The Story Of Louis Pasteur (1936)


Director:  William Dieterle

Starring:  Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson, Donald Woods, Henry O’Neill, Porter Hall, Anita Louise, Raymond Brown, Akim Tamiroff, Halliwell Hobbes, Walter Kingsford, Iphigenie Castiglioni, Dickie Moore, Ruth Robinson, Herbert Corthell

Screenplay:  Sheridan Gibney, Pierre Collings and Edward Chodorov (uncredited)



I have something of a—well, not love-hate, certainly; let’s say love-exasperation relationship with The Story Of Louis Pasteur. This was one of the motion pictures that established what we would now call the “biopic” as a legitimate genre of film-making, and the first to take as its hero an important figure in the history of science. No-one had any idea if such a film would prove attractive to a general audience. Jack Warner, for one, had no faith in the project whatsoever. “Every time Paul Muni parts his hair and looks down a microscope, we lose a million dollars,” he lamented during production. Of course, this was the same Jack Warner who, in 1954, threatened grievous bodily harm to anyone who dared mention “ants” to him again—only to look on in equal delight and bewilderment as the inexpensively produced Them! went on to become a surprise smash hit and one of the five top-grossing films of the year. We can only imagine what his reaction must have been when The Story Of Louis Pasteur walked off with no less than three Academy Awards, for Best Original Story, Best Screenplay and Best Actor, losing out only for Best Picture—to, of all things, The Great Ziegfeld.

But whatever he felt, we know what Jack Warner did: he struck while the iron was hot, initiating a flurry of activity that resulted in both The Life Of Emile Zola (which somehow managed to tell the story of the Dreyfus case while barely acknowledging the existence of anti-Semitism) and Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet—which brings me back to the nature of my relationship with this film.

While the historical importance of The Story Of Louis Pasteur, both in its own right and as a progenitor, is self-evident, the fact is that it is in every way an inferior work to Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, which managed to garner only a single Academy Award nomination, for Best Screenplay. Academy Award recognition is no real measure of quality, of course, but it does bring with it all sorts of side-benefits (like scheduling during TCM’s Oscars month each year); and it is frustrating when better films end up being passed over on this artificial basis.

Now, granted, my view of films such as this is not that of the general audience, so probably I’m being harder on The Story Of Louis Pasteur than others would be. I’m delighted that this film was made, and that it paved the way for others of its kind; but the fact remains that it is a fairly basic rendering of an important historical story; while its overriding fault, at least in my critical eyes, is that it never really engages with its science; it rarely tells the audience anything that it probably didn’t already know.

The screenplay’s other fault is that, while it repeatedly shows Pasteur’s influence upon doctors and other scientists, it never acknowledges the extent to which Pasteur’s own work built upon that of others. This is not to underrate his contributions to science, but merely to emphasise that the strength of science is that it is so collaborative and interrelated, crossing boundaries in the way few human endeavours do. The lone wolf scientist working in isolation out of his basement is very much a Hollywood invention.

As a lone wolf is, nevertheless, exactly the way that The Story Of Louis Pasteur presents its title character—who was, in fact, at the time at which this story begins, Director of Scientific Studies at the École Normale Supérieure, which was and still is one of the most prestigious academic institutes in France. This detail is quite ignored by the film’s screenwriters, who as usual prefer to have their scientist-hero taking on the world single-handed. (Pasteur’s extremely talented co-workers, though acknowledged, don’t get the credit here that they should.)

Pasteur was not without opponents to his theories, of course, and never more strongly than when he propounded his “germ theory”; but the point that the film fails to make is that at the time the scientific community was a significant force, and strong enough to hold its ground against the scoffing of the medical profession. Indeed, most of Pasteur’s scientific career was spent in government-funded laboratories with plenty of resources; and far from “interfering”, as it is depicted here, he was often requested to undertake specific investigations—such as those into the souring of beer, and the disease that was killing the silkworms which supported the French silk industry. Evidently this wasn’t “heroic” enough for the screenwriters, who spend the rest of the film inventing conflicts and dramas for him to overcome. At the same time, the details of Pasteur’s experiments are given short shrift: clearly, the process of science itself was regarded as insufficiently interesting.

Indeed—the revisionism in this film is so very extensive, the screenplay, presumably in the interest of starting him off on the back foot, almost omits the piece of work for which Pasteur is probably best known to the world today, and to which he gave his name. “Pasteurisation” is barely mentioned here—and never in the context of milk and other dairy products. Instead, it is Pasteur’s efforts in the preservation of wine and beer that have, before the story begins, made his name, and allowed him to get a footing, albeit on sufferance, in a milieu dominated by the members of the Academy, who are quick to remind everyone that, “Pasteur isn’t even a doctor – he’s only a chemist!”

