In The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison has written a controversial biography that finally penetrates the secrecy that has surrounded much of this legendary scientist’s laboratory work. Geison uses Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks, made available only recently, and his published papers to present a rich and full account of some of the most famous episodes in the history of science and their darker sides — for example, Pasteur’s rush to develop the rabies vaccine and the human risks his haste entailed. The discrepancies between the public record and the “private science” of Louis Pasteur tell us as much about the man as they do about the highly competitive and political world he learned to master.
Although experimental ingenuity served Pasteur well, he also owed much of his success to the polemical virtuosity and political savvy that won him unprecedented financial support from the French state during the late nineteenth century. But a close look at his greatest achievements raises ethical issues. In the case of Pasteur’s widely publicized anthrax vaccine, Geison reveals its initial defects and how Pasteur, in order to avoid embarrassment, secretly incorporated a rival colleague’s findings to make his version of the vaccine work. Pasteur’s premature decision to apply his rabies treatment to his first animal-bite victims raises even deeper questions and must be understood not only in terms of the ethics of human experimentation and scientific method, but also in light of Pasteur’s shift from a biological theory of immunity to a chemical theory — similar to ones he had often disparaged when advanced by his competitors.
Through his vivid reconstruction of the professional rivalries as well as the national adulation that surrounded Pasteur, Geison places him in his wider cultural context. In giving Pasteur the close scrutiny his fame and achievements deserve, Geison’s book offers compelling reading for anyone interested in the social and ethical dimensions of science.
Originally published in 1995.
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Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the 1996 William H. Welch Medal, American Association for the History of Medicine
- One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1995
"Geison's controversial but stunning biography raises many important questions about the nature of science, past and present. . . . [I]t requires us to reevaluate our heroes and consider the complexities of science as it is actually created instead of merely clinging to comforting and heroic myths."—Elizabeth Fee, New England Journal of Medicine
"A fascinating and detailed account of much of Pasteur's life and of French science in the last century."—Lewis Wolpert, The New York Times Book Review
"Geison makes Pasteur in many ways worthier of our admiration than the saintly figure of legend was."—The Economist
". . . a well-documented, evenhanded biography that will be useful for many years to come. . . . a readable, enjoyable biography."—Booklist
"In The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald L. Geison has explored 100 of Pasteur's laboratory notebooks . . . which record 40 years of scientific activity and which were made available to researchers only about 20 years ago. Mr. Geison specifically disclaims any intention to deny Pasteur's greatness as a scientist, but to illuminate the scientific process, he sets out to expose some serious discrepancies between what Pasteur published and said in public and what is recorded in the notebooks. . . . This book provides a fascinating and detailed account of much of Pasteur's life and of French science in the last century. . . . What this life of Pasteur shows is how complex, hard and imaginative scientific discovery is, and that it requires a variety of skills rarely found in one person."—New York Times Book Review
"In Geison's hands, Pasteur is shown to have been a consummate publicist and showman . . . He was also single minded, secretive and rather selfish. . . . He is, in short, the perfect anti-hero for our anti-heroic age."—W. F. Bynum, Nature
"In revealing . . . discrepancies between Pasteur's private activities and the accounts he subsequently published of those activities, Geison's aim is not to discredit Pasteur or his contributions to science. On the contrary, he gives full credit to Pasteur's brilliance as an experimenter. But he also makes clear the extent to which Pasteur's public reputation depended not just on his ability to manipulate his experimental materials in the laboratory, but also on his ability to control and manipulate the information that issued from his laboratory."—Steve Sturdy, Medical History
"Geison has discovered that Pasteur's two most famous experiments were tainted by lies and scientific, if not moral, misconduct. The author's deconstruction of the Pasteur myth is not an attempt to discredit the man or his works but to present the unadorned truth. Well written and scholarly, with extensive notes and bibliography, this book is highly recommended."—Library Journal
"Realities of the creative process, scientific method, research ethics, personalities and politics are confronted in this weighty reappraisal of Pasteur's pioneering work. . . . this work of historical scholarship touches on many human issues ever pertinent in scientific research."—Publishers Weekly
"[Geison's] deconstruction of the Pasteur myth is not an attempt to discredit the man or his works but to present the unadorned truth. Well written and scholarly, with extensive notes and bibliography, this book is highly recommended."—Library Journal
"With magisterial scholarship, Geison presents incisive accounts of Pasteur's research . . . the book is largely structured around instances of Pasteur's 'unsavory' behavior and Geison's explanations do little to soften the image of Pasteur as a ruthlessly ambitious and competitive operator."—Social History of Medicine
"It is to Geison's considerable credit that, in telling this story and documenting Pasteur's human failings along the way, he recounts a record of insight, confidence and certainty on core essentials that still amounts to genius."—Bernard Dixon, New Scientist
"A very good book . . . adds extraordinary nuance to the biographical portrait of Pasteur."—Christopher Dornan, The Globe and Mail
"A meticulous biography of one of the grandest figures in the history of science. . . . Gerald Geison , the author of this splendid biography, . . . makes Pasteur in many ways worthier of our admiration than the saintly figure of legend was."—The Economist
"Gerald Geison has been studying Pasteur for more than two decades. . . . [He] shows that there are intriguing discrepancies between Pasteur's private science and public utterances. . . . In Geison's hands, Pasteur is shown to have been a consummate publicist and showman . . . the perfect anti-hero for out anti-heroic age."—W. F. Bynum, Nature
"The Pasteur who emerges from these pages is a creative, even brilliant, scientist but a distinctly unattractive human being. . . . [Geison] provides a far more interesting and generally persuasive view of Pasteur's work than the earlier, more flattering accounts. . . . Geison's controversial but stunning biography raises many important questions about the nature of science, past and present. . . . It requires us to reevaluate our heroes and consider the complexities of science as it is actually created instead of merely clinging to comforting and heroic myths. Elegantly written, beautifully produced, and very reasonably priced."—Elizabeth Fee, Ph.D., The New England Journal of Medicine
"This marvelous and fascinating scientific biography is indispensable in understanding Pasteur's life and research."—Choice
"This book provides a fascinating and detailed account of much of Pasteur's life and of French science in the last century.... What this life of Pasteur shows is how complex, hard and imaginative scientific discovery is, and that it requires a variety of skills rarely found in one person."—New York Times Book Review
"The most original account of Pasteur's science and his personality to appear. . . . a remarkable example of judicious, balanced scholarly treatment of very difficult issues. This book will be of great interest both within and outside the scholarly fields from which it emerges."—Frederic L. Holmes, Yale University
"This book is a scientific biography at its best. With a fine sense of judgment, clear exposition, and the sophistication of the seasoned scholar, Professor Geison has produced a tour-de-force. Unswayed by the extremes of social construction or the prejudices of an animus against science, he has nevertheless revealed the nature of the Pastorian legend and has traced out the manner of its construction. Pasteur emerges still the skillful experimentalist, but also a bold combatant, versed in the art of oratory, and so secretive about his day-to-day work that until his laboratory notebooks became available recently it was impossible to check the myths that have made the legend."—Robert Olby, University of Pittsburgh