Biography of Louis Pasteur, French Biologist and Chemist

Portrait of Louis Pasteur in his laboratory

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Louis Pasteur (December 27, 1822–September 28, 1895) was a French biologist and chemist whose breakthrough discoveries into the causes and prevention of disease ushered in the modern era of medicine.

Fast Facts: Louis Pasteur

  • Known For: Discovered pasteurization, studies of anthrax, rabies, improved medical techniques
  • Born: December 27, 1822 in Dole, France
  • Parents: Jean-Joseph Pasteur and Jeanne-Etiennette Roqui
  • Died: September 28, 1895 in Paris, France
  • Education: Collège Royal at Besancon (BA, 1842; BSc 1842), Ecole Normale Supérieure (MSc, 1845; Ph.D. 1847)
  • Spouse: Marie Laurent (1826–1910, m. May 29, 1849)
  • Children: Jeanne (1850–1859), Jean Baptiste (1851–1908), Cécile (1853–1866), Marie Louise (1858–1934), Camille (1863–1865)

Early Life

Louis Pasteur was born December 27, 1822 in Dole, France, into a Catholic family. He was the third child and only son of poorly educated tanner Jean-Joseph Pasteur and his wife Jeanne-Etiennette Roqui. He attended primary school when he was 9 years old, and at that time he didn't show any particular interest in the sciences. He was, however, quite a good artist.

In 1839, he was accepted to the Collège Royal at Besancon, from which he graduated with both a BA and a BSc in 1842 with honors in physics, mathematics, Latin, and drawing, gaining. He later attended the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure to study physics and chemistry, specializing in crystals, and obtaining the French equivalents of an MSc (1845) and a Ph.D. (1847). He served briefly as a professor of physics at the Lycee in Dijon, and later became a professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg.

Marriage and Family

It was at the University of Strasbourg that Pasteur met Marie Laurent, the daughter of the university's rector; she would become Louis' secretary and writing assistant. The couple married on May 29, 1849, and had five children: Jeanne (1850–1859), Jean Baptiste (1851–1908), Cécile (1853–1866), Marie Louise (1858–1934), and Camille (1863–1865). Only two of his children survived to adulthood: the other three died of typhoid fever, perhaps leading to Pasteur's drive to save people from disease. 


Over the course of his career, Pasteur conducted research that ushered in the modern era of medicine and science. Thanks to his discoveries, people could now live longer and healthier lives. His early work with the wine growers of France, in which he developed a way to pasteurize and kill germs as part of the fermentation process, meant that all kinds of liquids could now be safely brought to market—wine, milk, and even beer. He was even granted U.S. patent 135,245 for "Improvement in Brewing Beer and Ale Pasteurization." 

Additional accomplishments included his discovery of a cure for a certain disease that affected silkworms, which was a tremendous boon to the textile industry. He also found cures for chicken cholera, anthrax in sheep, and rabies in humans.

The Pasteur Institute

In 1857, Pasteur moved to Paris, where he took up a series of professorships. Personally, Pasteur lost three of his own children to typhoid during this period, and in 1868, he suffered a debilitating stroke, which left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life.

He opened the Pasteur Institute in 1888, with the stated purpose of the treatment of rabies and the study of virulent and contagious diseases. The Institute pioneered studies in microbiology, and held the first-ever class in the new discipline in 1889. Starting in 1891, Pasteur began to open other Institutes throughout Europe to advance his ideas. Today, there are 32 Pasteur institutes or hospitals in 29 countries throughout the world.

The Germ Theory of Disease

During Louis Pasteur's lifetime it was not easy for him to convince others of his ideas, which were controversial in their time but are considered absolutely correct today. Pasteur fought to convince surgeons that germs existed and that they were the cause of disease, not "bad air," the prevailing theory up to that point. Furthermore, he insisted that germs could be spread via human contact and even medical instruments, and that killing germs through pasteurization and sterilization was imperative to preventing the spread of disease.

In addition, Pasteur advanced the study of virology. His work with rabies led him to realize that weak forms of disease could be used as an "immunization" against stronger forms. 

Famous Quotes

"Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind."

"Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world."


A few historians disagree with the accepted wisdom regarding Pasteur's discoveries. At the centennial of the biologist's death in 1995, a historian specializing in science, Gerald L. Geison (1943–2001), published a book analyzing Pasteur's private notebooks, which had only been made public about a decade earlier. In "The Private Science of Louis Pasteur," Geison asserted that Pasteur had given misleading accounts about many of his important discoveries. Still, other critics labeled him a fraud.


Louis Pasteur continued to work at the Pasteur Institute until June 1895, when he retired because of his increasing illness. He died on September 28, 1895, after suffering multiple strokes.


Pasteur was complicated: inconsistencies and misrepresentations identified by Geison in Pasteur's notebooks show that he was not just an experimenter, but a powerful combatant, orator, and writer, who did distort facts to sway opinions and promote himself and his causes. Nevertheless, his accomplishments were tremendous—in particular his anthrax and rabies studies, the importance of handwashing and sterilization in surgery, and most importantly, ushering in the era of the vaccine. These accomplishments continue to inspire and cure millions of people.


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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Louis Pasteur, French Biologist and Chemist." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). Biography of Louis Pasteur, French Biologist and Chemist. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Louis Pasteur, French Biologist and Chemist." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).