Joseph Meister Haiku

Rabies got you down?

Hold tight as Pasteur invents

Vaccine from dead hares.

On this day 133 years ago, Joseph Meister, after being bit by a rabid dog, was the luckiest little son of a gun in the world when he became the first human test subject for Louis Pasteur’s brand new rabies vaccine. As such, he became the first person to survive rabies infection in the four thousand years since the disease was first identified. And yes, the vaccine was made from the spinal fluid of dead, rabies-ridden rabbits. Pasteur had previously tested the vaccine on dogs.

Now, there is some controversy over this. Meister might not have actually been infected (although he had been described as ‘badly mauled’). Pasteur had only tested the vaccine on 11 dogs, not his reported 50. But the fact remains that that in the next year, he successfully treated 349 people for rabies, with only one failure. That is a much higher success rate than the whole of recorded history to this point. (Fun fact: the expression ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ did not initially refer to a hangover cure, but the folk belief that if you put such hair in your wound, it’d cure you of rabies. It didn’t.) Meister did ultimately have a sad end, but not in the way you’d expect. In 1940, he had been serving as caretaker at the Pasteur Institute for many a year. With Germany Army having marched into France, he sent his family to Paris for their safety. Then Paris fell. He took his life, believing that he’d sent his family to their deaths. His family returned later that day.

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