Tales from the crypt: The mosaic symbolism of Louis Pasteur’s tomb

Abigail Cline
Augusta, Georgia (Winter 2018)


Louis Pasteur’s tomb at the Pasteur Institute

Hidden behind the Montparnasse Railway Station is the elegant brick and stone building of the Pasteur Institute. Since its opening in 1887, the Pasteur Institute has been on the front line in the battle against infectious disease. Consisting of research departments studying everything from neuroscience to genomics to epidemiology, the Institute has made major breakthroughs in the control and cure of diphtheria, influenza, yellow fever, plague, poliomyelitis, tetanus, and tuberculosis.1 The Institute continues to live up to its namesake having not only housed ten Nobel laureates, but also being the first to isolate HIV in 1983.2 The maze of cutting-edge laboratories is juxtaposed against a Louis XIII-style apartment where Louis Pasteur and his wife lived during the last seven years of his life. This residence-turned-museum displays over 1,000 scientific antiques, including microscopes, crystals, and one legendary swan-neck flask.3

Perhaps the most magnificent tribute to the illustrious scientist rests underneath the Institute. Pasteur’s remains are not housed in the Pantheon alongside so many of France’s luminaries, but in a private crypt beneath his former apartment. His widow refused the government’s plan to bury him in the Pantheon, insisting that his resting place should be in his beloved Institute. The crypt was originally a cellar used as storage for medical equipment until Pasteur’s son commissioned some of the greatest craftsmen of the Art Nouveau era to build this stunning sepulcher.3 Architect Charles Girault drafted plans for a vault modeled after the bejeweled tomb of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, which Pasteur had visited during his travels in Italy.4 Painter Luc-Olivier Merson covered the walls with images, laying the foundation for the mosaic work. The mosaics, in turn, were executed by renowned artisan Auguste Guilbert-Martin, who, like Pasteur, had trained as a chemist. The result of this collaboration was a masterpiece of neo-Byzantine design: radiant gold mosaics adorning the crypt’s ceiling and walls, honoring each of Pasteur’s landmark discoveries.

Throughout the mausoleum, mosaics depict blossoming tendrils of hops and grapevines, alluding to Pasteur’s early studies of fermentation. While a professor of chemistry and dean of science faculty at the University of Lille, a student’s father sought his advice on alcohol souring at a local distillery.5 Pasteur showed that fermentation was not, as previously proposed, caused by decomposition, but that live yeasts produced alcohol from sugar, thus giving rise to the germ theory of fermentation. These studies led to the surprising finding that exposing yeast to air would arrest fermentation, a process known today as the Pasteur Effect. Pasteur further reasoned that specific microbes produced fermentation under anaerobic conditions. He readily applied this research to the French wine and beer industries, saving them from impending collapse due to production problems and contamination during export. At Emperor Napoleon III’s request, Pasteur further studied how to prevent wine spoilage. He found that by heating the wine to 50–60 °C (120–140 °F), he could kill any microbes that might cause contamination, a process now known universally as pasteurization.6

Among the images of vines are those of mulberry trees, speckled with silkworms and moths. Having assisted France’s vintners and brewers, the nation’s silkworm farmers sought Pasteur’s help. Since 1853, a mysterious disease had attacked French silkworm nurseries, causing huge losses. Although initially knowing nothing about silkworms, Pasteur became an expert in their breeding and cultivation, developing a system to prevent disease spread and guard healthy silkworm eggs against contamination.5 Within a few years, he had saved the silk industry with a method that is still used today. The study of silkworms was Pasteur’s first exposure to the secret battle against infectious diseases that would later become the focus of his research.

A mosaic of viridian- and ivory-colored fowl in a lush countryside alludes to Pasteur’s first important discovery in the study of vaccination. In 1879 Pasteur began his investigation into the disease known as chicken cholera, or avian pasteurellosis. While isolating and growing Pasteurella multocida in culture, one of his samples spoiled and failed to induce the disease in some chickens he was purposefully infecting. Thereafter, Pasteur found he was unable to infect these still-healthy chickens, even with fresh bacteria. Pasteur discovered that when cultures of chicken cholera lost their pathogenicity, the weakened bacteria produced in chickens a resistance to the fully virulent strain.7 From this breakthrough, Pasteur would direct all his research to the promise of immunization.

Docile sheep grazing in a pasture are the focus of the next mosaic and of Pasteur’s next endeavor. An anthrax epidemic had swept through France and other parts of Europe, killing a large number of sheep. Pasteur sought to apply the principle of vaccination to anthrax. He cultivated the bacillus from the blood of infected animals and determined that growing anthrax bacilli at 42 °C made them unable to produce spores.8 In 1881, after seeing Pasteur present his findings, veterinarian Hippolyte Rossignol challenged Pasteur to test his vaccine. The trial involved twenty-five farm animals, including sheep, goats, and cows. The vaccination group received from low-virulence cultures, while the control group received nothing. Two weeks after these inoculations, both the vaccinated and control sheep were exposed to a virulent strain of anthrax. Within a few days all the control sheep died, whereas all the vaccinated animals survived.8 The experiment was a success.

