Home > Comments and Articles > Pasteur's Last Words
Pseudoscience has few heroes. There's Immanuel Velikovsky and Nicola Tesla, of course, and perpetual motion frauds like John Keeley, but nothing like the pantheon of genius that real science can point to. One way of redressing this imbalance is to adopt real heroes and show how they were right when others around them were wrong (Galileo and Semmelweiss, for example), as if all it takes to be right is to have people say you are wrong. They also like to point to failed predictions by famous people, apparently to convince us that because, for example, Bill Gates was wrong in 1981 about how powerful personal computers would become that scientists could be wrong when they say that homeopathy, mind reading or faster-than-light travel are not possible. Another tactic is to discredit real heroes by suggesting that the heroes themselves have recanted and admitted that their work was a fraud. One target of this kind of attack is Louis Pasteur.
It might surprise you to find that there are people who deny that infectious diseases are caused by infectious agents like bacteria and viruses. By doing this, they are able to support other mad ideas such as the "myth" of AIDS, and also to generally attack most of conventional medicine. (I am always amused when these people forget and offer Ingaz Semmelweiss as an example of a person persecuted by conventional medicine. If there are no germs, why would hand washing matter?). As Pasteur was such a seminal and important figure in the history of microbiology and medicine he and his works had to be discredited, so a story was fabricated that he had renounced all his works on his death bed. There are various versions of the story, but they usually look something like this example:
Pasteur had the gold. He forced other competing theories to his germ theory to be ignored. I do believe that his biographer was correct when he reported that Pasteur said: "Bernard is correct. The bacteria are nothing. The soil is everything." Pasteur was revealing to the world that his germ theory of disease was concocted and false. Sad, isn’t it, that modern docs still believe his lie.
Well, I obtained a copy of Pasteur's biography, and to nobody's surprise, he said no such thing. Of course it would not have altered the facts if Pasteur had really been demented and announced on his death bed that germs were little coloured flashing lights attached to tangles of green wires and you could see them on Christmas trees. For some reason, however, the story of how he had renounced the germ theory of disease gives comfort to those with minds so decayed that they believe that all medical knowledge was complete at the end of the American Civil War.
Thanks to a second-hand and rare bookshop found through Amazon.com. I was able to obtain a 1926 English translation of The Life of Pasteur by René Vallery-Radot, first published in 1900. (I hope that I am in this good a condition when I'm 78 years old.) Vallery-Radot was Pasteur's son-in-law, and therefore much more likely to have been there during Pasteur's final hours than some other anonymous biographer or someone who waited until 44 years after Pasteur's death to write a hagiography of one of his rivals (now forgotten except by quackery supporters). I will quote the last four paragraphs, and I invite people to save these words and fling them back the next time some liar says that Louis Pasteur supported their delusions.
Here is what Pasteur's biographer, one with a real name, had to say:
Pasteur's strength diminished day by day, he now could hardly walk. When he was seated in the Park, his grandchildren around him suggested young rose trees climbing around the trunk of a dying oak. The paralysis was increasing, and speech was becoming more and more difficult. The eyes alone remained bright and clear; Pasteur was witnessing the ruin of what in him was perishable.
How willingly they would have given a moment of their lives to prolong his, those thousands of human beings whose existence had been saved by his methods; sick children, women in lying-in hospitals, patients operated on in surgical wards, victims of rabid dogs saved from hydrophobia, and so many others protected against the infinitesimally small! But, whilst visions of those living beings passed through the minds of his family, it seemed as if Pasteur already saw those dead ones who, like him, had preserved absolute faith in the Future Life.
The last week in September he was no longer strong enough to leave his bed, his weakness was extreme. On September 27, as he was offered a cup of milk: "I cannot," he murmured; his eyes looked around him with an unspeakable expression of resignation, love and farewell. His head fell back on the pillows and he slept; but, after this delusive rest, suddenly came the gaspings of agony. For twenty-four hours he remained motionless, his eyes closed, his body almost entirely paralyzed; one of his hands rested in that of Mme. Pasteur, the other held a crucifix.
This, surrounded by his family and disciples, in this room of almost monastic simplicity, on Saturday, September 28, 1895, at 4:40 in the afternoon, very peacefully, he passed away.
The quackery supporters' derogation of Pasteur's memory also implies an attack on the countless millions of people, both children and adults, who lived (and continue to live) longer and happier lives because of what this man did. Part of the reason that they need to damage his epitaph is that they realise that the witchcraft and pretend medicine which they espouse will never throw up a person with a millionth of Pasteur's qualities, even if given a million years to do it. They resent goodness and genius because the presence of these shines a searchlight on the mediocrity and duplicity which are all they can offer.
Versions of this article appeared in the September 2004 edition of The Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics and as the Naked Skeptic column in the November 2007 edition of Australasian Science