Classic kit: Pasteur pipette
HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES LIBRARY/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Pasteur was born two days after Christmas in 1822 to a family of tanners in Dôle in the foothills of the French Jura mountains. At school he showed little interest in his studies and spent many hours drawing and fishing. But when the curriculum began to include science, Pasteur found his calling. He got his degree from the local university in Besançon, and was admitted to the famous École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. There he studied with some of the great names of the time, including Antoine-Jérôme Balard - discoverer of bromine, the analyst Jean-Baptiste Dumas, and above all the polymath Jean-Baptiste Biot, who discovered optical rotation in liquids.
On his graduation in 1848 he found a job as a school physics teacher in Dijon, but this appointment must have seemed too limited for an ambitious scientist. Within three months he had not only secured an assistant professorship in chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, but had also met Marie Laurent, the daughter of the university's rector, whom he married later that year. They went on to have five children.
Disposable glass and plastic Pasteur pipettes are still ubiquitous in labs
© CHASSENET/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
But Pasteur had already moved on and was soon working on diseases in animals and in man, driven by the early deaths of three of his children. Working on puerperal fever - a disease that was running rampant through maternity wards across Europe - he discovered the responsible microbe, which looked so much like bunches of grapes under the microscope that he named it Staphylococcus, from the Greek.
His inoculation work led him to develop several vaccines for diseases including fowl cholera and anthrax. But for Pasteur, rabies was the big prize. Although not responsible for many deaths, rabies was the most terrifying disease of the age: it spared no one and drove its victims spectacularly mad. Pasteur attacked the problem head on, fearlessly collecting saliva samples from mad dogs bare-handed, while two assistants wearing thick gloves held the dogs down. In 1885 his vaccine saved the lives of two children and Pasteur's became a household name. When he died in 1895, not only was he was given a state funeral, but he was buried in a magnificent crypt in his own institute.
Pasteur never seems to have let danger or difficulty get in the way of his ideas. He had the ultimate 'suck it and see' attitude. And with one of his pipettes, perhaps we too can try to emulate him.
Andrea Sella is a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at University College London, UK