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Louis Pasteur, the chemist who has saved the most lives in history

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This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of the great benefactors of humanity, the French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). His name has been inextricably linked to the thermal process that is responsible for reducing the presence of pathogenic agents -pasteurization- but his legacy in the field of microbiology goes much further.

From the beginning of his research career he showed a special sensitivity for the fermentation processes of wine and beer, discovering that it was the presence of microorganisms that were responsible for the process by which the alcoholic beverages lost their organoleptic qualities and soured over time.

To avoid this unpleasant process in 1864 he developed a method to sterilize them , basically consisted of heating the drinks to eliminate bacteria, it was the first step of the well-known pasteurization process.

A year later the French government requested his help to solve the cause of a terrible disease that was killing silkworms in the south of France and which endangered sericulture. Pasteur undertook a methodical investigation that culminated after four long years of work and that allowed the French government to put an end to the epidemic.

Father of modern microbiology

From 1870 he focused his research activity in the field of infectious pathology with the development of the germ or germ theory, according to which infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms. This achievement was the starting signal for the development of vaccines.

The first came in 1881 when he began his studies in relation to anthrax of sheep and prepared the first vaccine with attenuated bacteria. The demonstration of its efficacy could not be more dramatic, the vaccine was inoculated into half a flock of sheep while injecting the pathogen (Bacillus anthracis) to the other half. The vaccinated animals survived, the rest died.

Four years later, after several tests on animals, he applied a vaccine against rabies the first human being – a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister – who had been bitten fourteen times by a rabid dog. Thanks to the inoculation against the virus, he managed to save his life. Encouraged by the good results, he applied the administration of attenuated pathogens to other diseases –such as anthrax– laying the foundations for modern vaccination.

His scientific legacy

In any case, we should not limit his charitable work to just him, we should extend it to his 'apostles' since he planted in them the fuse of curiosity and perseverance, which would end up leading to great scientific achievements. Among his most direct disciples, three especially stood out: Emile Roux, Alexandre Yersin and Albert Calmette.

Pierre Paul Emile Roux (1853-1933) not only collaborated closely with his teacher in the development of the first anti-rabies vaccine, but also to him we owe the first research on anti-diphtheria serum .

Alexandre Yersin ( 1863-1943) was a Swiss doctor who joined Pasteur's group of collaborators and later discovered the microorganism that causes the plague and who, in his memory, bears his surname (Yersinia pestis).

Albert Calmette (1863-1933), together with the veterinarian Jean-Marie Camille Guérin, developed the Mycobacterium bovis strain of tuberculosis, with which it was possible to develop the first vaccine against tuberculosis (BCG).

At the initiative of Pasteur on 14 On November 1888, the Pasteur Institute opened its doors. From that moment, and indefatigable, began a fight that to this day has not ended and that has spread against rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, typhus, yellow fever, tuberculosis, Zika or the AIDS. It should not be forgotten that it was precisely there that the human immunodeficiency virus was isolated for the first time in 1983.

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at El Escorial Hospital (Madrid) and the author of several popular books.

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