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The Life and Death of Joseph Meister

1800s | August 23, 2018

Most people don’t recognize the name Joseph Meister, but it is partially thanks to him that we have the rabies vaccination today. As a child, Meister was the first person to be inoculated with the still-experimental rabies vaccine that was under development by Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux. Meister was spared from certain death by the efforts of these French scientists, yet he could not escape – or so he thought – the certain death accompanying the invading Nazi armies. Here is his story.

Rabies was a Death Sentence

In the past, a person who contracted rabies, usually by being bitten by an infected animal, faced a terrible death. The symptoms would start vague and include flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, fever, and vomiting. These early symptoms could last for several days and most people assumed they were just dealing with the flu. But then the symptoms progressed into anxiety, agitation and confusion. Hydrophobia, a fear of water, is a classic symptom of rabies infection. Many patients refused to drink water because of hydrophobia and because rabies made it difficult to swallow. As the disease progressed, patients would experience insomnia, hallucinations, and paralysis. Many victims died of dehydration before they reached this point, which signaled that death was imminent. 

Rabies Deaths were Common

Before the 1880s, life was not very clean or sterile. The majority of the population lived in rural settings, which put them into contact with wild and domesticated animals that could be carrying the rabies disease, including dogs, raccoons, bats, and mice. City dwellers weren’t safe from the disease, either. Stray dogs and rats often carried rabies. 

Enter Louis Pasteur

French scientist, Louis Pasteur, together with fellow Frenchmen, Emile Roux, began working on a rabies vaccine. Their theory was, that if a person or an animal was exposed to a weakened form of the disease, the body would develop its own defense mechanisms against it. That way, if a full-strength infection occurred, the body would be prepared to fight it off. To make the vaccine, Pasteur and Roux harvested the rabies virus from infected rabbits and dried the virus for a week or so to lessen its power. The weakened virus is then injected into the person or animal’s bloodstream. The vaccine could be given as a precaution against potential bites or right after an animal bite occurred. Such was the case with Joseph Meister. 

Enter Joseph Meister

Joseph Meister was a precocious nine-year-old boy just living his best life when, in early July 1885, he was attacked and mauled by a rabid dog. Because it was clear that the stray dog was suffering from rabies, it was certain that the boy would also contract the deadly disease. He parents were understandably distraught. Their only hope, their doctor said, was to visit the local scientist who was working on a rabies vaccine. 

Testing on Humans was Risky and Dangerous, but Meister was Running out of Options

When Joseph Meister was brought in to see Louis Pasteur, the scientist saw an opportunity to use a human test subject. Pasteur had previously tested his vaccine on dogs and had good success. He consulted with fellow scientists, Alfred Vulpian and Jacques-Joseph Grancher, and together with Roux, the four discussed Meister’s case and debated the ethics of testing the vaccine on him. The choice was clear. They could do nothing and the boy would surely die. Or they could try the vaccine and potentially save his life. On July 6, 1885, they injected Meister with the spinal fluid from a rabid rabbit. Then they waited. 

Meister Made a Full Recovery

To everyone’s surprise and to his parents’ relief, young Joseph Meister made a full recovery. Despite being bitten by a rabid dog, he did not contract the dreaded disease, thanks to the vaccine invented by Louis Pasteur. Based on the success of Meister’s case, Pasteur made his vaccine widely available, saving countless lives of people and animals that may have become infected with rabies. Today, dogs are routinely vaccinated to prevent them from spreading the disease to humans. 

The Rest of Meister’s Story

Joseph Meister was forever indebted to Louis Pasteur for saving his life. As an adult, Meister served as the caretaker of France’s Pasteur Institute. On June 14, 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris from Germany. Fearing for their safety, Meister, then 64 years old, sent his family away and stayed behind to protect the Pasteur Institute from the German soldiers. Ten days later, on June 24, 1940, Joseph Meister was overcome with guilt because he was certain that his family had been captured by the Nazis. He committed suicide by a gas furnace. In an ironic and sad twist of fate, his family was safe. They returned to the Institute just a few hours after Meister committed suicide. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.