The Hydrophobia Microbe Made Visible

So much depends upon a settlement of the question whether Professor Pasteur really has or has not, out of all the incalculable possibilities of error, succeeded in choosing the one and only truth in relation to certain pathological conditions, that the length and earnestness of the debate that is going on may well be pardoned. For nearly a quarter of a century he has been assailed and each new development in the wonderful series of investigations, that began in the beer vat and is even now proceeding to demonstration in the brain and nerve of man, has intensified the bitterness of his opponents. At the same time it has given stimulus and direction to the thought of mankind, which is beginning to observe that every success that he has met with in successful hypothetization of the germ serves to build more broadly and firmly a reasonable and striking pathological law which may yet in our own time make medicine as exact a science, speaking within limits, as surgery, or even chemistry itself. Indeed, thanks to M. Pasteur, surgery and medicine have not only been brought into a fraternal relation, but share the mysterious unity of twinship. The germ is the tie that binds the knife to the nostrum.


Dr. Hermann M. Biggs, professor at New York City’s Bellevue Medical College
The latest and most impressive work done by M. Pasteur is, as is well known, in relation to the subject of rabies in animals, principally dogs, and the prevention of hydrophobia in human beings. It is probably in this relation that he is best known to our readers, although his eradication of chicken cholera, splenic fever in cattle and the disease among silkworms has, as the EAGLE pointed out some days ago, saved to France a sum of money probably many times greater than Bismarck exacted from France as a war indemnity. We find the autiology of hydrophobia, in connection with M. Pasteur, treated of with great skill and ability in a paper by Dr. Hermann M. Biggs and published in our always interesting and instructive contemporary, the New York Medical Journal. The writer sets forth with admirable clearness and mastery of the subject the essential character of the Pasteur treatment, and concludes with a two fold summary of the evidence in favor of accepting it as a demonstration. One of the arguments he quotes from Professor Tyndall, himself a tower of scientific strength and judgment. The great English authority in his introduction to his life of Pasteur presented as an almost final proof of the correctness of the treatment a table of canine acknowledgment which may be summarized thus:

Of six dogs, unprotected by vaccination, three died of rabies after being bitten by a furiously rabid dog.

Of eight unvaccinated, six died after intravenous inoculation of rabie matter.

Of five unvaccinated dogs, all died after trepanning and brain surface inoculation.

Of twenty-three vaccinated dogs not one was attacked with disease after inoculation with the most potent virus.

The other line of argument advanced by Dr. Biggs is that of probability. He asks whether a man who has in brief performed such well attested wonders as Pasteur would be likely, after five years of ripe experience and patient trial, to be deceived or to have accomplished nothing. To this, of course, there can be but one answer. Dr. Biggs might have fortified his case yet more by quoting the figures recently reported by M. Pasteur to the French Academy and referred to in the EAGLE, these namely:

Out of 529 cases of persons bitten by presumably rabid dogs in and about Paris who did not submit to Pasteur’s treatment 81 died.

Out of 349 similarly bitten persons treated by Pasteur within thirty-six days of being bitten not one died.

Out of some 450 treated, one died of the disease, which had developed before treatment, and one, bitten by a mad wolf, not a dog, died after treatment. These facts amount, in our judgment, to a demonstration taken in connection with the reasoning from the ground of probability.

But there is yet another form of demonstration which is conclusive, and in this paper before us Dr. Biggs brings it out. He says at the close of it: “Pasteur’s prophylactic method for rabies rests purely on empirical grounds and can only be fairly judged by the practical results obtained by its use. So far as we know at present these have sustained the processions of the learned discoverer and, until they are refuted by further observations, I believe it is unjust too characterize this work of Pasteur’s, as has recently been done, as being founded ;on untrustworthy experiments and unsound reasoning,’ deserving ‘to be rejected and condemned in the interests of humanity as well as science.’” That some persons – a London “doctress” who wrote a most spiteful letter to M. Pasteur was one of the most conspicuous among them – have so characterized his work is unquestioned. So late as last week Frances Power Cobbe denounced the unhappy Frenchman with great acidity of style. But a passage or two in Dr. Biggs’ own paper carries with it the force of a deductive proof of the inference inductively arrived at. Pasteur’s treatment of the rabie virus has been determined by the most elaborate experimentation. Nature, fairly pressed for aid, guided his master hand along lines of treatment that ran indubitably parallel with methods employed in the resolution of the silkworm and cattle diseases into germs. All the processes into which endless experiment has been directing him are processes which presuppose the existence not only of a distinct virus of rabies, but a virus that partakes of the quality of a germ belonging to the same order, to put it roughly, with the diphtheria and smallpox germs; a fungus, in point and fact, which propagates itself by subdivision into spores, which in time, by this process of compound multiplication, number billions. This was so obvious that all critics, big and little, began hunting through their soup nurseries and spinal cord specimens for the implied germ, just as all the astronomers hunted the heavens to find the unknown external planet which alone, Leverrier concluded, would account for the perturbations of Uranus. Because they failed to find it some of them insisted that it was not there. And because it was not there, the theory was erroneous. This declaration, of course, involves the complementary one, namely that, if the germ was there, then all the processes of thought, reasoning and experiment which led up to this germ as the inevitable climax, must be sound. Dr. Herman Fol, of Geneva, according to Dr. Biggs, has recently reported to the French Academy that he has found it. And, since science takes nothing for granted and conceals nothing, Dr. Fol has submitted all he knows about it. He has measured the hydrophobia germ, which is an inconceivably small globule which strings in figure of eight groups and has a diameter of .62 of a micro millimeter. This cheerful little creature is not visible in a microscope of 600 diameter magnifying power, and that in the reason, perhaps, why some of the human microbes who denied its existence failed to find it. Again, in order to detect it the most careful process of attaining the marrow in which it lives is necessary, and that is a (unreadable) that the quacks and (unreadable) of (unreadable). (unreadable) prepared and viewed through a sufficiently powerful microscope the miserable…
Originally published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 29, 1886
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