Joseph Meister

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Joseph Meister in 1885

Joseph Meister (21 February 1876 – 24 June 1940) was the first person to be inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur, and likely the first person to be successfully treated for the infection, which has a >99% fatality rate once symptoms set in.


In 1885, nine-year-old Meister was badly bitten by a supposedly rabid dog. After consulting with Alfred Vulpian and Jacques-Joseph Grancher and obtaining their assistance, Louis Pasteur agreed to inoculate the boy with spinal tissue from rabid rabbits, which he had successfully used to prevent rabies in dogs.[1] The treatment was successful and the boy did not develop rabies.[2] For Pasteur, this was technically illegal as practicing without a license as the French chemist was not a licensed physician, but he proceeded on the advice of licensed colleagues who agreed that the youth needed the treatment and Pasteur was the only professional available to apply it.[3] However, the success of the treatment led to any formal charges being waived.

As an adult, Meister served as a caretaker at the Pasteur Institute until his death in 1940 at age 64. On 24 June 1940, ten days after the German army occupied Paris during World War II, Meister committed suicide with his gas gun.[4][5]

Although often repeated, the version of his suicide stating he chose to take his life rather than allow the Wehrmacht to enter the Pasteurs' crypt[6] is not sustainable.[7] Instead, a contemporary journal article[8] as well as the testimony of Meister's granddaughter[9] indicate that, fearing for his family's safety, Meister asked them to leave, while he stayed behind to protect the Pasteur institute from the German soldiers. He incorrectly believed this had resulted in them being captured by the Nazis.[10] In a tragic irony, his family returned to the institute a few hours after Meister killed himself.[11][12]


Meister was played by Dickie Moore in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur. The story of Meister's potentially dangerous inoculation against rabies by Pasteur was also featured in an episode of the TV series Dark Matters: Twisted But True and the 1974 BBC drama-documentary series Microbes and Men.


  1. ^ Wasik, Bill; Murphy, Monica (2012). Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus. Penguin. ISBN 978-1101583746. OCLC 759911217.
  2. ^ René Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Freelance Of Science, Little, Brown and Company, 1950.
  3. ^ Murphy, Timothy F. (2004) Case Studies Biomedical Research Ethics. MIT Press, ISBN 978-0262632867
  4. ^ Eugène Wollman, Archives de l'Institut Pasteur, Fond Eugène Wollman, cote WLL1.A.1, "Journal d’Eugene Wollman”, 1940.
  5. ^ Hubert Marneffe, Archives de l'Institut Pasteur, Fond Hubert Marneffe, cote MRF.ARC.13, note d'Hubert Marneffe : "Mort de Joseph Meister".
  6. ^ Asimov, Isaac. The New Intelligent Man's Guide to Science. Basic Books, New York, 1965.
  7. ^ H. D. Dufour et S. B. Carroll, "Great Myths Die Hard", Nature 502, pp. 32–33, 2013.
  8. ^ Veterinary Medicine 35, p. 5538, 1940
  9. ^ Blog de Mijo Demouron, 21 janvier 2008.
  10. ^ Harris, Karen. "The Life and Death of Joseph Meister". History Daily. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  11. ^ Eugène Wollman, Archives de l'Institut Pasteur, Fond Eugène Wollman, cote WLL1.A.1, "Journal d’Eugene Wollman”, 1940.
  12. ^ Veterinary Medicine 35, p. 5538, 1940

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]