The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)

Director: William Dieterle
Screenwriters: Pierre Collings, Sheridan Gibney
Cast: Paul Muni, Josephine Hutchinson, Anita Louise, Donald Woods, Fritz Leiber Sr., Akim Tamiroff
Nominations: Picture, Actor – Paul Muni, Screenplay, Original Story
Wins: Actor – Paul Muni, Screenplay, Original Story

Living during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, it’s impossible to go through the day without hearing the importance of cleaning common surfaces and especially of washing your hands.  There’s an irony, of course, that something as simple as warm water and soap could destroy a virus that itself can devastate a person’s respiratory system and even kill some of those it infects.  Nevertheless, we know that hand-washing is effective in not only limiting the spread of COVID-19 but the spread of any and all micro-organisms.  Considering that “wash your hands” has been a constant refrain throughout most of our lives, we should have been washing our hands well before the current pandemic, but hindsight keeps us from looking ahead.

And it was one man’s ability to looking ahead, and at the number of women dying from puerperal or childbed fever, that led us to seeing how the simple act of washing our hands could save lives.  That man was French chemist Louis Pasteur.

Of course, history shows us that many had a (washed) hand in the fight against bacteria, viruses, and microbes and developing germ theory, but from the perspective of today’s film, Pasteur was basically the most prescient and most persistent on both fronts—to this day, regardless of the film bias, he is still known as the “father of microbiology.”

The main focus of the film is Pasteur’s work on creating vaccines to fight diseases, namely anthrax and rabies, and preventing the spread of infection.  The film begins with a man shooting a his recently deceased wife’s doctor for causing her death.  The man possesses a pamphlet that theorizes diseases are caused by microbes and that doctors can prevent spreading disease by washing their hands and boiling their instruments.  France’s medical academy ostracizes Pasteur’s claims, and he exiles himself to the bucolic town of Arbois.

In Arbois, Pasteur develops a vaccine for anthrax, and the town’s sheep thrive while herds throughout France succumb to the disease.  Still ridiculed by the medical academy—especially Dr. Charbonnet—Pasteur agrees to an experiment in which twenty-five sheep will be injected with anthrax and twenty-five will be vaccinated.  While not entirely vindicated when the vaccinated sheep live and the infected ones die, Pasteur returns to Paris, where he begins work on a rabies vaccine.

To avoid summarizing the film too much, Pasteur does succeed in creating the vaccine, earns the respect of Dr. Charbonnet, and is celebrated by the medical academy for all he has contributed to the health and well-being of humanity.

I chose this film to kick off this website because of how apt it is to what many doctors and scientists have been doing since the outbreak of COVID-19.  Right now, somewhere on the planet, a doctor/scientist/chemist/microbiologist/vaccinologist is diligently working in a lab, testing and retesting methods and procedures to find a way to prevent people from getting infected with (or at least, minimally affected by) COVID-19.  The techniques Pasteur used in the 1870s and 1880s have evolved, sure, but even with (and possibly because of) medical advancements the drive and determination to cure diseases is just as strong in 2020 as it was then.  Unfortunately, developing treatments and vaccines is a just as time-consuming now as it was for Pasteur.  That leads us to what I consider the most relevant aspect of the film.

About 70 minutes into the film, Pasteur’s daughter goes into labor.  Not being a medical doctor himself, Pasteur seeks out someone he can trust to deliver his grandchild and keep his daughter alive (while not explicitly stated, it’s probably that the man’s wife at the beginning of the film died during or shortly after childbirth).  The only doctor he can find is his nemesis, Dr. Charbonnet, who agrees to help.

The scene is riveting for many reasons:

  • Would Charbonnet wash his hands?
  • Would he touch something after washing them?
  • Would any of it matter, or what if Pasteur’s daughter dies?

It’s a simple scene with little action, but there is so much at stake that it plays out as a huge climactic set piece—which, for a bio-pic about microbes, it is.  What makes the scene all the more powerful, though, is how related it is to our current moment in time.  We’re doing what we can to keep others safe and healthy, but just as Pasteur has Charbonnet, there’s some skepticism about how effective our actions are in the grand scheme.  Of course, it’s possible that Pasteur’s daughter would’ve been okay had Charbonnet not washed his hands, but at the same time, no harm came from washing them.

The Story of Louis Pasteur is a film about about how the little things can do so much harm to humans.  But it’s also about how the little things, such as washing our hands, covering our coughs/sneezes, cleaning items, etc., can do so much good for us as well.