Some Preliminary Thoughts

Poking at the Myth of Pasteur

Happy spring everyone!

Spring break came and went quicker than I could imagine, and I'm facing down the home stretch. As I lean more on my instrumental-only Pandora stations to do my focused work, I find I've exhausted the variety Pandora's able to throw at me (or maybe just found the bottom of some algorithmic funnel) so if you have any uptempo instrumental or non-Anglophone music (English lyrics lead me to typos) you've been enjoying lately, I'd love to hear your recommendations.

We were surprised earlier this month when it was reported that Vox Media, Marina's employer, banks with Silicon Valley Bank. Or I should say banked: days after we (along with millions of other Americans) learned of the existence of SVB, it had been dissolved by the Feds in the biggest bank failure since 2008. Marina's salary is safe, thanks in part to what may or may not have been a bailout (it depends on who you ask), but which is definitely a reminder that our current bank system privatizes profits while making the public pick up the downside risk. I'm not a fan of that!

In lighter news, we've been spending a lot of time at Jardin, Madison's first full-service all-vegan restaurant. My friend's parents, omnivores visiting from New York City, told us it was not only the best food they had in Madison, but better than any food they'd had in New York for a long time. Out-of-town friends, take note (and come visit)!

Here's some thoughts on Louis Pasteur and Biography as a genre, other interesting things I've read this week (including a piece by Marina out today), and a recipe for Jamaican curry tacos.

The book:

Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. Princeton University Press, 1995.

As I review some books I read all the way back in June in anticipation of my upcoming exams, I've discovered a few fully-fleshed-out book reviews that I wrote (I had ambitions of doing this for every book I read, but that quickly fell by the wayside). Here's one of them, lightly edited, about a book that takes the interesting approach of returning to Louis Pasteur's lab notebooks to uncover how he really went about making himself a great scientist.

Pasteur is best known for his work in microbiology, including early inoculations against anthrax (in animals) and rabies (in humans), but was also an outspoken French nationalist (and hero to the French since), which motivated his work in improving medicine, agriculture, and industrial chemistry. His early work on the chemistry of fermentation in France's industrial north led him to believe that chirality (molecular asymmetry) and life were intimately, even metaphysically, linked.

Louis Pasteur in his lab

Louis Pasteur in his lab (Britannica Kids, via Wikimedia)

The Private Science of Louis Pasteur is a strong, and strongly revisionist, biography, revealing the necessity and weakness both of revisionism and of biography. With meticulous examination of Louis Pasteur’s notebooks, reconstructing his work in his time as perhaps no-one else but Pasteur could do, Geison calls for introducing a soupçon of fraud and deception into the heretofore hagiographic accounts of Pasteur’s life. Geison acknowledges that explicit focus on “exceptional” moments of fraud, deception, and omission may make an unfair account of a “great scientist” (10). But these experiments, including the anthrax inoculation demonstration at Pouilly-le-Fort and the experiments leading up to the miraculous cure of Joseph Meister’s rabies, were literally crucial (in the sense of Newton’s Experimentum crusis1)to Pasteur’s career, his science, and his myth. Geison thus believes (and I agree) that letting some air out of these events is a worthy goal.

The book succeeds in doing this. But in its fascination with the intrinsic case study of Pasteur, it encounters the pitfalls of many a case study of an intrinsically interesting phenomenon or person. Though self-consciously written in the context of other lab notebook studies by other historians Grmek, Holmes, and others, the book fails to generalize what lab notebooks can tell us, instead presenting a singular story of a singular man, and reifying the concept of a singular “great scientist” even as it tries to redefine it.

The bulk of the empirical work is split into two sections, the first dealing with the connections Pasteur drew between crystalline asymmetry and the “vital phenomenon” of life, and the second dealing with his public campaigns to produce and administer vaccines for rabies and anthrax. From the first chapter of the former, “From Crystals to Life,” we already see Pasteur’s talent for performance or scientific storytelling in the way he wrote the influence of the organic chemist Auguste Laurent out of his discovery of paratartarate’s racemic properties (that is, that it was a combination of two asymmetric molecules, mirror images of each other, which crystalized separately2). We also see that his “preconceived ideas” about the relationships between fermentation, spontaneous generation, and the cosmic asymmetric force (he believed the fundamental difference between living and dead chemistry was that only the former could produce asymmetric molecules, e.g. producing one mirror image of a molecule like paratartarate more often than the other) were occasionally more important than the applied and empirical concerns ascribed to Pasteur by his hagiographers.

