Louis Pasteur: From Portrait Painter to Medical Saviour

Medium | 1 December 2019

“Louis Pasteur” by Albert Edelfelt, dated 1885 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

A gifted artist, Pasteur had wanted to teach painting; instead, he proved microbes cause disease and showed the world how to stop them. His work led to the salvation of millions.


by Wilson da Silva


LOUIS PASTEUR NEVER REALLY wanted to study science: in fact, he had long harboured the dream of being an artist. Yet he went on to change medical and veterinary science, his experiments establishing the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurisation and revolutionising the way disease was treated.


The shy but precocious Frenchman was born in 1822 to Jeanne-Ettiennette Roqui and Jean Joseph Pasteur, a modest family of tanners in the French town of Dôle, north of Lyon, the second of four children. Throughout his life he remained fiercely proud of his agrarian heritage, and liked to visit the beech forests, vineyards and alpine pastures of his youth when he could.

Art critic Durand Gréville praised the accuracy and honesty of Pasteur’s work, remarking in 1888: “If he had wanted to, he would have held his own among the painters and — who knows? — become a very great painter.”

As a child, Pasteur enjoyed drawing, rendering sketches of engravings he saw in books in charcoal and pencil. When he began school in Arbois, his teacher commented on his talent and encouraged it. He expanded his skills to pastel portraits, using friends, his parents and three sisters as models. He had a classicism of line and a cold precision of observation that earned him recognition in art circles around the Franche-Comté region, near the border with Switzerland.


Had he not gone into science, he might have risen to prominence as a painter; the French art critic Durand Gréville praised the accuracy and honesty of his paintings, remarking in 1888: “If he had wanted to, he would have held his own among the painters and — who knows? — become a very great painter.”


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