In our modern world, it can be baffling the way people used to think about modern medicine. Over and over in The Story of Louis Pasteur we hear doctors and scientists scoff and laugh at Pasteur’s ideas. Washing your hands after treating a sick patient? Silly! Boiling your surgical tools between procedures? What a waste of time! Vaccinating to prevent illnesses? Well…there are a select few who still need to realize how common sense that is, but let’s not dwell on that.
Louis Pasteur was a 19th century French chemist and microbiologist. This film takes us back to before his ideas were accepted. He advises doctors to use clean towels, wash their hands and instruments, usually in vain. He even tells the French Emperor that based on who her doctor’s last patient was, the queen’s sister will be dead in only a few days due to the poor hygienic treatment she got. When he is right, he and his family leave Paris for the countryside, where he keeps at his work. There, he develops a vaccine for sheep against the plague.
One of the more entertaining chapters in the film is when farmers from all over bring their herds of sheep to Pasteur’s land, after the French government claims that his land is free of the plague. Pasteur has to stop them and explain that it isn’t the land that is keeping the sheep from dying, but rather his vaccine. To prove it, a grand experiment and wager is made. They take two groups of sheep, vaccinate one group and see which lives. The big reveal is turned into a circus, literally, with acrobats and side shows showing up to cash in. And I think we can all guess which sheep are left standing.
The film continues to follow Pasteur’s experiments and how he stands firm in the face of so much blind opposition. The ending conflict is when Pasteur takes a bold risk and gives a boy bitten by a mad dog his experimental vaccine against rabies. If it doesn’t work, and the boy dies, Pasteur will be seen as a criminal and possibly a murderer. I think we can all guess how the end will turn out, but the film does a good job of creating suspense.
In 1936, The Story of Louis Pasteur won three Academy Awards and was nominated for four. It won both writing awards of the year, Original Story and Screenplay. Paul Muni won his only Oscar while he was nominated six times over his career, all for lead actor. The only Oscar the film lost was Best Picture, to The Great Ziegfeld.
What The Story of Louis Pasteur does best is inform us about what great achievements Pasteur brought to our society, despite all the ignorant naysayers he had to endure. Without him we might still be losing millions to preventable diseases. Without him, modern vaccinations might not exist. And without him, hospitals might still be disgusting cesspools of disease and death. In the end, Muni leaves his audience with words of wisdom that ring true to this day:
“Doctors and scientists of the future – do not let yourselves be tainted by apparent skepticism; nor discouraged by the sadness of certain hours that creep over nations. Do not become angry at your opponents, for no scientific theory has ever been accepted without opposition.”