6   12pasteur3


‘In the evening, she would write down what he dictated and ask him to explain it, for she was really interested in hemihedral facets… Not only an incomparable mate for Pasteur, Mme Pasteur was also his best collaborator’ – Emile Roux

It was ironic, thought Marie, that the same work which was considered unseemly, even unwomanly, in an unmarried girl, should be considered entirely proper and laudable in a wife. All it required was marrying the right man.

Growing up in the shadow of Strasbourg University, daughter of the rector, she had learned the rules at her mother’s knee. A woman married her husband’s career as much as she married the man himself. A wise woman chose a career she could live with. An ambitious one chose the vocation she wanted.

An unlucky one spent her days sorting cocoons into clean baskets.

Louis Pasteur had looked like a good prospect from the first. Another woman might have found Louis’ letter asking permission to court her unromantic, but Marie had sensed a kindred soul behind the close, rounded handwriting:

‘I would like to spend my life at your side, even if this should make me forget all about my crystals – but for the time being, I have to get things done…’

Here was a man who had his priorities straight, she thought with satisfaction.  She would have accepted him on the spot, though the question was not yet fully asked, but this would have been too forward.  Instead, Marie replied with proper modesty, providing M. Pasteur with a detailed description of her schedule for the next week, and the hours at which she would be at home to visitors, so that he would not waste time away from his experiments.

The laboratory must come first.

Their first few exchanges had been a little stilted. Louis was too polite to discuss his work over that first afternoon tea, and Marie’s interest in the weather was limited, but once she managed to convince him that she really was interested in his crystals, he blossomed. He would hold forth for hours on the properties of symmetric and asymmetric crystals, and how these might twist light in different ways. Marie drank in every word, and Louis, flattered, became yet more expansive, explaining how tartaric acid rendered wine more acidic, making it less susceptible to spoiling.

At her request, he even gave her copies of his notes to read. His handwriting was appalling. “Yes, but did you understand it?” he laughed, when she complained.

Marie smiled. “I understand that you were able to show why paratartaric acid does not bend light the way tartaric acid from wine crystals does. I thought that was very clever, and I should love to observe the crystals through your microscope. But it would be easier to understand if your notes were legible.”

Louis laughed again. “When we are wed, I shall be sure to dictate my notes to you, so that everyone may read them.”

“And the microscope?”

“We shall see.”

They were married in May, and quickly settled into a routine. Louis would spend his days teaching and researching, and in the evenings, he dictated his notes to Marie, explaining anything she did not understand. Sometimes, he would invite colleagues or friends to dinner, and Marie would find herself mediating between Louis’ regard for the unadorned truth, and the rules of good manners.

It was pleasant, but not quite what she had hoped for.

“You told me I might visit your laboratory,” she reminded him, one afternoon in early September.

Her husband smiled at her, a particularly indulgent smile. “Now, my dear, you know your condition is a delicate one, and there is much in my laboratory that is dangerous.  The tartaric acid crystals, in particular, are quite poisonous. Perhaps after the baby is weaned?”

“I am hardly going to eat your crystals, Louis,” Marie pointed out, acidly, but her husband was firm.  There would be no visits that year.

Looking after an infant was all-consuming, particularly in a household that could only afford the minimum of servants. Louis, pleasingly, was a fond and involved father, who would get up in the night to change little Jeanne. Admittedly, nobody could sleep through her yelling, but it was still unexpectedly considerate.

And before Jeanne was a year old, Marie was pregnant again. “There is much in pregnancy that is dangerous, too,” she reminded her husband one evening in October, after he had recounted a particularly fascinating experiment showing that synthetic crystals had different optical properties to those which occurred in nature.  She shifted uncomfortably as the baby kicked. “And yet you would have me risk that.”

“All the more reason I should not add to the risks you take,” he replied.

Marie sighed. A friend of hers had succumbed to childbed fever only a few months ago, and she was anticipating her own labour with fear born of experience. “Have you never wondered why so many healthy women succumb to childbirth?”

Her husband reached out to take her hands in his. He really did love her, he just loved science more. “My dear, you had no problems last time. Why should this time be different?”

