The Development of the Rabies Vaccine

Musée de l'Institut Pasteur

Tirage ancien numérisé et retouché d'une photo représentant Louis Pasteur par Nadar en 1886. (1886) by NadarInstitut Pasteur

In 1880, Louis Pasteur was in full command of his experimental method.

He decided to apply it to researching a disease, rabies, which affected both humans and animals.

Virus de la rage en microscopie électronique.Institut Pasteur

As he had already done for most of his research subjects, Louis Pasteur started by trying to isolate the cause of the disease.

But as rabies is caused by a virus, his efforts to observe it ultimately proved fruitless.

This is because the microscope resolution available at the time was not high enough to allow viruses to be seen.

As a result, the rabies virus remained invisible.

It would be observed for the first time nearly a century later, in 1962, thanks to the development of the electron microscope.

Crypt (detail), rabbits alluding to the production of the rabies vaccine. (1895/1896) by Charles-Louis Girault, Auguste Guilbert-Martin, Luc-Olivier MersonInstitut Pasteur

Thanks to the work of Duboué, Pasteur knew that the virus spread through the nerves before establishing itself in the brain and the spinal cord. Rather than using dogs, he decided to carry out his work on rabbits, which tend to be easier to handle and can be obtained in large numbers.

Louis Pasteur dans son laboratoire de l'Ecole normale supérieure en 1885 tenant un flacon contenant de la moelle épinière d'un lapin inoculé par le virus de la rage. Détail du tableau d'Albert Edelfelt réalisé en 1886. Exposé au Musée Pasteur, grande salle à manger de l'appartement de Louis Pasteur. (1886) by Albert EdelfeltInstitut Pasteur

Louis Pasteur decided to suspend the spines of rabid rabbits in jars where they were exposed to the action of the air, in a moisture-free environment. The level of virulence in these rabbits diminished gradually until it disappeared completely.

Louis Pasteur then injected contaminated dogs with spinal fluid preparations of increasing virulence. They did not develop rabies. Despite these results, he was wary of moving to human trials.

La vaccination antirabique. Affiche destinée à l'enseignement scolaire v. 1960. L'enfant, supposé être Joseph Meister se fait vacciner en présence de Louis Pasteur, de médecins et de sa mère en costume d'alsacienne. by Editions Rossignol - Montmorillan. Vienne.Institut Pasteur

On the morning of July 6, 1885, Joseph Meister, a nine-year-old boy from the Alsace region of France who had been bitten fourteen times by a rabid dog, came to Louis Pasteur's laboratory at the École Normale Supérieure.

After numerous debates and much hesitation, and with the agreement of his colleagues, he finally decided to test his vaccine on a human.

Not being a doctor himself, he entrusted the young boy to the care of Dr. Jacques-Joseph Grancher.

Over the course of ten days, the boy received thirteen injections of an increasingly concentrated preparation of spinal fluid infected with rabies.

Joseph Meister never developed the disease, becoming the first human being to be vaccinated against rabies.

Mosaïque représentant Jean-Baptiste Jupille luttant contre un chien enragé. Dans la crypte où repose Louis Pasteur. (1895/1896) by Charles-Louis Girault, Auguste Guilbert-Martin, Luc-Olivier MersonInstitut Pasteur

However, Louis Pasteur kept this initial success very quiet.

But in October 1885, the case of Jean-Baptiste Jupille, a 15-year-old shepherd boy who had suffered serious bites from a rabid dog, presented Pasteur with the opportunity to make use of his treatment for a second time.

The young man had thrown himself at the animal to allow six other shepherd boys to escape.

Louis Pasteur repeated his experiment with the same success. This time, however, news of his achievement spread all over the world.

Inoculation du vaccin contre la rage dans la salle de vaccination de Louis Pasteur à l'Ecole normale supérieure. Le docteur Joseph Grancher vaccine tandis que Louis Pasteur fait l'appel des mordus russes, anglais, français... (1886) by Emile BayardInstitut Pasteur

Soon, a multitude of people who had been bitten showed up at the École Normale Supérieure—some French and some from abroad.

Vue générale de l'Institut Pasteur au moment de son ouverture. Gravure de 1888. (1888)Institut Pasteur

In order to deal with this influx of patients, Louis Pasteur decided to found a center dedicated especially to vaccination against rabies, which would also be a research and teaching center.

The Pasteur Institute was officially opened three years later, in 1888.

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