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Hero for Our Time

Challenged to prove his germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur shaped the terrain on which the battle against anthrax is being fought

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Tired of hearing about Louis Pasteur's bold statements that a vaccine could protect livestock against the deadly disease of anthrax, French veterinarian Monsieur H. Rossignol challenged Pasteur to what amounted to a duel. In a field filled with sheep, Pasteur would prove whether his vaccine would work.

Pasteur was not easily intimidated. Anyone who had proposed the then-revolutionary idea that nearly invisible microbes caused disease, his germ theory, had to have a thick skin. Yet, Pasteur, author Paul Trachtman reports, nearly got cold feet the night before the field trial. But that early spring day in 1881 proved to all the world that Pasteur had discovered something that would change the world. Indeed, the conquest of anthrax would open the door to fighting other scourges, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and cholera. From Pasteur's work the disciplines of immunology and bacteriology emerged, which eventually led to vaccinations that would save millions, even billions, of lives.

In the wake of the anthrax devastation that spread through the U.S. mail last fall, Nobel laureate and CalTech president David Baltimore says that today's microbiologists "are all the children of Pasteur." But, he adds, we've neglected some of Pasteur's legacy. "Microbiology has certainly taken on a new urgency since the anthrax deliveries started. It has shown that one important heritage from Pasteur has been allowed to wither—our public health preparedness."

The success of public health institutions over the past century and a half prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare in 1967: "We have basically wiped out infection in the United States." Yet even before the deadly envelopes with anthrax spores made bioterroism a new reality, the return of infectious disease was a growing problem, becoming the third leading cause of death in the United States in recent years.

Today, we would be wise not to forget Pasteur's sage words in 1888: "Two contrary laws seem to be wrestling with each other nowadays: the one, a law of blood and death, ever imagining new means of destruction and forcing nations to be constantly ready for the battlefield—the other, a law of peace, work and health, ever evolving new means for delivering man from the scourges which beset him."

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