he born Dec. 27, 1822, Dole, France—died Sept. 28, 1895, Saint-Cloud French chemist and microbiologist who was one of the most important founders of medical microbiology. Pasteur’s contributions to science, technology, and medicine are nearly without precedent. He pioneered the study of molecular asymmetry; discovered that microorganisms cause fermentation and disease; originated the process of pasteurization; saved the beer, wine, and silk industries in France; and developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies.
Pasteur’s academic positions were numerous, and his scientific accomplishments earned him France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, as well as election to the Académie des Sciences and many other distinctions. Today there are some 30 institutes and an impressive number of hospitals, schools, buildings, and streets that bear his name—a set of honours bestowed on few scientists.
Pasteur’s father, Jean-Joseph Pasteur, was a tanner and a sergeant major decorated with the Legion of Honour during the Napoleonic Wars. This fact probably instilled in the younger Pasteur the strong patriotism that later was a defining element of his character. Louis Pasteur was an average student in his early years, but he was gifted in drawing and painting. His pastels and portraits of his parents and friends, made when he was 15, were later kept in the museum of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. After attending primary school in Arbois, where his family had moved, and secondary school in nearby Besançon, he earned his bachelor of arts degree (1840) and bachelor of science degree (1842) at the Royal College of Besançon.
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In 1843 Pasteur was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure (a teachers’ college in Paris), where he attended lectures by French chemist Jean-Baptiste-André Dumas and became Dumas’s teaching assistant. Pasteur obtained his master of science degree in 1845 and then acquired an advanced degree in physical sciences. He later earned his doctorate in sciences in 1847. Pasteur was appointed professor of physics at the Dijon Lycée (secondary school) in 1848 but shortly thereafter accepted a position as professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg. On May 29, 1849, he married Marie Laurent, the daughter of the rector of the university. The couple had five children; however, only two survived childhood.
Soon after graduating from the École Normale Supérieure, Pasteur became puzzled by the discovery of the German chemist Eilhardt Mitscherlich, who had shown that tartrates and paratartrates behaved differently toward polarized light: tartrates rotated the plane of polarized light, whereas paratartrates did not. This was unusual because the compounds displayed identical chemical properties. Pasteur noted that the tartrate crystals exhibited asymmetric forms that corresponded to their optical asymmetry. He made the surprising observation that crystalline paratartrate consisted of a mixture of crystals in a right-handed configuration. However, when these crystals were separated manually, he found that they exhibited right and left asymmetry. In other words, a balanced mixture of both right and left crystals was optically inactive. Thus, Pasteur discovered the existence of molecular asymmetry, the foundation of stereochemistry, as it was revealed by optical activity. Over the course of the next 10 years, Pasteur further investigated the ability of organic substances to rotate the plane of polarized light. He also studied the relationship that existed between crystal structure and molecular configuration. His studies convinced him that asymmetry was one of the fundamental characteristics of living matter.
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