The Story of Louis Pasteur

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The Story of Louis Pasteur
The Story of Louis Pasteur poster.jpg
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Henry Blanke
Written by Pierre Collings
Sheridan Gibney
Starring Paul Muni
Josephine Hutchinson
Anita Louise
Donald Woods
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • February 22, 1936 (1936-02-22)
Running time
87 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Story of Louis Pasteur is a 1936 American black-and-white biographical film from Warner Bros., produced by Henry Blanke, directed by William Dieterle, that stars Josephine Hutchinson, Anita Louise and Donald Woods, and Paul Muni as the renowned scientist who developed major advances in microbiology, which revolutionized agriculture and medicine. The film's screenplay—which tells a highly fictionalized version of Pasteur’s life—was written by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney, and Edward Chodorov (uncredited).


Muni won an Academy Award for Best Actor, while Collings and Gibney won for Best Screenplay and Best Story. The film was nominated for Best Picture.

Muni also won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor from the Venice Film Festival in 1936.


In Paris in 1860, a distraught man murders his wife's doctor. Chemist Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni) has been publicizing a theory that diseases are caused by microbes, which doctors should avoid spreading by washing their hands and sterilizing their instruments in boiling water. The doctor did not do this and the wife died of puerperal fever after giving birth.

Pasteur is dismissed by France's medical academyparticularly his most vocal critic, Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber Sr.)as a crank whose recommendations are tantamount to witchcraft. Pasteur frankly calls attention to the risks of Charbonnet's non-sterile methods and correctly predicts that a member of Napoleon III's royal family who Charbonnet is attending will die of puerperal fever, but Pasteur is the one who is considered dangerous, because his ideas have led to murder. When the Emperor comes down against him, Pasteur leaves Paris and moves to the small town of Arbois.

In the 1870s, when the new French government tries to restore the economy after the Franco-Prussian War, they learn that many sheep are dying of anthrax, except around Arbois. They send representatives who learn that, working with a small group of loyal researchers, Pasteur has developed a vaccine against the disease and put it into use locally.

The medical academy still opposes him and says Arbois must simply be free of anthrax, so the government buys land there and invites sheep farmers to use it. Pasteur objects strongly, saying the soil is full of anthrax spores, and eventually an experiment is proposed. He will vaccinate 25 of the newly arrived sheep; then they and a control group of 25 others will be injected with blood from a sheep with anthrax.

Joseph Lister (Halliwell Hobbes), the pioneer of antiseptic surgery in England, is interested enough to attend, and witnesses Pasteur's total success as all the vaccinated sheep remain healthy after the other 25 have died. At this point Jean Martel (Donald Woods), a young doctor who was formerly Charbonnet's assistant but now is a follower of Pasteur, becomes engaged to Pasteur's daughter Annette (Anita Louise).

The celebrations are short-lived, as a rabid dog runs through the town and a man is bitten. As a woman attempts to cure him by witchcraft, Pasteur laments that doctors would have no more chance of success. Moving back to Paris, he makes rabies his next project. He is able to spread the disease from one animal to another by injection, but finds himself unable to detect any microbe being transferred (viruses had not yet been discovered), and the method he used to create the anthrax vaccine does not work.

Charbonnet visits the lab to gloat over Pasteur's failure. He is so certain Pasteur is a quack that he injects himself with rabiesand is triumphant, as he does not get the disease. Pasteur is puzzled, until his wife Marie (Josephine Hutchinson) suggests that the sample may have gotten weak with age. This sets him on the right path at last, giving dogs a series of progressively stronger injections.

But before his experiments reach a conclusion, a frantic mother begs him to try his untested treatment on her son (Dickie Moore), who has been bitten by a rabid dog. Risking imprisonment or even execution, Pasteur decides he must try to save the child. During the attempt, a Dr. Zaranoff (Akim Tamiroff) arrives from Russia with a group of peasants who have been exposed to rabies, and who have volunteered to receive Pasteur's treatment.

Annette goes into labor with Martel's child. The doctor who was to attend her is unavailable, and Martel is urgently needed for the boy. Pasteur searches frantically for another doctor, but the only one he can find is none other than Charbonnet. He begs Charbonnet to wash his hands and sterilize his instruments just this once; Charbonnet finally agrees on condition that if Charbonnet lives another month, Pasteur will retract and denounce all his work on rabies. Both men are honorable enough to respect the agreement. The birth goes well, but Pasteur collapses with a mild stroke.

Days later, word comes that Pasteur has permission to treat those of the Russians who are still alive. He attends them in hospital for the first injections using a wheelchair, and later using a cane. The experiment is a success, and now even Charbonnet concedes that he was wrong, tearing up Pasteur's retraction and asking for the shots for himself.

Afterwards, Pasteur hears that he is to be denounced by Lister at the medical academy. He angrily attends, but it was just a way to surprise him. He is praised by Lister, presented with a Russian medal by Zaranoff, and honored by the very doctors who once scoffed at his discoveries.


Reception and accolades

Writing for The Spectator in 1936, Graham Greene gave the film a good review, describing it as "an honest, interesting and well-made picture". Characterizing Paul Muni as "the greatest living actor" and as a "Protean figure", Greene asserts that Muni's depiction of Pasteur is accomplished "with his whole body [to establish] not only the bourgeois, the elderly, the stubborn and bitter and noble little chemist, but his nationality and even his period." [1]

The film and lead character were nominated for two of the American Film Institute's lists:

Radio adaptations

Paul Muni reprised his role in two radio play versions of the film: the November 23, 1936 episode of Lux Radio Theater and the April 13, 1946 episode of Academy Award Theater .

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  1. Greene, Graham (3 July 1936). "Fury/The Story of Louis Pasteur". The Spectator . (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome . pp.  85–86. ISBN   0192812866.)
  2. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  3. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.