Friday, July 06, 2012

`Here We Can Safely Defy the Fates'

“Two wars later, the Prussian, once again  
The son of Mars, in Paris, Joseph Meister—
The first boy cured of rabies, now the keeper  
Of Pasteur’s mausoleum—when commanded  
To open it for them, though over seventy,  
Lest he betray the master, took his life.”

Edgar Bowers celebrates two heroes (more, actually) in “For Louis Pasteur”-- the great microbiologist, of course, but also Meister, the first person inoculated against rabies. He was nine years old on this date, July 6, in 1885, when Pasteur tested his vaccine on the boy. On July 4, the baker’s son from Alsace had been bitten fourteen times on the legs and right hand by a rabid dog. After consulting two physicians, Pasteur decided to treat the boy with a rabies virus grown in rabbits and weakened by drying, a method he had earlier tried on dogs. In twelve subsequent inoculations, Meister received progressively stronger doses until July 16 when he was given a shot from the virulent spinal cord of a rabbit that had died of rabies one day earlier. In Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science (1950), Rene J. Dubos describes the treatment as “without precedent in the annals of medicine, unorthodox in principle and unproven in practice.” Meister’s symptoms disappeared and he never developed rabies. In Louis Pasteur (1998), Patrice Debré quotes a letter Meister wrote (original spelling retained) to Pasteur on July 21, 1885: 

“Dear Monsieur Pasteur, I am feeling good and I slep well and I also have good aptit. I had fun in the countriside. I dident like to go back to Paris.” 

By Bowers’ reckoning, Meister was brave and strong but didn’t become a hero for another fifty-five years. The Pasteur Institute was founded in Paris by its namesake in 1887. Pasteur died in 1895 and his remains were housed there in a crypt. As an adult, Meister worked as the concierge of the Institute and caretaker of Pasteur’s mausoleum. The Nazis invaded France on May 11 and Paris fell June 14. Two days later, German officers demanded that Meister unlock the gate to the crypt. He refused, and committed suicide. In flawless blank verse, Bowers honors him and the man Meister honored, Pasteur, one of humanity’s heroes: 

“I like to think of Pasteur in Elysium
Beneath the sunny pine of ripe Provence
Tenderly raising black sheep, butterflies,
Silkworms, and a new culture, for delight,
Teaching his daughter to use a microscope
And musing through a wonder—sacred passion,  
Practice and metaphysic all the same.”

Remembering Pasteur and Meister, I think of Heyst’s remark in Conrad’s Victory:  “The world is a bad dog. It will bite you if you give it a chance; but I think that here we can safely defy the fates.”

1 comment:

Jonathan Chant said...

A fascinating and inspiring post. First rate writing, Sir.