Speech by Adrien Proust
Delegate from L'Académie de Médecine1

   In this town of Chartres where all epochs are in some way superimposed, from the fabled crypt of the Black Madonna which is nothing less than the ancient sanctuary of the Carnutes where druids came to pray, to its cathedral that sets out in the middle of the plains of the Beauce the sculpted encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, it has been your wish that our own age too comes to leave, however modest it may be, a visible trace of its endeavours, as a testament to our faith. It was not your wish to aspire to a comparative monument a few paces away from one whose beauty has never been surpassed and in all likelihood never will be, but nevertheless it has been your wish to accomplish an appropriate commemoration.
   You could not have succeeded better in this than with this charming, moving and profound composition, scholarly twice over, one might say, through the scholarly artistry with which it has been conceived, and by the artistic science with which it has been realized.
   The memory that it is here to establish, the event that it recounts - there are few greater. Because if you really think about it, it is here on the same fields of Chartres that one of the greatest victories in modern science was achieved, one of the greatest victories without tears, which in its peaceful way assured humanity of ultimate conquest.
   It is in this very spot that Pasteur made a discovery, the truth of which was in some ways greater than the object to which it was applied, extending immediately beyond those animals affected by anthrax that were the preoccupation only of farmers, to all of suffering humanity, which is not to say, alas, that humanity has become cured, but that each day at least humanity is spared more and more.
   And more than any other Pasteur came to associate himself to our Academy to which he never failed to deliver bulletins on his work, the bulletins of his victory. He communicated his remarkable notes which testified in incontrovertible facts the whole extent of the progress accomplished in his study of anthrax.
   At the present time we now see only the results gained. It is as if we have scarcely retained the memory of the obstacles overcome, the bitter struggles that Pasteur had to engage in at every step forward on the new path. There is cause here to stress the revolution accomplished in medicine following on from the work done on anthrax where we find in origin all the progress that has been achieved subsequently in all branches of medicine.
   Pasteur showed us that there is no infectious disease born of spontaneous generation. This is the fundamental point. There is no doubt that from time immemorial we have had a marked tendency to attribute the origin of infectious diseases to an animate contagion, to lower organisms, living as parasites in the infected subjects.
   Leeuwenhoek's discovery of infusoria seemed to give a serious foundation to these simple opinions, and the parasitic doctrine was accepted unreservedly by Kircher, Lancisi, Réaumur and Linnaeus. This doctrine fell almost totally into disrepute when the astonishing research carried out by Pasteur on fermentation came to introduce into the problem a new and decisive element. He demonstrated that atmospheric air is the receptacle for an infinite quantity of living germs which, by their very active proliferation and multiplication, determine the phenomena of fermentation and putrefaction.
   From there the idea that infections and contagious diseases in humans are themselves merely zymoses was only a step away. We know that cholera can only derive from the cholera germ, that plague only ever issues from plague, that yellow fever always requires the introduction of yellow fever. Now that we no longer accept the simplistic origin of all these diseases, now that we apply ourselves to precise and specific concepts, the better we are able to prevent these diseases and protect ourselves against their propagation.
   On the other hand, without our committed classification of pathogenic microbes, serotherapy would not have seen the light of day. The discovery of attenuated viruses and their usage as vaccinations against rabies, anthrax and other diseases demonstrates the pioneering role that Pasteur played in these new therapeutics that were born of his doctrines.
   We have all read, gentlemen, accounts of the plague in the Middle Ages, which, in six or seven years, carried off eighty million souls in Europe, between a quarter and a third of its probable population.
   In Italy, and particularly in Florence where suspicions that the plague was propagated by witchcraft took on such immense proportions, committees were formed to denounce the imagined guilty parties upon whom the judges were cruel enough to inflict torture.
   So, we have now seen, in 1898, the plague imported into Vienna, in the centre of Europe, in a hospital where more than a thousand patients were confined, and immediately localized, so that it carried off no more than two or three victims.
   This abrupt termination of a developing epidemic is the direct consequence of Pasteur's work.
   And the benefit of this discovery is universally at the foundation of every aspect of medicine, up to the very diagnosis of the clinician for whom today a sample of the patient's sputum is sufficient to confirm tuberculosis, or some samples of matter to recognize that he has been struck with cholera; and has gone so far as sanitary hygiene which has been able to replace, thanks to him, the draconian prescriptions of the past with measures that are both effective and merciful.
   But just now I was evoking for you the memory of that encyclopedia in sculpture and paint from the Middle Ages which is the cathedral of the beautiful town that welcomes us today. I cannot help thinking, gentlemen, that in the XIIth century and even at the start of the XIIIth century, among the seven liberal arts, otherwise known as the sciences, medicine was not included.2 On the portals, in the stained-glass windows of our most ancient cathedrals you can easily make out geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, philology, but medicine is nowhere to be found.
   And it is only a little later, in the middle of the XIIIth century that you see it appear on the portal of Reims cathedral, holding up to its eye a vial in which it is carefully examining the urine of a sick person.
   On the other hand, on the portal of Chartres you will see an individual called Magus, the magician who symbolizes alchemy, hermetical study, vanquisher of evil, who grovels on his knees, and to whom this little statue was erected out of the gratitude of the men that he had preserved or saved.
   It is with a no less brotherly sentiment nor with any less religious gratitude that we offer today his statue to the good magician who has delivered humanity from the scourges that were thought to be invincible and who has given hope to hopeless invalids that one day they will be cured, and that one day the microbe that causes their illness will be discovered.
   Gentlemen, I was speaking to you a moment ago about the deadly plague in Florence. At that time as we have seen, it was believed that the plague was spread by disseminators who maintained pestiferous unguents in vast laboratories that they were going to diffuse everywhere. Well! scientific progress which has caused so many strange imaginings of the ancient past to leave the realm of miracles and make them enter the realm of reality, appears also to have realized this superstition that belongs to an era of naivety, but by changing its character of witchcraft to the good, like those poisons that medicine has turned into remedies. There is no doubt that it was not only in the imaginations of men of the Middle Ages that there existed laboratories in which plague germs were cultivated; today they exist in reality; the mysterious source is indeed cultivated there, but it is no longer destined to wage war against humanity, but to cure it and even to prevent the outbreak of disease. Pasteur, gentlemen, was the ingenious creator of these beneficial laboratories for which Humanity and Science will always observe an eternal gratitude.

1. This speech was delivered at Chartres, Sunday 7 June 1903. It is not inconceivable that Marcel Proust was responsible for some parts of the text, especially the passages about Chartres cathedral. At the time he was busy with his Ruskin translations.

2. In the Middle Ages there were seven liberal arts comprising the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectics), followed by the quadrivium, comprising the mathematical arts (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy). It is curious to note that Dr Proust, or his son, omitted rhetoric, dialectic and arithmetic. On the other hand he mentions philology, which did not figure in it.


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Created 14.06.17