Beyond History Blog

Rabbits and Rabies or The Story of Joseph Meister

Andrea Bentschneider - 28. September 2015 - Anniversary, Family, General, Historical Events, Personalities, Professions

Early on the 4th July 1885, the baker Joseph Meister sent his son of the same name to the next village to get yeast from the brewery there. When young Joseph entered the village center, he was attacked by a dog and bitten into his hand and his legs. Some villagers who had witnessed the incident came to hunt away the dog and wash the boy’s wounds with water from the village well. Then they gave him a coin to make him feel better. Little did they know the little boy would make history as the first person successfully vaccinated against rabies!

The vaccine came from no one less than Louis Pasteur himself. Pasteur had developed a serum and successfully tested it on dogs, which made newspaper headlines everywhere. Through these headlines the news made it to Joseph Meister’s parents who rushed to Paris with their boy to look for Pasteur. After several dozen injections and a month of waiting, Louis Pasteur was sure that Joseph had not developed rabies. The two of them stayed in touch as long as they lived.

Louis Pasteur’s success had a huge impact on the demystification of the rabies. Their transmission through wolves and dogs had led to werewolf beliefs and in the Middle Ages, the devil himself was made responsible for the fatal illness. Before Pasteur’s vaccine there was close to nothing people could do to help themselves against it but religious or magic rituals like the carrying of charms or prayers to Holy Hubertus, the patron saint against rabies.

On today’s World Rabies Day we can look back on the history of rabies and be glad that medicine today is so developed – back then Joseph Meister was injected the spinal marrow of rabies-infected rabbits.

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