She shook her head, and let the conversation lapse.

(Later, much later, when their last surviving daughter was married and about to bear children of her own, Louis would turn his formidable mind to the question of childbed fever. But Marie faced the same risks as any other woman of her generation.)

By the time the third baby came, two years later, Louis was the Chair of Chemistry, and Marie was still waiting for her chance to look down that microscope.

“I just wish I could do something significant,” she whispered one night, when the elder children were in bed and the baby was finally sleeping. “Something other than bearing children and keeping house.  Something that uses my mind! I feel as though my thoughts – my life! – are valueless, all because I had the misfortune to be born a woman.”

Louis seemed surprised at this outburst.

“My love, your value is beyond measure.  Surely you know that everything I do is your achievement too? I couldn’t possibly do my work if I did not have you to look after me and the children, to see to our clothes and our home, to keep us all fed and clean. And beyond that, you are my sounding board, my assistant, my pupil. My ambassador, mediating between me and the world, so that my family is happy and my collaborators are not offended. You deal with the everyday, the necessities of life, and that is your great gift to me.  Because of your generosity, I may focus on the work at hand, secure in the knowledge that the quotidian is taken care of. I am leading you into posterity – but without you, I could go nowhere.”

Marie sighed.  For a man whose living came from making observations, Louis could be very obtuse.  But there was nothing to be done about it now.  And… it was something, she supposed, to know that he recognised the work she did.

She kissed her husband’s cheek.

“Thank you, Louis.  That makes me feel a lot better.”

Louis, reassured that his wife was happy in her role of collaborator and supporter, rolled over and went to sleep.

Marie lay awake a little longer.  He did need her, she knew that.  He certainly would never have managed to get through his life without someone to organise the practical things.  This was not the collaboration she had wanted, but at least she was close to the work that really mattered.

Still, Marie felt that Louis had the better part of the collaboration.  He would design the experiments, test the hypotheses, write the papers and teach his students – she would raise his children, nurse his patients, transcribe his notes, and, if she was very lucky, sort his silkworm larvae.  Louis would be remembered as the father of modern medicine – Marie only as the mother of his children.

She might be a necessary part of the work, but she would never share it.  At best, she would see it indirectly, filtered through Louis’ notes and his conversation. Their roles were as asymmetric as Louis’ crystals.

“I wish,” he had told her when he proposed,  “that between us, with us, there will be nothing but our love, our children, their upbringing, their future, along with my dreams of science.”

At the time, Marie had found it romantic.  She had imagined a future at his side, sharing both the work of the household and the life of the mind.  It had sounded like a paradise.  Remembering it now, she realised that she had not listened carefully enough.  She had been blinded by her dreams, but Louis had been nothing more than honest with her.

There was love between them, and children, too, and their upbringing, and Louis had his dreams of science.

His dreams of science.

Never hers.

M0015646 Microscope used by Pasteur Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Microscope used by Pasteur during his experiments on spontaneous generation. By Nachet et Fils, Paris. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Women’s Work

‘She loved her husband so much that she learned to understand his work’ – Emile Roux, on Mme Pasteur

A woman’s work is to look after her husband.

A woman’s work is to manage the household.

A woman’s work is to raise her husband’s children.

Dry eyed, Marie lay in bed, staring into the darkness. Beside her, her husband slept the deep sleep of the emotionally exhausted. Louis had been away when Cécile died, working on his precious silkworms. Not that it was fair to blame him for his absence – Cécile had been doing so well when he came to see her, and the relapse had been brutally sudden.

But he did blame himself, and Marie couldn’t help but blame him a little too.

The house was silent. Seven-year-old Marie Louise had cried herself to sleep hours ago. Even Jean-Baptiste, shocked out of his fourteen-year-old sullenness, had excused himself, suspiciously red-eyed, and gone to bed early.

She should probably check on them both anyway. It wasn’t as though she could sleep, yet. The final hours of Cécile’s illness were still imprinted on her eyeballs, visible, almost tangible, whenever Marie closed her eyes. Typhoid. Her poor, dead darling.

Her poor dead darlings.

