Rabies Vaccination in Pasteur's Clinic in Paris

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Rabies Vaccination in Pasteur's Clinic in Paris


By: Laurent-Lucien Gsell

Date: 1887

Source: Wellcome Trust Medical Library.

About the Artist: Laurent-Lucien Gsell (1860–1944) was an artist who painted images of the laboratories and work of the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) on many occasions. This work is a photograph of one of Gsell's lithographs by F. Pirodon.


Louis Pasteur had shown that vaccination against anthrax worked in animals. He used a weakened, or attenuated, form of a culture of the anthrax bacterium as the vaccine and found it protected animals against the disease, compared to control animals who had not been vaccinated. In 1880, he decided to turn his attention to rabies, a viral infection that attacks the brain and has a high mortality rate. Rabies could be transmitted to humans through the bite of a rabid animal and was much feared. Pasteur showed that a vaccine made from an attenuated form of the rabies virus could protect dogs that had been bitten by rabid animals. He hesitated, however, before trying his vaccine on humans.

Pasteur's first human patient was a young boy named Joseph Meister who was brought to him from Alsace on July 6, 1885. Joseph had been bitten fourteen times by a rabid dog on his hands, legs, and thighs. Clearly, his life was in danger and Pasteur administered the first dose of vaccine the next day. He used the dried-out spinal cord from a rabid rabbit as the source of vaccine. The drying process allowed the virus to lose much of its virulent character and helped allay safety fears. The boy was given increasingly strong doses of vaccine over the next twelve days and was soon able to return to Alsace in good health, having developed no symptoms of rabies, nor any ill effects from the vaccination.

The painting shows a young boy being held by his mother while one of Pasteur's associates, J. J. Grancher, holds the syringe and gives the vaccination into his abdomen. Pasteur, in a cap, stands to the doctor's right, with a letter in his hands. Behind is a group of fashionably dressed lady observers and, to the left, an Arab and a Russian patient in national dress. The work was executed in 1886, a year in which nearly 2,500 patients, drawn from all over the world, came to Paris for Pasteur's rabies vaccination. The painting indicates how word of the rabies treatment had spread rapidly through Paris and beyond.



See primary source image.


The development of an effective rabies vaccine was the final, and most dramatic, success of Pasteur's long and distinguished career in medicine, chemistry, and microbiology. It established the germ theory of disease, and vaccination in particular, within the practice of medicine. Today a vaccine is still used to prevent rabies and it usually is given after infection because it can take up to four months for the virus to reach the brain. This characteristic of the infection is unusual, but fortunate, since there is no cure for the brain infection that rabies produces. Most other vaccines—for polio and measles, for instance—are given before infection takes place.

Vaccination exposes the body to a weakened form of a pathogen (an organism that causes disease), and this exposure stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies against the pathogen. Then, when the body is exposed to that pathogen again, the body's immune system is already primed to respond. In Pasteur's time, the sheer complexity of the immune response was not appreciated. Now much more is known, and the field of vaccines is one of the most rapidly developing in medicine. For many years, we have had vaccines against important diseases, such as polio and tuberculosis. Indeed, vaccination rid the world of the scourge of smallpox.

But, there is still much to be done in the fight against infectious diseases. There are still some significant gaps within the vaccine armory. For example, scientists have not yet produced an effective vaccine against AIDS, malaria, or hepatitis C. On the other hand, increased understanding of the immune system has led to the production of vaccines of ever increasing sophistication, such as DNA vaccines. There are also vaccines that can be used against some forms of cancer.

Pasteur's work on rabies led to the establishment of the now world-famous Pasteur Institute in Paris. The institute was funded through public contributions and was initially devoted to rabies vaccination. Since its launch in 1888, the institute has been home to many distinguished scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners.



Dubos, René. Pasteur and Modern Science. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1988.

Web sites

Institut Pasteur. "Rabies." 〈http://www.pasteur.fr/recherche/rage/page_seule_english.html〉 (accessed November 1, 2005).

Pasteur Foundation. "Historic Relations with the United States." 〈http://www.pasteurfoundation.org/IP-USA.html〉 (accessed November 1, 2005).

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Rabies Vaccination in Pasteur's Clinic in Paris

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