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Is it true that while developing the vaccine for rabies Louis Pasteur kept a gun in his laboratory and had instructed all his lab assistants to shoot anyone in the head who accidentally got infected with the virus?

I could only find this in a Reddit and a Facebook post. Is there any trustable source to verify this fact?

Other places making the claim:

  1. A University of Bristol article: How rabies taught us about autoimmunity

The work was so dangerous that the assistants kept a loaded gun in the room so that, should a terrible accident happen, they could end it all then, rather than suffer death from rabies.

  1. A review of the book Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (Authors Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy)

The risk of losing control of these animals loomed large, but the bullets in the revolver weren’t intended for the dogs. Rather, if one of the assistants was bitten, his colleagues were under orders to shoot him in the head.

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  • Another source.
    – JRE
    Jun 25 at 10:27
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    Both of those merely repeat the claim. They provide no proof. They are both intended only to prove that the claim is notable. One is from a university site, the other is from a book review site.
    – JRE
    Jun 25 at 10:38
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    There's no rush to blow your brains out after a rabies exposure. It takes days for infection to start, and weeks to kill you. It's a weird idea, even if true.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 25 at 15:03
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    @fredsbend It might've been more of a psychological tool. You put that gun there, you tell your people what it's for, they'll understand how serious the situation is, and they'll be extra careful about everything they do. The gun doesn't even have to be loaded, really. Just its visible presence in the room is a constant reminder that this is a dangerous thing to be doing, so you better keep alert and ultra-prepared at all times to prevent any tragic mishaps. Jun 25 at 20:10
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The story appears to be mostly true. It was told by the niece of one of the men who participated in the early experiments.

Note that these experiments were before there was even an experimental vaccine. They are still working on getting samples of the rabies virus. Any exposure to the rabies virus would have been a death sentence for the exposed person. It would have been a painful, protracted death, with a chance of infecting someone else along the way - friend, co-worker, or family.

The story is quoted in the Louis Pasteur biography by Patrice Debré.

From page 430, the author quoting from Dr. Roux's niece, Marie Cressac:

enter image description here

Dr. Roux's niece, Marie Cressac, has described the atmosphere of the first experiments:

[Roux], Chamberland, and Thuillier bent down around a table. A large dog was tied down on it, its muscles contracted and its fangs bared... If the animal, despite all the precautions, had caused them to make a false move, if one of them had cut himself with his scalpel, and if a small piece of the rabid spinal cord had penetrated into the cut, there would have been weeks and weeks filled with the anguished question: will he or will he not come down with rabies?... At the beginning of each session, a loaded revolver was placed within their reach. If a terrible accident were to happen to one of them, the more courageous of the two others would put a bullet in his head.... They were no longer just "researchers" absorbed in the meticulous work of their laboratory; they were pioneers, adventurers of science.

There is a reference number (15) to a footnote that unfortunately isn't available in the online copy of the book. That footnote would presumably give a more accurate source for the quote.


Note: "Mostly true." The story as it is repeated around the internet mentions Pasteur himself keeping the gun at hand. The quote from those involved don't mention Pasteur actually having the gun in hand. It is all about his assistants who actually handle the infected animals.

I can't find anything that says that Pasteur himself really ever touched the weapon or was involved with it in any way.

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  • Is this the footnote? (p524) books.google.de/…
    – Richard
    Jun 25 at 17:57
  • @Richard: It might be, but I can't find a copy of the referenced book online.
    – JRE
    Jun 25 at 18:43
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    Shouldn't we be skeptical of the content of the quote itself? It says that, if there were an accident, "there would have been weeks and weeks filled with the anguished question: will he or will he not come down with rabies?" I.e., the quote indicates it wasn't not known whether an accidental exposure would lead to rabies. Thus the quote isn't saying the gun was there to avoid prolonged suffering followed by certain death. It's saying the gun was there to avoid the uncertainty of possible death. Is it reasonable to believe they would shoot someone just to avoid uncertainty? Seems hyperbolic.
    – theorist
    Jun 27 at 2:44
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    @theorist: More believable would be that the gun was to kill the dog if it somehow got loose.
    – Brian
    Jun 28 at 19:23
  • so the thirdhand story from someone who was a child at the time recalled decades later, totally reliable.
    – John
    Jul 23 at 18:03

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