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The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Unfortunately, Hollywood really doesn’t make many movies like this one anymore. There are probably a multitude of reasons, but I suspect one is “nerds” like Louis Pasteur are no longer as respected or well known in American society as they once were. There still are important inventors, medical researchers, scientists and other innovators in today’s world, but seldom are movies made about them. In the thirties through the fifties such films were much more common. This is one of the best of that genre.

The movie begins in an 1860’s Parisian doctor’s office. The doctor is apparently preparing to visit someone who has called for his services. He is gathering up his (dirty) instruments which are scattered about his office. In the shadows lurks the widower of a former patient of the doctor, who asks the doctor his name (Dr. Francois) and upon hearing it, shoots him. Later, at his trial, the killer accuses Dr. Francois of killing his wife by giving her childbed fever from his dirty hands. He offers a piece of paper to support his claim. The printed flyer has this: “Doctors! Surgeons! Wash your hands. Boil your instruments. Microbes cause disease and death to your patients.   Louis Pasteur”

The scene shifts to a group of doctors one of whom is denouncing Pasteur, and quickly shifts again to the French Emperor who is speaking with Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber). Charbonnet is belittling the germ theory of disease. He tells the Emperor microbes “spring into being of their own accord wherever there is putrid matter or fermentation. They are the result not the cause of disease.” Dr. Charbonnet is a respected physician, while Pasteur is a “mere chemist” not a doctor. Charbonnet mentions Pasteur’s previous work with “sour wine” (a reference to Pasteur’s invention of the process now known as pasteurization). However, the Empress responds to Charbonnet’s allusion of how he would be removed from his hospital if he endorsed Pasteur’s methods, by stating at least he would be alive unlike most patients who leave the hospital.

The camera next focuses on Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni) who is dictating a letter to his wife Marie (a young Josephine Hutchinson) responding to doctors who have apparently claimed he is responsible for the death of their colleague in the opening scene. Pasteur answers back that French doctors are responsible for a 30% mortality rate of new mothers from childbed fever. A courier delivers an invitation to Pasteur from the Emperor to attend a meeting of his court. While there the Emperor instructs Pasteur to subject his research to the official guild: “the Academy of Medicine, the proper guardian of our national health.” Pasteur leaves Paris.

While Pasteur continued to fight microbes, the French state lost its fight in the Franco-Prussian war and owed large reparations. The Empire had been replaced by a Republic, but the French economy was in trouble, partly because of an anthrax plague in the sheep herds. All provinces suffer under the plague, except one: Arbois. When observers are sent to Arbois they discover that Pasteur is vaccinating the sheep there against anthrax spread by spores in the soil. This explanation is not accepted by the French scientific establishment and an experiment is arranged infusing two sets of sheep with anthrax infected blood, one set is vaccinated by Pasteur and one is not. 

I hope my sampling of the story has caught your interest. There is really so much more packed into the movie, which only runs 87 minutes. Paul Muni was a great actor who won the Best Actor Oscar for this portrayal of Louis Pasteur. In his film career he played several other historical roles (often, as in this movie, directed by William Dieterle), including Emile Zola, and the lead in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, (another Best Actor Oscar nomination). However, there are few films which so finely celebrate the individual innovator. Innovation is usually good. Celebratory movies about inventors, researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs will often make my selection lists, but those who lead the fight against disease and death are owed a great debt by all mankind. The efforts of men like Louis Pasteur are one of the best subjects about which movies can be made. I hope you take the time to watch The Story of Louis Pasteur, which also won Oscars for best story and screenplay.

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