Bernard vs. Pasteur – a first look.

An interesting query from a reader in Canada:

“How is it that so many people are aware of Louis Pasteur, yet the name of the equally eminent Claude Bernard is known by so few?” 

This response is the first of several comments that I will make on the intriguing relationship – and the striking contrasts – between these two friends and colleagues, of whom Pasteur was Bernard’s junior by 10 years.

Pasteur was by training a chemist – and only a latecomer to biological science. He had made his mark in crystallography, and then adressed the problem of the souring of beer. He arrived in Paris from Lille just as Bernard was making his mark in physiological research. Pasteur soon became an ardent admirer of Bernard; he was often to be seen in the back row of his lectures at the College de France and the Sorbonne, making copious notes on elements of biology and physiology that were entirely new to him. Only later did they actually meet. Pasteur always acknowledged Bernard as his master, and used his ideas and experience to the full.

I have just finished reading the five volumes of Pasteur’s published correspondence. I wanted to understand what made him tick. His raison d’etre seemed to be his wish to solve important problems with a maximum of public exposure. He was unashamedly self-promoting and hungry for recognition and support. He earmarked health-related and economically or industrially important issues which could prompt the influential to support his ideas. Pasteur mostly came up with valuable answers, although more recently it has been claimed that his results were sometimes a little short of honest.

By contrast, Bernard was modest, inquisitive, impeccably honest and retiring. He was grateful for what he had in the way of support, and not overly concerned with directly furthering human welfare. His raison d’etre was simply to understand the functioning of the normal body (without which, he claimed, one could not understand the diseased body). He also challenged tradition, and devoted himself to eliminating doubt, and to establishing methods in medical science that would benefit subsequent researchers (rather than the public). He and Pasteur often met. Bernard guided Pasteur scientifically, while in return Pasteur supported Bernard with his network of important ‘connections’ and the good words that he poured into important ears (such as those of Louis Napoleon).

Bernard’s contributions however were widely acknowledged, and interpreted for the public by eminent journalists such as Paul de Remusat in le Figaro and in the weekly l’Illustration. Bernard himself contributed important papers to the (now) 180 year-old journal, Revue des Deux Mondes which presented specialized knowledge and views in a manner understandable to the public. It helped him get his fauteuil in the Academie Francaise. These are the collective reasons why, when Bernard died, some 5000 people followed the cortege to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, and also why le Figaro reported the next day that “…all Paris wept.” But memories are obviously short for this type of science.

By contrast, the process of pasteurization, the prevention of rabies, and Pasteur’s contribution to the health of the French milk, silk, beer and wine industries would ensure that his name would never be forgotten.



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