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Falsified "New" Discoveries in Louis Pasteur Biography

Louis Pasteur Illiterate reviews in sci. media of a new controversial biography of Louis Pasteur reveal shocking fact that modern generation of experts on Pasteir's life and work is not acquainted even with the most famous books about Pasteur -- with his almost official biography by Vallery-Radot and cult "Microbe Hunters" by Paul De Kruif.

Back in 1995 a long term study of over 100 Pasteur's laboratory notebooks (made available for research about 20 years earlier) took a final shape in Gerald Geison's book "The Private Science of Louis Pasteur" (1). In sharp contrast to what we usually can read about Pasteur in contemporary literature, Geison tried to tell a rather filthy "objective" story exposing numerous instances of Pasteur's "unsavory" behavior in almost every his most important undertaking.
Science media was quite prepared to this book by Geison's public lectures and cautious preliminary disclosures (e.g. 2). So, numerous reviews (1,3,4) that followed publication were surprisingly unanimous in expressing joy from "debunking myth about Pasteur". The only objection came from M.F.Perutz, Nobel laureate in chemistry who made a brave attempt to defend the "rightly dominant image" of the "selfless seeker after the truth who was intent on applying his science for the benefit  of mankind" (5)

Both Geison's book and (even to greater extent) the reaction of sci. media seem strange. The trouble is that the myth about Pasteur as an ideal scientist is not a quite serious one (like stories about Santa Claus, for example). Perhaps, this myth is most appropriate if we speak of Pasteur as France national hero or if we use it for educational purposes on kindergarten level. But it is not a deep professional secret that he was too far from perfect as scientists.
I should go no further than to take "Microbe Hunters" by Paul de Kruif and to find out that Louis Pasteur "was a magnificent showman and not below some small occasional hocus-pocus, but he was no designing mountebank" (ref 7, p.159). It's really shocking fact that none of the numerous Geison's reviewers remembers that this famous book had already painted quite objective picture of Pasteur's research "full of false starts and intellectual twists and turns" paying more than sufficient attention to Pasteur's errors and personal wrongdoings -- 70 years before Geson collects compliments for the priority of doing it.

Of course, Geison's book is different, it is bigger and, more importantly, it is by far more negative. And the difference is not only that Geison inflates every "small hocus-pocus" out of all proportions. According to De Kruif  Pasteur's wrongdoings are reproachable but just human spontaneous emotions, impetuousness, "showmanship" etc.  that could not incorporate any sort of "design". Very questionable view and Geison easily crushes it presenting several episodes of more serious professional misconduct that clearly should be interpreted in modern terms as scientific fraud.

In this regard let's recall the following episode in rabies-related research:
Before Pasteur's success with rabies vaccine all earlier vaccines were prophylactic: that is, vaccines were given to healthy individuals or animals rendering them immune to subsequent infection. Initial Pasteur's plan about rabies vaccine was also to use it as prophylactic and to immunize all dogs in France (6). But practical considerations moved him soon to idea that the only approach should be to vaccinate much less numerous people bitten by rabid dogs. Then followed famous first successful vaccination of Joseph Meister which required confirmation in animal experimentations. And several months later in a letter (ref. 7, p.387) preceding second vaccination (of a shepherd boy Jupille)  Pasteur claims that he could successfully prevent rabies in dogs if vaccinations have been started 6-8 days after infection.
Alas, Pasteur lied. And formally this is the most serious type of deception that can follow from experimental scientist -- reporting success instead of reporting failure. Later independent research failed to confirm this claim and showed that therapeutic vaccination practically does not work in dogs (8).
It means that quite numerous researchers tried to repeat Pasteur's experiments - and failed.
So, it appears that Pasteur's ability to make seriously fraudulent claims was an open secret to professional scientists. Well, perhaps, Geison is the first who made this small professional secret public.

Louis Pasteur vs Henry Toussaint

Though Pasteur's wrongdoings were sometimes formally serious, they always can be easily justified, so that they look again as something in the "small hocus-pocus" category.  The only episode that absolutely does not fit this category is Geison's interpretation of anthrax vaccine related controversy.