If Pasteur was less objective and more genre-savvy in his early years as a chemist and fermentation scientist, his entry into immunology was bracketed by what can only be described as outright deception. He led the public to believe (and they did, for decades, despite his nephew’s testimony to the contrary) that the vaccine employed in the famous anthrax trials at Pouilly-le-Fort was made from rabies virus attenuated by exposure to oxygen, not potassium bichromate as was actually used. And the animal experiments he cited to justify his treatment of Joseph Meister3 with desiccated rabid spinal cords were theoretically and methodologically quite different from how he presented them, (or, depending on your interpretation, simply not yet done) when Meister was treated. Geison explores and explains these lapses by seeking to understand the course of both Pasteur’s experiments and of critiques of his work during the crucial years of 1880-1885.4

Joseph Meister

Joseph Meister, who was successfully inoculated against rabies using Pasteur's vaccine in 1885, and would grow up to serve as caretaker of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, living to age 64. [via Wikimedia]

This book is an interesting endeavor. It’s a biography whose core argument is about biography and who writes it, a case study that does little to generalize, but instead treats Pasteur as intrinsically interesting. (Though indeed he is!) To the tradition of Pastorian hagiography, the book adds important correctives not only about what it is that a “great scientist” like Pasteur actually does to achieve greatness, but also about where his ideas came from — often ideas generated a priori in Pasteur’s mind, standing in the way of rather than aiding to empiricism. Students of the broader period will also appreciate the connections Geison draws between chemistry and physiology, both in the through-line that Pasteur himself draws between racemic chemistry and the germ theory of fermentation, and in the chemistry of the immunological milieu that Pasteur associated with immunity. The book is less useful to students of the sociology of science, though they will appreciate Geison’s exploration of Pasteur’s reflexive, theatrical flair. In the end, biographies, and their focus on the interiority of a single exceptional person, make rich but limited sociologies, and Geison fails to escape this trap in his continued insistence that Pasteur is a singularly “great scientist.” In the end, a book so strongly defined by its critique of hagiography cannot escape Pasteur’s shadow.

What I'm reading around the Web

New Projection: U.S. Pedestrian Deaths Rise Yet Again in First Half of 2022 [Governors Highway Safety Association] Over the past ten years, pedestrian deaths in the first half of the year skyrocketed from 2,141 in 2013 to 3,434 in 2022 – a 60% increase, or more than 200 additional deaths per month.

Survivors of Utah’s eugenic sterilization program still alive in 2023 [University of Utah] This sobering reminder of the still-present harms of eugenic sterilization comes from my cousin Eliza, who points out that disability, like femininity and gender nonconformity, is still a target for policies taking away people's medical rights. As she said in her interview for this story last year on how forced sterilization still happens in Utah (and 30 other states): "I know that depending on where I live, ... I legally have less rights to my body [than] my able-bodied male spouse." This has a deep impact on where disabled folks feel safe to live, which Eliza told me "is traumatizing considering that population has the least amount of portability or resources to move to 'safer' places."

How to Take Back Control of What You Read on the Internet [Yair Rosenberg/The Atlantic] “Though the Internet’s creative output deserves our attention, social-media companies do not. When the primary way we read online is filtered through the algorithms of capricious corporations that can change what we see on a whim, both writers and readers suffer. RSS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Denied by AI: How Medicare Advantage plans use algorithms to cut off care for seniors in need [Casey Ross & Bob Herman/STAT News] This one's pay-walled but you can hear an interview with co-author Bob Herman here from WBUR.

A scientific salad for astronauts in deep space [Tom Metcalffe/Astronomy] A salad of "soybeans, poppy seeds, barley, kale, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and sweet potatoes" sounds like something I or any other vegan would throw together from what's left over in their fridge and pantry, but now when I do that I can feel ✨futuristic🚀.

Stories written or edited by Marina!

On Friday, after nearly six hours of deliberation, two animal rights activists facing misdemeanor theft charges were acquitted by a California jury. The alleged crime — which the activists freely admitted to — involved taking two sick, slaughter-bound chickens from Foster Farms, one of the biggest poultry companies in the US. Prosecutors called it stealing, but the defendants, Alicia Santurio and Alexandra Paul, both members of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), called it a rescue.

The Recipe: Jamaican curry tacos


With pineapple, pickled carrots, guac & tomatoes!

Once again, the recipe doesn't exist online (I adapted the "unpork" from Miyoko Schinner's The Homemade Vegan Pantry and the flavors from Make It Dairy Free's Jamaican lentil curry). So here's a PDF of the recipe:

Download PDF

DIY seitan is surprisingly easy, cheap, and versatile–the vital wheat gluten we make it from is a pantry staple for us, since you can turn it into taco grounds one day, steak the next, and burgers the day after that!

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  4. It's worth noting these allegations of deception have not gone unchallenged:↩

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