Born some 200 years ago in Dole, Franche-Comté, world-famous chemist Louis Pasteur returned regularly to his native Jura. Gillian Thornton headed east to find out more.
As someone who loves both history and houses, I’ve always found it hard to resist a period property with a personality attached. But few have left such a lasting impression on me as the house of Louis Pasteur at Arbois in Franche-Comté. Full of atmosphere and personal artefacts, it feels as though the great man has just popped out for a baguette and could return at any moment.
Nestled up against Switzerland in the foothills of the Jura mountains, Arbois is a tranquil small town surrounded by a lush landscape of rolling pastures and vineyards. Not at all the place where you would expect to find a home-laboratory for a man who made some of the most important scientific findings of the age. Of any age. Now, 200 years after his birth, there are thought to be more French streets named after Louis Pasteur than any other public figure. So what exactly did he do?
To those of us with a sketchy grasp of science, the technicalities of Pasteur’s achievements can be hard to understand, especially when it comes to his first big discovery, molecular asymmetry. But it’s not hard to appreciate the difference his findings made to a 19th century society that understood little about the causes of disease in plants, animals and humans. Pasteur was to change all that.
The story of Louis Pasteur
The story begins in Dole where Louis was born on 27 December 1882, the son of a tanner who had been decorated during the Napoleonic Wars. Two centuries later, the genius from the Jura has been celebrated throughout 2022 with exhibitions, scientific workshops and family activities across his native area and beyond.
But you can get close to this amazing man at any time. From February to November, the two properties most closely associated with the scientist and his family are open to the public, key sites on a self-drive Route Pasteur.
When Louis was four, the family moved to Arbois, 35 Km from Dole, where he attended the local primary school before moving to secondary school in nearby Besançon. In 1845, he was awarded a science degree in Paris and from then on, Pasteur focussed on a career on scientific research and teaching.
The discovery of Pasteurisation
At the age of just 31, Pasteur was appointed Dean of the Science Faculty at Lille University where he began to study fermentation. He spent several years studying both the beneficial and harmful effects of microbes on foodstuffs, applying his findings to the contamination problems that beset the French wine and beer industries. And in 1862, he came up with a revolutionary process to kill off bad microbes. Named pasteurization in his honour, it has been applied to milk and a wide range of other foods ever since.
One discovery led to another. By 1866, Pasteur and his wife Marie had lost three of their five children – two to typhoid fever and one from a liver tumour. Diseases, he realised, were caused by germs, and from 1867, Pasteur promoted the sterilization of surgical instruments and the importance of cleaning wounds that soon produced radical improvements in public health. He also addressed the disease crisis in the French silk industry and identified the organisms responsible for contaminating silkworms. But there was still work to be done. During the anthrax epidemic of the 1870s, Pasteur turned his attention to immunology, coming up with vaccines for both anthrax and rabies.
Louis Pasteur’s health declined steadily after a stroke in 1894 and he died a year later on 28 September 1895 in Paris, where he had lived with his wife for the last seven years. At her request, he was buried in a crypt beneath the Pasteur Institute, founded by him in 1888 for research into infectious diseases, his tomb surrounded by Byzantine-style mosaics that honour his many discoveries.
But step inside Pasteur’s front door in Dole or in Arbois and you are instantly transported back two centuries to a world before modern medicine to meet a man whose curiosity and determination changed all our lives for the better. The very least we can do is name roads after him.
Dole: Visit Pasteur’s birthplace close to the banks of the Doubs and the canal that linked the former tanneries. Follow the brass plates in the pavement of a perched cat – Le Circuit du Chat Perché – for 4Km to discover the hidden treasures of this charming Art & History town, capital of the Comté region in the 15th century. Doletourisme.fr
Arbois: Centre of the Jura winemaking industry, Arbois was home to the Pasteur family from 1823; visit at your own pace with a tablet, ‘guided’ by his nephew. Walk the Circuit Pasteur; indulge yourself with handmade chocolates from Maison Hirsinger; and explore the vineyards and hiking trails of the local Coeur du Jura area. coeurdujura-tourisme.com
Gillian Thornton is a writer who specialises in France and lifestyle.