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December 27: Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur (1822)

Louis Pasteur

It was on this date, December 27, 1822, that French chemist and discoverer of the germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur was born in Dôle, Jura. Pasteur might have gone into the arts, but early in his education science, especially chemistry, caught his attention and his contributions to the field, not to mention his beloved France, are inestimable. In this sense, Pasteur was not only the quintessential scientist but a noble humanist.

Pasteur pointed out the differences between organic and inorganic crystallization; his investigation of putrefaction demonstrated that the widely believed "spontaneous generation" of germs does not take place; his study of silk-worm disease saved the French silk industry; he demonstrated the bacterial cause of anthrax, which saved the French cattle industry; he discovered the cause of fowl cholera and saved the French poultry industry; he discovered the cause of child-bed fever in hospitals; and his discovery of a vaccination for rabies was sneered at in Germany, but celebrated in Russia: the Tsar thanked him personally.

It was Louis Pasteur who discovered the principles that we know today as the "germ theory of disease," and the concept of using a weakened form of the disease to inoculate against it — still in use today. Yet Pasteur admitted, "Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world." Pasteur also acknowledged hard work in his own humble way, saying, "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind."

Since there are so few orthodox Christians among the great scientists, it would be salutary to the sacred cause to claim Pasteur for Christ. This is what the Catholic Encyclopedia does, saying,

Pasteur's faith was an genuine as his science. ... Some of his letters to his children breathe profound simple piety. ... What he could not above all understand is the failure of scientists to recognize the demonstration of the existence of the Creator that there is in the world around us.

Even Protestant fundamentalists strain to claim the great (Roman Catholic!) chemist, saying,

Pasteur saw no conflict between science and Christianity. In fact, he believed that "science brings men nearer to God." ... His Christian faith sustained him through many trials. He firmly believed in creation, and strongly opposed Darwin's theory of evolution because it did not fit well with scientific evidence.*

Was Pasteur one of the "Christians whose faith supported them in their scientific endeavors, like Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel"? Pasteur was a Catholic apostate and a Rationalist all his life, according to his biographer (and son-in-law), René Valléry-Radot.** This judgment is ratified by Sir William Osler, who knew Pasteur. Pasteur believed the mind could not reach "primary realities," although he "believed in an Infinite and hoped for a future life." He articulated this belief in an address to the French Academy in 1882.

In fact, Pasteur believed "the idea of God is a form of the idea of the Infinite, whether it is called Brahma, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus." This is hardly orthodox Christianity. So, if Pasteur turned to the church for spiritual consolation in the last, stroke-ridden weeks of his life, this only reveals that he had no interest in the church before then. If Pasteur genuinely said, as the Catholic Encyclopedia records without citation, "Could I but know all I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman," this only reveals that he had no faith.

Louis Pasteur died on 28 September 1895 at Villeneuve l'Etang at the age of 72, with a rosary in his hands. It was placed there by pious relatives while he was unconscious.

* Quoted from the "Answers in Genesis" website. The source for the quote (J.H. Tiner, Louis Pasteur — Founder of Modern Medicine, 1990) is a children's biography written for the Christian home-schooling movement (Mott Media, Milford, Michigan) by an author with no recognized credentials. ** René Valléry-Radot (1853-1933), Vie De Pasteur, 1900. The first definitive biography of Pasteur: the author was Pasteur's son-in-law; Life of Pasteur, Engl. trans., 1919, with an introduction by Sir William Osler, who knew Pasteur. Pasteur's famous quote in French is "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les ésprits préparés."

Originally published December 2003.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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