And so he was. Pasteur started out in crystallography, moving into biological research in the field of fermentation, and demonstrating conclusively that micro-organisms did not spontaneously generate in putrid material, as was the prevailing belief. In time he became convinced that micro-organisms – “germs” – were the basis of human disease. While not the originator of this theory, Pasteur’s careful experimentation was so vital in establishing its truth that, along with Robert Koch, he is usually regarded as the father of bacteriology.

One of Pasteur’s interests was puerperal fever, a form of septicaemia, which across the 19th century became the second-leading cause of death in women of childbearing age, chiefly because of the determination of the medical profession at this time to wrest the management of childbirth away from women. Changes in laws governing practice saw midwives forced out of work, and women encouraged or even compelled to give birth in hospital rather than at home, under the care – or more accurately, the control – of male physicians. As a result, mortality rates skyrocketed, with an average of 10%, and at some points as high as 30%, of women dying as a consequence of unhygienic care during childbirth.

The necessity merely for hand-washing, let alone the use of disinfectant, was horrifyingly slow being admitted by the medical profession. The possible role of doctors in the occurrence of puerperal fever had been noted for over two hundred years before, in the middle of the 19th century, Dr Ignatz Semmelweiss of Vienna noticed the significant difference in mortality rates between the women who gave birth in his clinic and those who gave birth at home and began to investigate the phenomenon. His observations led him to insist that the physicians working in his clinic disinfect their hands before delivering a baby, with the result that the mortality rate fell to one comparable to the home births. Semmelweiss published these results—and as a consequence had his life destroyed. The idea that doctors themselves were the carriers of fatal disease was so personally affronting to the profession that Semmelweiss became the target of a vicious campaign of abuse that finally drove him from Vienna. He subsequently suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and eventually died in a mental institution.

However, Semmelweiss (who gets a name-check early in this film) was not alone in his battle. Around the same time, Oliver Wendell Holmes was making similar claims in America, to little more professional success if with less personal suffering. Typical of the reaction to his work was the infamous response of Dr Charles Meigs: “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”

Nevertheless, in many corners of the scientific community the “germ theory” of disease had taken hold, and Louis Pasteur was one of its leading adherents.

It is at this point that The Story Of Louis Pasteur begins, with a scene almost as confrontational as the suicide that begins Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. In a Parisian doctor’s office, in 1860, a member of the profession prepares to go out on a call, collecting unwashed instruments from a dusty cupboard with his bare hands and tossing them loose into his bag – including the one which is dropped on the floor, to which the ten-second rule apparently applies. At that moment a voice speaks from the shadows, demanding the doctor’s identity. When he confirms it, a single shot rings out…

Under interrogation, the accused asserts that the doctor killed his wife, who died in childbirth. When the court scoffs at this conclusion, the man produces a leaflet in which doctors are accused of killing their patients by transmitting microbes, and are urged to wash their hands and boil their instruments. Its author? Louis Pasteur…

The resulting uproar sees Pasteur denounced as a menace to the medical profession. Dr Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber), the President of the Royal Academy of Medicine, carries the case to the court of Napoleon III (Walter Kingsford), demanding that action be taken against the upstart scientist. The Emperor is suitably shocked by Charbonnet’s version of events, and willing to move against Pasteur.

However, the Empress Eugenie (Iphigenie Castiglioni) sees the human side of the issue and intervenes, insisting that Pasteur should at least be given a hearing. When Charbonnet snorts that if he did anything so ridiculous as boil his instruments or scrub his hands, he would be laughed out of his hospital, the Empress observes coolly that he would, at any rate, be better off than his patients: “Most of them are carried out.”

Consequently, Pasteur is invited to court to explain himself. A carriage is sent for him, but instead of pulling up at the entrance to the palace, it detours to a back alley. The driver rushes into his own rooms to learn that his wife, who has recently given birth, has died. Pasteur, observing the scene, watches the midwife packing up her materials and preparing to go straight to her next job. He manages to rid her of some of her contaminated cloths, but she then eludes him, having first revealed the name of her next client – the Comtesse de Villefort, the sister of the Empress Eugenie (an invented character, as far as I can tell) – and that of her employer: Dr Charbonnet.