Roughly speaking, according to Geison's book, anthrax vaccine was first developed by veterinary Toussaint from Toulouse. Pasteur have stolen this vaccine and presented as his own in its famous public demonstration at Pouilly-le-Fort.
Unlike all other Gesson's accusations, this episode looks really filthy. For a long time it puzzled me as I could not understand what sort of falsification was here. The whole story could not be just a Geison's fantasy as it seems too much for him. And at the same time I could not expect this sort of moral corruption from Pasteur. At last, I have opened Pasteur's biography by Vallery-Radot (7) and it restored peace in my mind.
It turns out that the name of Toussaint was not Geison's discovery: three full pages of this almost official Pasteur's biography are devoted to Tussaint where it clearly admits both his priority in developing anthrax vaccine and the fact that Pasteur just followed and repeated his experiments ["The life of Pasteur" online>>]. To be correct, this book leaves many questions about Tussaint-Pasteur relations and does not look absolutely honest. The most obvious distortion is that all mentions of Tussaint are well separated from narrative about trial at Pouilly-le-Fort by insertion of text on other themes. After such trick, of course, a nearly perfect impression remains that works by Tpussaint were absolutely not relevant to anthrax vaccine used by Pasteur at Pouilly-le-Fort. So, I am pretty sure that something really went wrong there.

But, unfortunately, Geison does not make matters more clear producing a cheap sensation rather than historical treatise out of this intriguing episode. In fact, Geison retails the official version of relations between Tussaint and Louis Pasteur as his own iconoclastic discovery, which gives him a logical pretext to make a decisive claim that vaccine made by Tussaint was identical to that used by Pasteur at Pouilly-le-Fort.
Yet, scientific foundation for this claim is extremely doubtful. Actually, I have slightly dissident views upon understanding Pasteur's science (9). But, in my view, modern science still does not know what is important and what is unimportant in the process of developing effective vaccine. Therefore, it also does not know how to compare two different vaccines. So I can do nothing but to disregard Geison's pretensions that he knows it absolutely clearly. Though, you may refer to hopeless debate on this theme between Geison and Perutz (5) -- the latter also knows everything even better.

This is not all I have against Geison's book but, actually, it is not absolutely bad. If interpret it as something more in the nature of historical roman beautifying real historical events with fantasies about sex, crime or adventures, this book may be nice reading. It just should not be taken too seriously. Falsifications and distortions are common tricks for this sort of literature and prof. Geison demonstrates their skillful use to attract attention of wider readership.
What's really bad is that this pornography was mistaken for "scientific biography at its best" and even for "tour-de-force" (1) by scientific media. It tells too much about qualifications of modern generation of vaccinologists or at least of people in editorial boards of scientific tabloids. And I am glad to mention that it supports my old sneaking suspicions that vaccinology is governed by idiots (10).
 

References

1. Gerald L. Geison - The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton Univ.Press, Princeton, 1995) (link to publisher's announcement with excerpts from reviews)
2. Anderson, C. "Pasteur Notebooks Reveal Deception." Science 259 (1993) : 1117.
3. E.Fee - Review in New England Journal of Medicine, 1995 v.333(13)
4. D.P.Francis - Review in JAPAC (some AIDS campaign journal)
5.  M.F. Perutz "The Pioneer Defended" - review in  NY Times Book Review December 21, 1995, and following discussion (April 4, 1997)
6. de Kruif, P. - Microbe hunters. (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1926)
7. Vallery-Radot R. - La vie de Pasteur. (Russian translation: Izd-vo inostr. lit., Moskva, 1950) http://archive.org/stream/lifeofpasteu00vall#page/306/mode/2up
8. G.M.Baer ed. - The Natural History of Rabies, v.2. (Acad.Press, 1975)
9. D.K.Yuryev - "Toward Understanding of Vaccines"
10. D.K.Yuryev - "Letter To Eltsyn About Threatening Stupidity Of Petrov"
 

P.S. Of course, I did not hope to get this note published on paper, yet, of course, I have send it to major sci. tabloids (Nature, Science, New. Scientist, New.Eng. J. Med., The Scientist) as well as to Mr. Geison himself -- without a single response, of course.