Carefully, not wanting to disturb Louis, Marie climbed out of bed and reached for her robe.

She ought to have grieving down to an art form by now. Her youngest child, her baby Camile, had died of a tumour only a year ago. Nothing that anyone could have done, they said, and Marie was inclined to believe them.

But Camile was not the first. Jeanne, her oldest, so full of questions at nine, had succumbed to typhoid too, seven years ago. Another near-recovery followed by a sudden, fatal relapse. Another death with Louis not at the deathbed… but Louis had taken Jean-Baptiste on an outing as a reward for his good behaviour while his mother had been so busy with Camile, so Marie could not blame him for that. Nor did she have the heart to wish him and Jean-Baptiste present in those final, terrible moments.


Marie looked in on each remaining child, but both were sleeping peacefully. Good. She flicked a glance back towards the marital chamber, but no sound emerged. Louis was asleep still.  She hesitated, then shook her head.  There was no point in trying to sleep tonight.

Instead, she continued on into the sitting room. Their apartment was not big enough for Louis to have a study, so his microscope sat out on a shelf here, along with his books and writing materials. The children knew not to touch that shelf, but there was nothing to stop Marie from doing so.

She lifted the microscope carefully down. Louis had shown her how to use it years ago, mostly, she suspected, so that she could better appreciate his genius. And only recently he had told the silkworm farmers how easy it would be to select the best cocoons using the microscope: “A woman, even a child can take care of it”, he had explained, having first tested this theory on little Marie-Louise.

A woman’s work is to support her husband’s.

Very well then. She had inscribed enough of her husband’s letters, listened to enough of his lectures over the years to understand the process. The first step was to identify the bacterium, and she certainly knew where to start looking for it. While most of Cécile’s things had been burned, and her sheets sterilised, Marie had laid one nightgown aside, the one Cécile had been wearing when she seemed to recover. A last memory of her daughter smiling.

No time to cry, and still less for sentiment. Marie had kept the nightgown secreted away from the rest of the family, and had washed her hands scrupulously after touching it. There was a small patch of blood near the neckline, where Cécile’s nose had suddenly begun to bleed. In retrospect, that had probably been an early sign of the relapse that was about to come.

Carefully, Marie snipped away the stained cloth. For good measure, she snipped away another section, where Cécile had sweated as the fever rose.

The rest of the nightgown was folded carefully, and put away. She might need another sample later, if the first two yielded nothing of use. Marie washed her hands again, and returned to the microscope.

Identify the bacterium, then isolate it. Then find a way to attenuate its strength, so that the body could learn to recognise the infection and eliminate it efficiently, without being destroyed by its own attempts to fight the disease. Marie bit her lip, remembering the terrible gastric cramping that had shaken Cécile’s body, the awful weakness that left her too exhausted to swallow the water she so desperately craved, her cries of terror at the hallucinations the fever brought.

Marie shook her head, dismissing the memories, and sat down at the microscope. This was no time to indulge in grief.

A woman’s work is to protect her children. She had done her best, and it had not been enough.

This time, it would be.

A woman’s work is never done.

M0015646 Microscope used by Pasteur Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Microscope used by Pasteur during his experiments on spontaneous generation. By Nachet et Fils, Paris. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


‘My love to you and to science forever’ – from Louis Pasteur’s letters to his wife

“Come to dinner this week. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Marie smiled. Emile Roux had always been her favourite of Louis’ protegés. The young doctor had a friendly charm that made an excellent foil for Louis’ single-minded intensity. And he did good work – his discovery of the diptheria anti-toxin had been impressive, and would undoubtedly save lives.

But his most endearing trait, at least from Marie’s perspective, was that he had always, from the very first day, recognised the importance of what she did. He had viewed her as a collaborator and a vital part of Louis’ support team, and while he did not revere her as he did Louis, he had never undervalued her intelligence. A good, kind man.

And so, even though Emile’s apartment was cold, and Marie was really far too old to go gadding about at night, she ventured out to meet the nice young couple who were making a name for themselves in the field of chemistry.

