Science Politique

By Gerald L. Geison
Princeton University Press, 378 pp.

When Gerald Geison spoke on Louis Pasteur at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, he caused quite a stir among the media covering the event. Geison’s examination of Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks – documents that had been hidden away on Pasteur’s own orders for more than 70 years after his death – appeared to reveal that the great man was not all he seemed.

There were suggestions of fraud and intellectual appropriation, if not outright plagiarism. In their published versions, data were apparently fudged. He made sure his critics were bullied, belittled and shouted down. The famous public demonstration of the anthrax vaccine at Pouilly-le-Fort in 1881 may have been rigged. Pasteur’s celebrated unveiling of the rabies vaccine in 1885, by saving two boys who had been bitten by rabid animals, was hasty, risky and – Geison reveals in a bombshell – not the first time he’d tried it on humans.

News is not simply the violation of expectation (man bites dog).  Perversely, news also often confirms the expectation of violation, as in hero lives a lie – a narrative stalwart of the tabloid sensibility. Geison’s allegations were tailor-made for the press corps. The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the London Observer all ran articles. The Toronto Star picked up the Observer piece under the headline “How Pasteur Perfected Science of Cheating.”

I mention this because Gerald Geison’s expertise as professor of history at Princeton University is how the work of science is actually conducted, and he points explicitly to the public relations campaign Pasteur waged on his own behalf throughout his career. My professional interest is in how things like science – and the history of science – get publicized. And in the case of this book, it has clearly benefited from a marketing push.

Which is not to say this is a bad book, or that it doesn’t deserve its media moment. On the contrary, it’s a very good book and it adds extraordinary nuance to the biographical portrait of Pasteur. However, it is not the potboiler the media coverage suggested. It is a meticulously researched scholarly work steeped in the problems of the history of science. As academic tomes go, it’s fascinating and readable. As biographies go, it’s a bit of a slog.

Also, the media attention flatly misrepresents the book’s considered argument. Geison nowhere declares that the archival record exposes Pasteur as a charlatan or a brute. He knows his subject too well to resort to that sort of glib exaggeration.

What he shows is how Pasteur’s triumphs were embedded in a constellation of circumstances.

Sheer genius may have been involved, but that genius extended to how he ran his lab, his skill in soliciting funds, his shrewd political connections, his ability to work the levers of intellectual status to his own advantage, and his talent for popular self-promotion. This is not the description of a fraud. It is a description of a successful but overbearing boss.

For a start, Pasteur didn’t lock away his laboratory notebooks because he thought they would expose him. He did so because he was vaguely embarrassed by them. This was a man who wrote down everything. The lab books – more than 100 of them – are full of false starts, bad ideas, stuff that turned out to be wrong. He sealed them in the genuine belief that they gave a false account of his accomplishments.

Geison also rightly plays down most of the scandals he’s discovered. For example, in the demonstration of the anthrax vaccine, well yes, it seems that Pasteur used a vaccine produced using a method inspired by the work of a rival, instead of a strain produced via the method Pasteur himself espoused. Still, both researchers were on the right track, Pasteur clearly had the better mind and the better-equipped facilities, and once he’d accepted the challenge of a public demonstration, he had to do all he could to ensure that the trial would work.

In the case of the rabies vaccine, too, his public pronouncements that he was on the verge of success overtook the actual pace of the research. The notebooks reveal that he tried an earlier therapeutic treatment on two patients before the sensational “cures” of the two boys in 1885. The first patient, an older man, may not have had rabies in the first place. The second, a young girl, died anyway.

Even the techniques for the spectacular public successes with rabies may have been lifted in part from one of his collaborators, Emile Roux, who refused to condone the experiments on ethical grounds. Yet for all that, Geison is careful to point out that no scientist is right all along. Pasteur’s gift was that he was invariably right in the end. The germ theory of fermentation was correct. The various vaccines – for chicken cholera, anthrax, rabies – worked. Pasteur was no saint, but he actually was a hero.

The Private Science of Louis Pasteur affirms the superiority of top-flight history over knee-jerk journalism. On the other hand, strangely enough, the book would never have come to public attention except for the efforts of knee-jerk

  • Globe and Mail June 17, 1995