Who is Joseph Meister

Most people know the big names in the history of vaccines.

They know that Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine (1798) and that both Jonas Salk (1955) and Albert Sabin (1960s) developed polio vaccines.

Many other important names are forgotten though.

Ever heard of James Phipps? He was the 8-year-old boy who was the first to become inoculated with cowpox by Jenner to see if it would protect him from smallpox.

Who is Joseph Meister

Edward Jenner didn’t go out of his way to experiment on Joseph Meister, but he has a similar story.

A plaque honors Joseph Meister and Louis Pasteur in the Alsace region of France.
A plaque honors Joseph Meister and Louis Pasteur in the Alsace region of France.

In 1885, Louis Pasteur had been working on an attenuated (weakened) rabies vaccine in his lab in Paris, but had still not tested it on any human patients yet.

One hot July morning in 1885, feverish little Joseph Meister was dragged by his frantic mother through the streets of Paris in search of an unknown scientist who, according to rumors, could prevent rabies. For nine-year-old Joseph had been bitten in 14 places by a huge, mad dog and in a desperate attempt to cheat death, his mother had fled from their home town in Alsace to Paris. Early in the afternoon Mme Meister met a young physician in a hospital. “You mean Pasteur,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”

Time magazine 1939

Supervised by two doctors, Dr. Alfred Vulpian and Dr. Jacques-Joseph Grancher, Joseph Meister received the first of 14 doses of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine on July 6, 1885, two days after he was bitten.

Joseph Meister survived and became the first person to be successfully vaccinated against rabies.

“As the death of this child appeared inevitable, I decided, not without deep and severe unease, as one can well imagine, to try on Joseph Meister the procedure which had consistently worked in dogs.”

Louis Pasteur

So at about the same time as anti-vaccine folks were marching in Leicester, Joseph Meister’s mother traveled over 400km to see a doctor she didn’t know, to get her son an experimental vaccine that had never even been used on a person before.

News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur's rabies vaccine made the front page of the New York Times.
News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur’s rabies vaccine made it into the New York Times.

Her son was lucky that she did.

It saved his life.

A few months later, a teenager named Jean-Baptiste Jupille was bitten by a rabid dog as he saved six other children that were being attacked. He became the second person to receive Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and he too lived.

Soon, Pasteur was a hero and many people were seeking his rabies vaccine from all over the world.

In December 1885, six boys from Newark, New Jersey were bitten by a rabid dog and there were calls to send them to Paris to be treated by Pasteur. Donations were collected and four of the boys ended up going on the steamship Canada to Paris.

While that trip to Paris generated some controversy, as some later doubted that the dog had rabies, there is no doubt that Pasteur’s rabies vaccine saved a lot of lives.

Few people survived having rabies in the pre-vaccine era.
Few people survived having rabies in the pre-vaccine era.

Why were folks in Newark, and apparently everywhere else, so afraid of rabies?

It had only been a few months earlier, about the time that Joseph Meister was being successfully vaccinated in Paris, that newspapers were reporting about “the terrible death” of a 5-year-old in Newark “after suffering the most intense agony.”

He had rabies.

Even if news of that case wasn’t fresh on their minds, it is easy to see that rabies wasn’t something you survived.

It should come as no surprise that there were soon rabies treatment clinics in major cities all over the world using Pasteur’s vaccine.

What to Know About Joseph Meister

At about the same time as anti-vaccine folks were marching in Leicester, Joseph Meister’s mother traveled over 400km to see a doctor she didn’t know, to get her son an experimental vaccine that had never been used on a person before – to save him from rabies.

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