It had been a long time since chemistry was Louis’ focus – the last years of his life had been devoted to infectious diseases, as he tried to assuage his grief over the deaths of their children – but it was pleasant to sit at dinner, watching and listening as theories were discussed, ideas proposed and rejected, the arguments unmarred by any sense of rivalry or political considerations.

And she liked them. Marya had such intensity and focus, and Marie loved the way her hands moved, making graceful shapes in the air when she spoke of the eerie beauty of radiation, of elements that glowed faintly in the darkness, like fairy lights, as they decayed. And then there was Pierre, no less brilliant than his wife, but somehow gentler, less sharp-edged. Marie liked the way he sat back when Marya spoke, listening with a slight, proud smile on his face, content to let her hold the floor. She had no doubt that it was Marya who led the way in their research, while Pierre assisted and refined and added his own insights. She rather thought, too, that it was Marya who spoke her mind and was oblivious to all but the science around her, while Pierre soothed egos, and ensured that their findings were not ignored by those who would not have listened to scientific lectures from a woman, and a Polish one at that.

Pierre, she thought, would have made an excellent scientific wife.

After they left, Emile helped her into the hired carriage that would take her back to her apartments at her husband’s Institute. “And what did you think of our young friends?” he asked.

“They seem like lovely young people. Very polite to my age and lack of scientific qualifications, too.”

“Louis Pasteur’s widow can hardly said to be unqualified when it comes to science,” he said.

Marie waved a hand, dismissively. “I can see why you wanted me to meet them, however. Young Marya is very much like Louis, is she not?”

Emile seemed taken aback. “You think Mme Curie is like Louis?”

She patted his hand. “Of course she is. That fire, that focus, that absolute passion for her work. Pierre is a wise man, to have shifted his research from crystals to uranium metals. Louis never looked at me the way Marya looks at him. She is in love with science first, and Pierre second, and it’s not every man who would embrace his rival so kindly.”

Emile was silent for a long moment. He appeared to be thinking new, and not entirely welcome, thoughts. “You think it is Mme Curie who leads their work?”

“My dear, of course it is. Were you not listening? In any case, I lived with the disease at close quarters for more than forty years. I assure you, I can recognise the symptoms of scientific obsession when I see them. Pierre is infected, certainly, but it is Marya who is the vector.”

She let Emile help her into the carriage and close the door, then rolled down the window. “Thank you for a most enjoyable evening, my dear Dr. Roux. I like your friends very much.”

He nodded, still thoughtful. “Madame Pasteur, it never occurred to me to ask this, but… did you ever wish to study the natural sciences formally?”

Marie shrugged a little. “Perhaps once. But you forget, I lived with a most virulent case of scientific obsession for years, and was never infected. I suspect I never had the true capacity for it. Or the time.” She thought of years of household management, of Louis-management, of her grown children and of the three young ones she had lost. Time, indeed. But Roux didn’t need to know that. Instead, she smiled at him. “Indeed, you might say that I underwent a full course of inoculation by living with Louis – small pieces of scientific work in its most attenuated form, doled out slowly, day by day. When it comes to scientific obsession, I am immune.”

She rolled up the window, and tapped the roof, indicating that the carriage could depart, then leaned back against the seats of the hired vehicle, closing her eyes. She saw Marya again, in her mind’s eye, gesticulating as she flatly contradicted one of Pierre’s suggestions. A fascinating young woman, who would no doubt go far.

Marie sighed. It wasn’t that she envied Marya her work, exactly, but that focus, that certainty that her work was the best and right and only thing she could be doing was very appealing.

Marie thought of fairy lights, glowing in the darkness.  She thought of arguments which she understood, but in which she never had the confidence to take part, and she thought of Louis’ microscope, and the tiny, unknown worlds into which it was a window.  Worlds now locked away from her forever, as Louis’ microscope was locked away, a precious relic in a glass cabinet at the Institute that bore his name.

She thought of Louis and his obsession, of Marya and hers, of Roux, and even of Pierre, and she thought of all they had learned, and all they had still to learn.

Marie might laugh and call it a disease, but in the quiet darkness of the carriage, she could admit to herself that she would have welcomed the infection.