With the success of his anthrax vaccination, Pasteur became a pioneer in the field of infectious pathology. The idea of a weak disease granting immunity to the more virulent version was not new. It had long been known that inoculation with smallpox resulted in less severe disease and greatly reduced mortality compared to naturally acquiring the disease. In the late 1790’s, English surgeon Edward Jenner studied vaccination using cowpox to give cross-immunity to smallpox, which spread vaccination to most of Europe.8 However, the difference between smallpox vaccination and vaccination against anthrax or chicken cholera was that the latter two had been artificially weakened. Therefore, a naturally occurring weakened form of the disease organism did not need to be found. This discovery revolutionized work in infectious diseases. Pasteur gave these artificially weakened diseases the generic name of “vaccines” in honor of Jenner’s discovery.5 It is said that Edward Jenner discovered vaccination and that Pasteur invented vaccines.

Almost ninety years after Jenner initiated immunization against smallpox, Pasteur developed another vaccine.8 The last three mosaics tell this story of Pasteur’s investigations into one of the deadliest infections: rabies. Rabies was a dreaded and horrible disease that was viewed as a death sentence to whomever was unfortunate enough to be bitten. In the first mosaic, a rabid dog foaming at the mouth is chained to a stake while two helpless dogs look on. In the second, a young man fearlessly muzzles a rabid dog with a piece of rope, straining to avoid the deadly bite. Finally, albino rabbits merrily hop in a verdant field. Conquering rabies would be Pasteur’s final endeavor. Pasteur produced the first vaccine for rabies by growing the virus in rabbits. To weaken the virus, Pasteur dried the spinal cords of infected animals until the preparation became almost nonvirulent.9 He discovered that instead of creating an attenuated form of the agent, his treatment had actually killed it. Consequently, Pasteur had not produced attenuated live microorganisms, but rather a neutralized agent. This opened the way for the development of a second class of vaccines, known as inactivated vaccines.

Pasteur tested the vaccine on fifty dogs before the first human trial. In 1885 nine-year-old Joseph Meister was rushed to Pasteur after being mauled by a rabid dog. Meister’s parents begged him to treat their son; however, Pasteur was not a licensed physician and could face prosecution for treating the boy.10 With the innocent boy facing near-certain death, Pasteur decided to go ahead with treatment. Young Meister entered medical history, becoming Louis Pasteur’s first human patient to be treated and saved by a rabies vaccine. Pasteur’s vaccine was hailed as a success, and people flocked to his laboratory to be inoculated.

The treatment’s success laid the foundation not only for the manufacturing of many other vaccines, but also the Pasteur Institute itself. In 1887 fundraising began for an institute dedicated to “the treatment of rabies according to the method developed by M. Pasteur” and “the study of virulent and contagious diseases.”2 Today the Pasteur Institute currently encompasses thirty-two institutes in twenty-nine countries across the world.1

The story of Joseph Meister and the rabies vaccine has an interesting postscript directly tied to the crypt. In 1940, fifty-five years after his life was saved, Meister was the gatekeeper at the Pasteur Institute. The legend goes that when German forces invaded Paris that year, soldiers arrived at the institute demanding access to Pasteur’s tomb. Rather than surrender his savior’s resting place to the Nazis, the sixty-four-year-old Meister killed himself.10 This story, though apocryphal, underscores the legacy of Louis Pasteur and the grandeur of his resting-place. It is fitting that Pasteur’s tomb stands where his successors carry on his great work, and where students from all parts of the world may be reminded of his tireless devotion to science for the benefit of humanity.



  1. The Institut Pasteur International Network. https://www.pasteur.fr/en/institut-pasteur/institut-pasteur-throughout-world/institut-pasteur-international-network. Accessed January 5, 2018.
  2. Our History. https://www.pasteur.fr/en/institut-pasteur/history. Accessed January 5, 2018.
  3. Pasteur Museum, Crypt and Institute – Paris. Travel France Online 2017; https://www.travelfranceonline.com/pasteur-museum-crypt-institute-paris/. Accessed January 5, 2018.
  4. THE TOMB OF LOUIS PASTEUR. The Lancet.149(3828):129.
  5. Vallery-Radot R. The Life of Pasteur. McClure, Phillips; 1902.
  6. Debré P. Louis Pasteur. Johns Hopkins University Press; 2000.
  7. Dixon B. The hundred years of Louis Pasteur. New Scientist. 1980(1221):30-32.
  8. Bazin H. Vaccinations: a History: From Lady Montagu to Jenner and genetic engineering. John Libbey Eurotext; 2011.
  9. Schwartz M. The life and works of Louis Pasteur. J Appl Microbiol. 2001;91(4):597-601.
  10. Dufour HD, Carroll SB. History: Great myths die hard. Nature. 2013;502(7469):32-33.


ABIGAIL CLINE is an intern at the Medical College of Georgia. She grew up in Atlanta, earning her bachelor’s degree in Latin at Wake Forest University, her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Georgia, and her MD at the Medical College of Georgia. Her research and clinical interests are in translational and academic medicine, bioethics, and dermatology. She is currently seeking a dermatology residency following her preliminary year. She lives in Augusta, Georgia with husband, Hunter Appler.
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