At court, Pasteur and Charbonnet exchange views and characters before the Emperor, setting the tone for much of what follows in this film, as Pasteur’s assertions are invariably met with sneers and laughter. Pasteur is driven to describe the death of the coachman’s wife, and the activities of the midwife – but when he dares mention the Comtesse, it is taken by Napoleon not as a warning, but as an insult. As a result, Charbonnet triumphs: Pasteur is forbidden to propagate his germ theory, and banished from Paris.

(In 1879, in collaboration with J. A. Doleris, later a professor in gynaecology and obstetrics, Pasteur identified the cause of puerperal fever as infection with Streptococcus pyogenes.)

Our story is then interrupted by a little thing called the Franco-Prussian War, one of its outcomes illustrated with amusing efficiency as a portrait of Napoleon III is replaced by one of Louis Adolphe Thiers (Herbert Corthell). We learn that across France, the farmers are fighting another dreadful war – one against anthrax, which is laying waste to the country’s cattle and sheep. It comes to light that one small province, Arbois, seems to be free of the disease. Two men from the Agricultural Board are sent to investigate this curious phenomenon: Dr Radisse (Porter Hall) and his assistant, Dr Martel (Donald Woods). Seeing that the sheep in the area are indeed healthy, the doctors question a local boy, who points them in the direction of the individual responsible…

We finally do get some science here, as Pasteur explains his discoveries with respect to anthrax (something that, sadly, modern audiences probably don’t need): the incredible resilience of the anthrax spore in its dormant state, the disease’s transmission, and his own development of a vaccine. Radisse is a scoffer after Dr Charbonnet’s own heart, but Martel carries Pasteur’s assertions back to Paris, where he is shouted down under accusations of tampering with the facts as a consequence of having fallen in love with Pasteur’s daughter (an invented romance). Fortunately, the outcome of this rowdy meeting is a challenge to Pasteur to prove that his vaccine works.

The vaccine test is an historical fact, though the screenplay changes both its date and its context. It took place ten years later than the film asserts, and was due to a sneering challenge issued by a veterinary journal. However, the details are accurate enough: under the eyes not just of the scientific community, but of the international press, two groups of sheep, one vaccinated, one not, were inoculated with anthrax. Two days later, the vaccinated sheep were in perfect health; the others were dead.

This scene is one of the better and more imaginative ones in the film, with the hoop-la surrounding the test attracting gawping members of the public and turning a scientific experiment into a literal sideshow when all sorts of travelling entertainers set up their tents in the surrounding area. A less casual observer is a visitor from England: Dr Joseph Lister (Halliwell Hobbes), a believer in the germ theory, whose own researches eventually led to the development of antiseptics and the antiseptic technique, which had a profoundly positive effect upon surgical mortality rates. (And where is his biopic, I should like to know?)

Employing the usual amusing Hollywood shorthand, the screenplay has the carnival atmosphere following Pasteur’s triumph breaking up when an unfortunate individual is bitten by a rabid dog. The man undergoes the only available treatment, the chanting of the local “wise woman” followed by the cauterising of his wound. Looking on, Pasteur decides that a vaccine for rabies will be his next goal – but a year passes with a disheartening lack of progress. However, Pasteur is encouraged by a letter from Lister, which informs him that their mutual work has seen hand-washing and the use of disinfectant adopted in hospitals in Britain, and in Brussels and Prague – although not, alas, anywhere in France. This has become a matter of personal concern for Pasteur, as his daughter Annette (Anita Louise), now married to Martel, is expecting her first child.

We get more science here, but also some significant tampering with the facts. The use of an attenuated virus to build immunity, which is shown here as one of the steps on the way to Pasteur developing his rabies vaccine, was actually a discovery associated with his earlier research into chicken cholera and – like all the best scientific discoveries? – an accident. (But then, as Pasteur famously put it, “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”) An experiment had been carried out using an old cholera culture, and the chickens treated with it had become ill, then recovered – thus suggesting the possibility of induced immunity. This observation is here transposed to the rabies research—in a rather ridiculous form.

While Pasteur and his colleagues continue their work, elsewhere the forces of scoffing are massing, under the leadership of Dr Charbonnet. (We get a brief appearance here by Edward Van Sloan as the Chairman of the Medical Academy.) Pasteur’s research, in an unfortunately exaggerated form, has made its way into the newspapers, and brought one Dr Zaranoff (Akim Tamiroff) from Russia, where rabies is a constant threat to the peasantry. The academicians invade Pasteur’s laboratory, with Pasteur forced to admit, under the lash of Charbonnet’s sneers and jeers, that he does not yet have a vaccine. A clash between the two ends with Charbonnet injecting himself with what Pasteur claims is a deadly culture—and then making a point of publicly parading himself and his non-rabid state of health, as onlookers roar with laughter at the very idea of “germs”.

