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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/Huxley and Pasteur on the Prevention of Hydrophobia

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | September 1889


AT the call of the Lord Mayor, a meeting was held at the Mansion House, in London, on the 1st of July, to hear statements from men of science with regard to the recent increase of rabies in England and the efficacy of the treatment discovered by M. Pasteur for the prevention of hydrophobia. Among several letters that were read, the following, one from Prof. Huxley and the other from M. Pasteur himself, are of especial interest:


"Monte Generaso, Switzerland, June 25, 1889.

"My Lord Mayor: I greatly regret my inability to be present at the meeting which is to be held under your lordship's auspices in reference to M, Pasteur and his institute. The unremitting labors of that eminent Frenchman during the last half-century have yielded rich harvests of new truths, and are models of exact and refined research. As such they deserve and have received all the honors which those who are the best judges of their purely scientific merits are able to bestow. But it so happens that these subtle and patient searchings out of the ways of the infinitely little—of that swarming life where the creature that measures one thousandth part of an inch is a giant—have also yielded results of supreme practical importance. The path of M. Pasteur's investigations is strewed with gifts of vast monetary value to the silk-trader, the brewer, and the wine merchant. And, this being so, it might well be a proper and a graceful act on the part of the representatives of trade and commerce in its greatest center to make some public recognition of M. Pasteur's services even if there were nothing further to be said about them. But there is much more to be said. M. Pasteur's direct and indirect contributions to our knowledge of the causes of diseased states, and of the means of preventing their occurrence, are not measurable by money values, but by those of healthy life and diminished suffering to men. Medicine, surgery, and hygiene have all been powerfully affected by M. Pasteur's work, which has culminated in his method of treating hydrophobia. I can not conceive that any competently instructed person can consider M. Pasteur's labors in this direction without arriving at the conclusion that, if any man has earned the praise and honor of his fellows, he has. I find it no less difficult to imagine that our wealthy country should be other than ashamed to continue to allow its citizens to profit by the treatment freely given at the institute without contributing to its support. Opposition to the proposals which your lordship sanctions would be equally inconceivable if it arose out of nothing but the facts of the case thus presented. But the opposition which, as I see from the English papers, is threatened, has really for the most part nothing on earth to do either with M. Pasteur's merits or with the efficacy of his method of treating hydrophobia. It proceeds partly from the fanatics of laissez faire, who think it better to rot and die than to be kept whole and lively by state interference, partly from the blind opponents of properly conducted physiological experimentation, who prefer that men should suffer rather than rabbits or dogs, and partly from those who for other but not less powerful motives hate everything which contributes to prove the value of strictly scientific methods of inquiry in all those questions which affect the welfare of society. I sincerely trust that the good sense of the meeting over which your lordship will preside will preserve it from being influenced by these unworthy antagonisms, and that the just and benevolent enterprise you have undertaken may have a happy issue.

"I am, my Lord Mayor, your obedient servant,
"Thomas H. Huxley.
"The Right Hon. the Lord Mayor, Mansion House, E. C."

The following letter from M. Pasteur, dated Paris, the 27th ult., was read by Sir H. Roscoe:

"Dear Colleague and Friend: I am obliged by your sending me a copy of the letter of invitation issued by the Lord Mayor for the meeting on July 1st. Its perusal has given me great pleasure. The questions relating to the prophylactic treatment for hydrophobia in persons who have been bitten and the steps which ought to be taken to stamp out the disease are discussed in a manner both exact and judicious. Seeing that hydrophobia has existed in England for a long time, and that medical science has failed to ward off the occurrence even of the premonitory symptoms, it is clear that the prophylactic method of treating this malady which I have discovered ought to be adopted in the case of every person bitten by a rabid animal. The treatment required by this method is painless during the whole of its course and not disagreeable. In the early days of the application of this method. contradictions such as invariably take place with every new discovery were found to occur, and especially for the reason that it is not every bite by a rabid animal which gives rise to a fatal out-burst of hydrophobia. Hence prejudiced people may pretend that all the successful cases of treatment were cases in which the natural contagion of the disease had not taken effect. This specious reasoning has gradually lost its force with the continually increasing number of persons treated. To-day, and speaking solely for the one anti-rabic laboratory of Paris, this total number exceeds 7,000, or exactly, up to the 31st of May, 1889, 6,950. Of these the total number of deaths was only seventy one. It is only by palpable and willful misrepresentation that a number differing from the above, and differing by more than double, has been published by those who are systematic enemies of the method. In short, the general mortality applicable to the whole of the operations is one per cent, and if we subtract from the total number of deaths those of persons in whom the symptoms of hydrophobia appeared a few days after the treatment—that is to say, cases in which hydrophobia had burst out (often owing to delay in arrival) before the curative process was completed—the general mortality is reduced to 0·68 per cent. But let us for the present only consider the facts relating to the English subjects whom we have treated in Paris. Up to May 31, 1889, their total number was two hundred and fourteen. Of these there have been five unsuccessful cases after completion of the treatment and two more during treatment, or a total mortality of 3·2 per cent, or more properly 2'3 per cent. But the method of treatment has been continually undergoing improvement, so that in 1888 and 1889, on a total of sixty-four English persons bitten by mad dogs and treated in Paris, not a single case has succumbed, although among these sixty-four there were ten individuals bitten on the head and fifty-four bitten on the limbs, often to a very serious extent. I have already said that the Lord Mayor in his invitation has treated the subject in a judicious manner, from the double point of view of prophylaxis after the bite and of the extinction of the disease by administrative measures. It is also my own profound conviction that a rigorous observance of simple police regulations would altogether stamp out hydrophobia in a country like the British Isles. Why am I so confident of this? Because, in spite of an old-fashioned and wide-spread prejudice, to which even science has sometimes given a mistaken countenance, rabies is never spontaneous. It is caused, without a single exception, by the bite of an animal affected with the malady. It is needless to say that in the beginning there must have been a first case of hydrophobia. This is certain; but to try to solve this problem is to raise uselessly the question of the origin of life itself. It is sufficient for me here, in order to prove the truth of my assertion, to remind you that neither in Norway, nor in Sweden, nor in Australia, does rabies exist; and yet nothing would be easier than to introduce this terrible disease into those countries by importing a few mad dogs. Let England, which has exterminated its wolves, make a vigorous effort and it will easily succeed in extirpating rabies. If firmly resolved to do so, your country may secure this great benefit in a few years; but, until that has been accomplished, and in the present state of science, it is absolutely necessary that all persons bitten by mad dogs should be compelled to undergo the anti-rabic treatment. Such, it seems, is a summary of the statement of the case by the Lord Mayor. The Pasteur Institute is profoundly touched by the movement in support of the meeting. The interest which his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has evinced in the proposed manifestation is of itself enough to secure its success. Allow me, my dear colleague, to express my feelings of affectionate devotion."—Nature.