In 1885, nine year old Joseph Meister of Schlestadt (Eastern France, near the German border) was bitten savagely by a rabid dog. On this day of that year, fellow Frenchman, Louis Pasteur—who was a laboratory scientist, not a medical doctor—administered his unproven rabies vaccine on the boy. Not only might the vaccine have harmed the child, but Pasteur was risking prosecution for practicing medicine without a license. Fortunately, the vaccine worked, the boy did not develop rabies, and a great medical advance was made on this day.
Pasteur’s contributions to science and medicine were enormous. He developed the first vaccines (for rabies and anthrax) and invented Pasteurization to stop the bacterial contamination of milk and wine. His studies of microbiology moved the field forward tremendously—saving millions of lives since then.
As for little Joseph Meister, he grew-up and, in time, worked for the Pasteur Institute. During the lead-up to World War II, as the risk of German invasion mounted, he sent his family away for safety (while he stayed in-place and continued to protect the Institute). On 24 June 1940, right after the Nazi’s invaded, Joseph Meister took his life—believing that his family had been killed. In a cruel twist-of-fate, his family returned home the very day Meister had killed himself.
Rather than remember Meister’s sad end, let’s remember the actions of a brave young boy—and the many medical advances that have redounded to us since then.