Saving Meister from certain death Science

Meister: the first human to receive rabies vaccination

While the Global Alliance for Rabies Control believes that mass vaccination of dogs could make rabies a thing of the past, it still remains a work in progress. Photo: J Manoharan   | Photo Credit: J Manoharan

Over 50,000 deaths each year is caused by rabies, present in every continent except Antarctica. The majority of these deaths occur in Asia and Africa, and it is almost always contracted from dog bites. While the Global Alliance for Rabies Control believes that mass vaccination of dogs could make rabies a thing of the past, it still remains a work in progress.

Rabies, always fatal once clinical symptoms are clear, is a viral disease transmitted from an infected mammal to another through the saliva or tissues from the nervous system. Caused by the lyssavirus, it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can pass between species.

Most human cases are caused by exposure to infected dogs. The first case in which rabies vaccination was administered was no different either.

By the nineteenth century, it was already known that rabies was infectious. Development of a successful vaccine, however, proved difficult as the microorganism causing the disease could not be identified, nor could it be cultured in the laboratory.

Louis Pasteur (the same person who was responsible for pasteurisation) was able to produce the virus in various degrees of virulence. By harvesting dried spinal cord material from rabid rabbits, Pasteur was even able to save the lives of 50 dogs that had rabies.

On July 4, 1885, nine-year old Joseph Meister suffered 14 wounds from his neighbour’s dog that had already developed rabies. Two days later, he was brought to the attention of Pasteur, in a bid to save the child’s life.

Pasteur confronted a severe dilemma. On one hand he knew that even though his vaccine had saved the lives of many dogs, there was no guarantee that it would work on humans. On the other hand, it was certain that Meister would die if he developed the symptoms of rabies.

At 8 in the evening on July 6, over 60 hours after the bites, Pasteur, reluctantly and with a sense of deep unease, administered his vaccine to Meister. The contents of the syringe were from the spinal cord of a rabbit that had died of rabies on June 21, and had been conserved for 15 days in dry air.

Over the next 10 days, Meister was administered 13 further inoculations, with portions of the spinal cord in each case progressively fresher, and hence more virulent. Three months and three days from the incident, Pasteur announced that Meister appeared in excellent health and was now out of danger. Joseph had escaped from the clutches of death.

Success in this case, followed by many others, convinced people around the world. At a time when the distinctions between fungi, bacteria and viruses were still hazy, and there was no formulated theory of immunisation, Pasteur was able to look ahead and find how the immune system works. And that enabled him to prepare the ground for others who followed, heralding a new era of modern immunology.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 11:31:25 AM |

Next Story