15th March 2021

Book in Focus

The Story of the Pasteur Institute and Its Contributions to Global Health

By Marie-Hélène Marchand

With front-page news every day about COVID-19 and the vaccines we hope will shorten this pandemic, it is a good time to reflect on how vaccination got its name and its start, and how the Pasteur Institute pioneered the world’s earliest new vaccines.

Prior to Louis Pasteur’s discoveries in the 1880s, there had been only a single vaccine, the one for smallpox that applied to the skin some infectious material taken from a cow or a recently vaccinated person. The word itself derives from vacca, the Latin word for cow, and the disease being transferred was cowpox. By an oddity of biology, having cowpox protects a person from ever coming down with smallpox.

Beginning in the 1880s, Pasteur and his laboratory colleagues developed the very first remedies using a new conceptual model of stimulating the body’s immune response by introducing germ matter that had been weakened or killed. It was Pasteur who used the terms ‘vaccine’ and ‘vaccination’ for any such process—analogous to the established treatment by cowpox. His discovery of a vaccine for chicken cholera was quickly followed by a powerful vaccine against anthrax that soon saved the French agricultural economy millions of francs. Then, in July 1885, his rabies vaccine for hydrophobia literally made headlines around the world as the cure for a dreaded disease. This breakthrough led to a new institute devoted to research on rabies and other infectious diseases, including the scourges of tuberculosis and diphtheria which threatened public health at the time.

Around the world today, one may find streets and avenues named after Pasteur in honor of his discoveries. However, despite the worldwide recognition that the Pasteur Institute has long received, few people today—even among scientists and science students—know what occurs at the Institute he founded in 1887, or the story of how it grew into today’s powerhouse of scientific innovation. Scientific breakthroughs made by pioneers of microbiology, serum therapy, immunology, and genetics, as well as the newer specialties of molecular biology and genomics, have kept the Pasteur Institute at the forefront of the fight against infectious diseases.

Notably, 10 Pasteur Institute scientists have received the Nobel Prize—the most recent of whom were Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier in 2008, for their identification of the HIV/AIDS virus. Scientists at the Institute are actively investigating the novel Coronavirus, with at least one vaccine in the research pipeline.

The personal, relatable stories behind these discoveries and many others are recounted in The Story of the Pasteur Institute and Its Contributions to Global Health. As Secretary General at the Institute for some 25 years, I was the privileged observer of its daily life, and have conveyed my experiences in a highly accessible insider’s account, keeping in mind the widest possible range of readers.

However, the story of the Institute is not simply a narrative of its laboratory work. The book includes tales of competing scientific domains and the high-profile personalities that drove them, of the fundraising so vital to ensuring the Institute’s independence, of growing pains and the expansion of labs in a tight Parisian neighborhood, and of intimate connections with students, trainees, alumni, and donors throughout the world. The latter made my job a particularly exciting one as I met people from every corner of France and from around the world. A fascinating array of people have entrusted their estates to the Institute to advance its research agenda, one of the most notable of whom was the exiled Duchess of Windsor, who made headlines around the world as her jewels were auctioned off at Sotheby’s in Geneva at the height of the AIDS crisis when Pasteur scientists had just discovered the cause.

I also share the story of the international impact the institute has had: how a single institution, based in Paris, influenced British and American science and medicine, and how 30 global satellite institutions—most of which bear the Pasteur name—continue to impact the world via research and the training of local scientists.

A number of educators have told me that this portrayal of the thrilling and humane contributions made by the Institute would be inspiring and useful for university and high school students. It has a place on the shelves of the libraries they use, on their desks, and on their lab benches, as their predecessors’ struggle to overcome infectious diseases is as pertinent now as ever.

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Marie-Hélène Marchand graduated from l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris, and received her doctorate in Political Studies in 1966. She served as the Secretary General of the Pasteur Institute from 1983 to 2010, having previously worked as Scientific Attaché to the French Embassy in Washington, DC, and as Adviser to the President of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and to the Minister of Research. Her publications include Les conseillers généraux sous la IVème République (1966), Histoire des dons et legs à l’Institut Pasteur (2001), and Une histoire de l’Institut Pasteur, au coeur de la santé publique mondiale (2015).


The Story of the Pasteur Institute and Its Contributions to Global Health is now available in hardback and paperback formats at a special 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem. You can access the first 30 pages of the book free of charge by clicking here.