Louis Pasteur. Patrice Debré. Elborg Forster, trans. xxvii + 552 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. $39.95.
Another Pasteur biography? Since his son-in-law's anonymous hagiography appeared in 1883, dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been published about this multifaceted scientist, whom British scientist Stephen Paget called "the most perfect man who has ever entered the Kingdom of Science." The reason for such perennial interest in him and the need for each generation to reinterpret him is not difficult to fathom. Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) is, of course, a hero in France, but his fame is truly international.
Interest in Pasteur and his discoveries that revolutionized biology, chemistry, agriculture, medicine, industry, surgery, public hygiene and the environment peaked recently in 1995, the centennial of his death, designated as L'année Pasteur throughout the world. Among the commemorative books to appear, now available in a felicitous English translation, was an extensive and balanced biography by Patrice Debré. The author is not a historian but a distinguished French immunologist and physician, head of the Biological Immunology Laboratory at the Pitié-Salpêtri?re hospital. Debré feels strongly that because science surrounds us, it must be explained, and "scientists are no doubt best qualified to do this." He sees the biography of a scientist as "the main and most effective tool for understanding and explaining science, for asking the right questions and envisaging their answers and their consequences."
Debré's is a book that could only have been written by a scientist who is a Frenchman. He exhibits intimate familiarity with all the locales where Pasteur spent his professional and personal life, as evidenced by incredibly detailed descriptions that invoke striking, realistic images that border on the poetic. His book is insightful, empathic, meticulously documented and copiously illustrated. This and his reliance on recently available documents differentiates his biography from all the others. It is uniformly excellent in its treatment of the scientific, political and personal aspects of Pasteur's life.
Although in the popular mind Pasteur's name is inextricably linked to microbiology and immunology, both of which he helped to found, and to medicine, he began his 40-year career as a chemist. His discovery of the optical isomerism of the tartrates brought the 26-year-old Pasteur recognition by the French scientific community and raised his position in the elaborate French social system. As the years passed, he abandoned his youthful flirtation with republicanism in favor of his partisanship toward Emperor Louis Napoléon, the French scientific and political establishment and the political conservatism that marked the rest of his life. Simultaneously, he "found the brilliantly designed footbridge that led him from molecular asymmetry to the microbe and the fight against infectious disease," a path of development that Debré retraces "from one stage to the next without neglecting any one of them."
Debré's biography will undoubtedly be compared to the other recent English-language volume, American historian Gerald L. Geison's 1995 revisionist and controversial The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. Although Geison presents a survey of Pasteur's life and career in a separate chapter and throughout the book, it is not a biography in the usual sense of the term. Geison focuses on five episodes that involve what he calls "ethically dubious conduct"—Pasteur's resolution of racemic acid, his championing of a microbial theory of fermentation, his debate over spontaneous generation and his anthrax and rabies vaccines. According to Geison, in these cases, as in most of his published articles and lectures, Pasteur's quasi-historical introductions to his work deceptively magnified its importance by giving the impression that he had no predecessors. Geison also claimed to have discovered frequent major discrepancies between Pasteur's notebooks (the title's "private science") and his published work.
In his preface Debré mentions Geison's accusations and the Franco-American controversy that the French press has called l'Affair Pasteur. He does not confront Geison directly but lets his own findings speak for themselves. He states, "Readers will find information that does not fit the interpretation of the American historian or, rather, permits them to form their own judgment."
Like Geison, Debré has made extensive use of Pasteur's 102 detailed holographic laboratory notebooks (probably more than 10,000 pages) donated in 1964 to the Biblioth?que Nationale in Paris by Pasteur's grandson, Louis Pasteur Vallery-Radot. These notebooks, like the rest of the manuscripts that Pasteur left behind, had previously remained in the hands of his immediate family and descendants. Access to these materials was restricted until Vallery-Radot's death in 1971. However, Debré differs from Geison in his interpretations.
Debré and Geison, however, have much in common in their admiration for Pasteur, a talented artist of the laboratory who did not rely on the routine application of a mechanical scientific method. Both acknowledge that although Pasteur had his share of critics during his lifetime, the myth of Pasteur as a scientific hero above reproach was carefully and deliberately nurtured by Pasteur himself as well as his family and co-workers. Despite Pasteur's faults, Geison still reveres him as "one of the greatest scientists who ever lived." In his words, "I am less concerned to expose Pasteur's public deceptions than to explain them."
But Debré is also critical and freely admits Pasteur's faults; he sometimes finds him unfair, combative, arrogant, unattractive in attitude, inflexible and even dogmatic—traits that Pasteur often needed in order to force conservative peers and colleagues to accept necessary changes in established procedures and practices. Yet he judges Pasteur holistically in the context of his entire life of success after success rather than on his individual faults. Debré maintains: "Errors are the mark of a man. I have tried, then, to place this account, which aims to be neither hagiography nor debunking, under the sign of lucidity."—George B. Kauffman, Chemistry, California State University, Fresno