Pasteur is at first bewildered by Charbonnet’s persistent health, until he realises that the culture he injected was a fortnight old. This observation is then used as the basis of a major, successful experiment in which ten dogs are given a course of treatment with a “weakened” culture, and are subsequently immune to the full-strength virus. For this sequence, the film recreates the notorious incident in which Pasteur extracted virus-bearing saliva from a rabid dog using a mouth-pipette.

But barely has Pasteur had a moment to enjoy his success than he is faced with a crisis: a doctor brings to him a small boy who has been bitten by a rabid dog, and begs him for his help. This, too, is based on a true incident: in 1885, a boy called Joseph Meister became the first person to receive Pasteur’s rabies treatment – a step which put the scientist at considerable risk of criminal prosecution. The boy subsequently recovered, although it cannot be said for certain that Pasteur cured him, as rabies infection follows exposure in only a proportion of cases. (Here, the boy is depicted as definitely, and therefore fatally, ill.)

However, the apparent success of the treatment paved the way for further work in the area, and the development of both a vaccine and a prophylactic treatment for rabies. This research also inspired the creation of the Institut Pasteur, a foundation dedicated to medical and biological research (and where HIV was isolated in the early 1980s). It was some years after these breakthroughs before the mechanisms of rabies transmission and infection were fully understood (viruses were always much harder to elucidate than bacteria), but in context the critical point is that rabies is a disease with a lengthy incubation period, and which responds to prophylaxis.

Pasteur is still suffering reaction after taking the decisive step and beginning treatment on the boy when he suddenly has two dozen Russian peasants on his hands, sent by their government and volunteering to be guinea-pigs for his research. In the middle of this crisis, Pasteur finds himself facing another: the doctor chosen to attend Annette, a practitioner of antiseptic technique, falls ill, and when she goes into labour it is necessary to find a substitute. Pasteur rushes out to look for one, only to be confronted not merely by a shortage of kindred spirits, but by a shortage of doctors generally, until he is forced to ask for help from—Dr Charbonnet, whose attitude to the germ theory has not budged one inch, and who finally strikes a bargain with Pasteur: he will humour the scientist by washing his hands and boiling his instruments before attending Annette, if Pasteur will sign a statement to the effect that his rabies treatment is a myth. Desperate, Pasteur does so – and after seeing a reluctantly sterile Charbonnet into Annette’s room, collapses with a stroke…

(Pasteur suffered a series of strokes, from 1868 onwards, and died in 1895 from associated complications.)

…but recovers, only to hear that three of the unfortunate Russian peasants have died, “horribly”. However, on the strength of the boy’s recovery, the Academy has authorised the use of Pasteur’s treatment for the survivors, which begins as soon as Pasteur can struggle out of his bed. An interested onlooker is a chastened Dr Charbonnet, who tears up Pasteur’s signed statement and asks for the treatment himself – although oddly, it is never made clear whether this is simply a gesture of good faith, or if he has in fact begun to feel symptoms of the disease.

On the back of the triumphant recovery of the Russians, we find Madame Pasteur (Josephine Hutchinson) conspiring with Dr Roux (Henry O’Neill), and promising to have Pasteur show up somewhere he would not ordinarily care to go. She accomplishes this by speaking sadly of a “foreign scientist” who claims to have disproved the germ theory, and who is due to speak at the Academy. An outraged Pasteur insists upon attending, and so walks straight into a ceremony designed to honour his accomplishments, in which he is publicly lauded by Joseph Lister – and even Charbonnet is compelled to join in the applause. And here The Story Of Louis Pasteur leaves him.

While this film was both a critical and a commercial success, as a scientific biopic it seems to lack faith in its own premise. It is a little too obviously worried about either boring its audience or talking over its head, and sacrifices detail for a series of repetitious scenes in which Pasteur is denounced and insulted; name-calling apparently being judged as being more within the average viewer’s capacity. It’s not a bad film, but it is an overly simplistic one, and disappointing on that level. Nevertheless, in spite of its shortcomings it was the first production to take as its hero a real-life scientist, and to highlight a series of significant scientific breakthroughs, which gives it (at least from my perspective) an importance that cannot be overrated. Furthermore, its success would inspire a series of such films – including my pet, Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet – and for that we can only be grateful.

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1 Response to The Story Of Louis Pasteur (1936)

  1. Pingback: “Best Pictures” 1936 | janterrirocks

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