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October 12, 1995

Coincidence brings Pasteur 100th anniversary lecture to University

On Dec. 2, 1885, four boys were playing in the streets of Newark, N.J., when they were attacked by what was believed to be a rabid dog. Normally, such an event led to madness and a long, agonizing death.

A local physician, however, had heard about Louis Pasteur's work in rabies treatment and urged that the boys immediately be sent to Pasteur's laboratory in Paris for treatment.

To pay for the boys' passage across the Atlantic and their treatment, a fund-raising campaign was launched. Among the major contributors was Pitts-burgh's Andrew Carnegie. Within days the boys were in the famous scientist's lab and on their way to becoming the first Americans successfully treated for rabies.

For Pasteur, who was 60 at the time, the development of a rabies treatment was one of the last of a series of his discoveries that revolutionized medicine and the study of science. Others included laying the foundation for microbiology, the germ theory of disease, antiseptic hospital practices and immunization with vaccines.

Pasteur's accomplishments were so great that the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in collaboration with the Institut Pasteur, has designated 1995, the 100th anniversary of Pasteur's death, as "The Year of Louis Pasteur" throughout the world.

As part of that centennial celebration, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the University Library System, in association with The Pasteur Foundation, is sponsoring a public lecture and poster exhibition.

The lecture, "The Legacy of Louis Pasteur," by Claude Hannoun of the Institut Pasteur, will be on Oct. 24 at 4 p.m. in Heinz Memorial Chapel. For information, call 624-4157.

The poster exposition, "Louis Pasteur: His Life and Work," will open in Hillman Library on Oct. 15 and continue through Nov. 11. Information is available by calling 648-2297.

Head of the viral ecology unit of the Institut Pasteur, Hannoun has been associated with the institute for 48 years. His research has focused on virological and epidemiological studies of arboviruses and influenza.

Hannoun also is the author of the infectious disease chapter in the recently published "Pasteur: Cahiers d'un Savant." To write that chapter, Hannoun undertook an extensive study of Pasteur's personal laboratory notebooks.

"He' s a very famous person. He's a wonderful, very outgoing person," Fred Ruben, a faculty member in the School of Medicine, said of Hannoun. "Anyone who attends the lecture will find it very refreshing. I am sure he'll bring up things about Pittsburgh, too, because Pasteur had a certain connection with Pittsburgh. So, this is for everybody. This is not just for doctors or professional people." Heinz Chapel was selected as the site for Hannoun's lecture because of an incident that occurred about three years ago. Hannoun was visiting Pittsburgh and Ruben, a personal friend, was showing him around the city. During their tour, they stopped in at Heinz Chapel, where Pat Gibbons, director of the chapel, greeted them.

"Not knowing who they were, I stopped to talk to them in front of the truth window, which happens to have Louis Pasteur in it," Gibbons said. "I didn't know what they were there for or who they were. I just walked up to them and began telling them about Heinz Chapel." During that conversation it was revealed that Hannoun was from the Institut Pasteur, which caused Gibbons to point out the truth window with the image of Pasteur vaccinating a child. The coincidence amazed and delighted Hannoun, and eventually resulted in the lecture being scheduled for Heinz Chapel. "He fell in love with the place [Heinz Chapel]," Ruben said. "He made the decision that among the few places in the United States where he would give his Pasteur lecture would be Pittsburgh in Heinz Chapel because of the window." The bilingual poster exposition that makes up the second half of Pitt's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Pasteur's death is a two-part exhibit that begins with a look at the scientist's youth and progresses through the diverse stages of his work, from his study of molecular asymmetry to the development of his famous rabies treatment.

The second part of the exhibit presents the world's recognition of Pasteur's work and the inauguration of the Institut Pasteur.

Born in 1822, Pasteur made his first great discovery at age 25, when he formulated the fundamental law that molecular asymmetry differentiates organic substances from mineral substances. In investigating why wine spoiled, he demonstrated that different types of fermentation were caused by a specific micro-organism, an insight that became the foundation for microbiology.

In 1864, Pasteur introduced the process of pasteurization for wine and beer that involves heating those liquids for long periods at low temperatures to destroy bacteria, thus preserving the flavor better than high-temperature sterilization.

Pasteur's work in fermentation led him to suggest that specific germs cause specific diseases. In 1877, his studies on anthrax demonstrated that the disease was caused by a particular bacteria that lived in the carcasses of dead animals and spores in the soil.

Practically single-handedly, Pasteur revived the silk industry in the 1860s. Upon discovering that silkworms were transmitting disease from generation to generation, he developed techniques for selecting uninfected worms for breeding.

Realizing that the spread of disease was caused by microbes, Pasteur led a crusade to promote sterile practices in hospitals and inspired Joseph Lister to develop antiseptic surgery.

Pasteur also developed the idea of vaccines after observing that birds infected with old cultures of chicken cholera were resistant to the more virulent cultures. He therefore concluded that strains of weakened microbes could be used for immunization purposes and succeeded in developing an anthrax vaccine for sheep and goats.

When Pasteur began studying rabies in 1882, he demonstrated that the disease was caused by an agent even smaller than bacteria and uncovered the world of viruses. He then proved the existence of the rabies virus by showing how it could be grown by injecting infected cells into healthy dogs and rabbits.

From that, Pasteur developed a rabies treatment that involved a series of injections of gradually increased strengths of the virus until the patient showed complete resistance. And so four boys from Newark, N.J., went on to live into adulthood.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 4

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