M0015646 Microscope used by Pasteur Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Microscope used by Pasteur during his experiments on spontaneous generation. By Nachet et Fils, Paris. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0



Pasteur is a station in the 15th arondissement, just down the road from the Pasteur Institute. Both are named for Louis Pasteur, the 19th century chemist and microbiologist who discovered the principles of vaccination, fermentation, and pasteurization, and provided direct support for the germ theory of disease. Among his many accomplishments, he created the first vaccine for rabies, and reduced mortality from puerperal fever (then known as childbed fever), one of the leading causes of post-partum death in the 19th century, by encouraging doctors to wash and sterilise their hands before surgery.

One of his more fascinating experiments disproved the theory of ‘spontaneous generation’, which was the idea that moulds and other organisms were generated by the the things they were growing on.  He did this by showing that if you sealed broth in a flask, nothing would grow in it until the flask was opened to the outside, thus demonstrating that whatever was growing must have an outside source and was in fact feeding on the broth rather than emanating from it.

Vaccines were as contentious an idea in the 19th century as they are now, though for different reasons, and there was a fair bit of public fear that vaccinations actually caused people to be infected by the disease.  This was not an unreasonable fear, as the earliest vaccines were not always sufficiently attenuated to be harmless.  Pasteur made several public demonstrations, including a demonstration of the anthrax disease, in which sheep were vaccinated and then exposed to anthrax.  The demonstration lasted five days, and the vaccinated animals all survived, where the unvaccinated ones succumbed.

If you are interested in learning more about Pasteur, there is a very enjoyable biography by Patrice Debré, which quotes quite extensively from his letters and the letters of his wife, Marie, and gives an interesting and rounded picture of the man.

Madame Pasteur

When I first started reading about Pasteur, I came across some intriguing references to his wife, Marie Anne Laurent Pasteur, acting as his amanuensis or secretary when writing scientific papers, working on the care and sorting of silkworms, and nursing patients with rabies.  After Pasteur was semi-paralysed by a stroke, she was noted as one of the main supports in his work at that time.  There were even some quotes (which I have used as story introductions) from Pasteur’s friend and colleague, Émile Roux, referring to her as his ‘best collaborator’.  I was intrigued by this, especially given the tendency, in the 19th century, for the scientific work of wives to be credited entirely to their husbands.  Women could not present scientific lectures publicly (even fifty years later, Pierre Curie presented all the work done by himself and Marie), and their work was seen as a subset of their husband’s in any case.

In the case of Marie Pasteur, the prevailing narrative is that she learned to understand a little science because she was in love with her husband.  But Marie was the daughter of the Rector of Strasbourg University – it’s possible that she had an interest in science all along, and married Pasteur because assisting him and helping him write up his papers was as close as she was likely to get to a scientific career.  Pasteur asked for Marie’s hand in marriage only a few weeks after meeting her – I like to think that he was intrigued by her intelligence.

I have no evidence that Mme Pasteur ever met the Curies, but Émile Roux, who headed the Pasteur Institute after Louis’ death offered Marie Curie a position at the Institute after Pierre Curie died.  He certainly knew both women, and it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that he might have introduced them.

Of the three little stories I’ve written (which can be viewed as glimpses into three possible lives, or three episodes in a single life), the only one that is certainly untrue is the one about the typhoid vaccine. While the Pasteurs did lose two daughters to typhoid, and Cécile’s death in 1866 was what prompted Louis Pasteur’s shift in research focus towards infectious diseases, Pasteur never worked on typhoid himself (and nor, obviously, did Marie).  The typhoid bacteria was isolated in 1880 by Karl Eberth, and an effective vaccine was finally created by Almroth Edward Wright in 1896, one year after Pasteur’s death.

The image I have used is the Microscope used by Pasteur during his experiments on spontaneous generation.  The photograph is from Nachet et Fils, Paris, and is in the public domain, available from WikiCommons.


Sèvres-Lecourbe fleur67bleft Pasteur fleur67bright Montparnasse-Bienvenue
Volontaires fleur12left Pasteur fleur12right Falguière

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *