of certain germs have proven invaluable to humanity.


In 1854, Pasteur was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the Science Faculty at the University of Lille. His research interests there turned towards finding solutions to the problems with the manufacturing of alcoholic drinks. In particular, French wine-makers were seeking to improve the longevity of their wine. Through experiments, he was able to demonstrate that organisms such as bacteria were responsible for spoiling wine, beer and even milk. Then he invented a process called pasteurization, whereby bacteria in a liquid could be eliminated by boiling and then rapidly cooling the liquid; his first test of the process was  carried out on April 20, 1862.


     In 1865 Pasteur helped save the silk industry by proving that microbes were attacking healthy silkworm eggs eventually leading to their death. He concluded that if the microbes were eliminated, silkworms could be saved. By this point in his career, Pasteur’s ground-breaking research was becoming suficiently noticed that he was honoured by being elected an Associate Member of the Académie de Médecine in 1873. Six years later, he made his first vaccine discovery, regarding a disease called chicken cholera. In this case, Pasteur accidentally exposed chickens to the attenuated form of a culture and showed that they became resistant to the actual form of virus. He later expanded his research to create vaccines for anthrax, cholera, TB and smallpox. In the 1880s, this leading French scientist investigated the cause of prevent puerperal fever (a frequently fatal bacterial infection of the female reproductive tract following childbirth or miscarriage) and made suggestions about how to treat it.


     In 1882, Pasteur was further honoured by being accepted into the Académie Française and set out on an even more ambitious project- this time attemtping to develop a vaccine for rabies. Three years later, these efforts paid off, when he treated a 9-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog with his vaccine and the boy survived. Understandably, the apparent success of this vaccine brought Pasteur and his research immense fame, however, by this point in his life, Pasteur’s own health was already deteriorating. Having suggered a severe stoke in 1868, he had been somewhat paralyzed ever since, continuing his research through sheer determination and unshirking effort. His 70th birthday was celebrated at The Sorbonne in Paris, with the participation of several prominent scientists, including British surgeon Joseph Lister. Unfortunately his paralysis worsened and, on 28th September 1895, Louis Pasteur died, leaving an unfillable hole in the field of microbiology.  As an unarguably brilliant scientist, Pasteur had worked throughout his whole life for the betterment mankind- striving to improve the health of society as a whole and dirrectly and indirrectly saving millions all over the world in the process. In many ways, Louis Pasteur was the very definition of a “great mind”.


Key Works Include:




“ [On the extension of the germ theory to the etiology of certain common diseases]” (translated from French), Pasteur, Louis (1880), in Comptes rendus, de l’Academie des Sciences. XC. Ernst, H.C. (trans). pp. 1033–44., Pub: [May 1880].  


Extra Image:

Images used in Great Mind profiles on TheGreatestMinds are taken in whole or in part from Wikipedia. They therefore are reproduced here under a creative commons licence. Readers are advised to consult the appropriate wikipedia page (in this case, Louis Pasteur- Engish version) for image rights. The Greatest Minds makes no copyright claims on the components of images taken from wikipedia.




Wife= Marie Laurent, a daughter of the Rector of the Strasbourg Academy, who became his laboratory assistant, co-worker and science writer,


Children= Jeanne, Camille, Cécile, Jean-Baptiste and Marie Louise, of whom the first three died of infectious diseases, galvanizing Pasteur’s resolve to tackle such infections and develop vaccines.




Robert Koch, Jean Joseph Henri Toussaint, Pierre Paul Émile Roux,  John Tyndall, James Young, Hippolyte Fizeau, Léon Foucault, Alexander Von Humboldt, Lord Kelvin, Gregor Mendel.


Read More about Louis Pasteur (Biographies):


Louis Pasteur” by Patrice Debré (Translated by Elborg Forster),

Pub: John Hopkins University Press, 2000, ISBN: 978-0801865299,


Louis Pasteur: A Biography” (Classic Reprint) by Albert Keim,

Pub: Forgotten Books, 2010, ISBN: 978-1440085277,


Louis Pasteur: the Vaccine Inventor: Life and work of the great scientist by John Tyndall & René Vallery-Radot,

Pub: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 , ISBN: 978-1530069576



Biographies For Young People & Schools:


Louis Pasteur and the Fight Against Germs” (Science Readers: Life Science) by Lisa Zamosky,

Pub: Teacher Created Materials, 2007, ISBN: 978-0743905886,


Louis Pasteur” (Sowers Series), by John Hudson Tiner,

Pub: Mott Media, 1991, ISBN: 978-0880621595,


Links and Sources:







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In the first of our Great Mind Profiles,

Sean W. Smith

looks at the life and enduring legacy of the "grandfather" of microbiology himself, Louis Pasteur.