Lessons in the Meaning of Work and Life from the World’s Hardest Working Scientist

He wanted to live forever so he could cure every disease, was called “mediocre” by one of his professors, and once cried while embracing a dying patient.

Louis Pasteur – known the world over for removing bacteria from milk and other liquids and foods to make them safe for human consumption (known as “pasteurization”) – worked hard to save more lives than any other scientist in history.

Today, Pasteur’s commitment to helping humanity carries valuable lessons in career advancement, relentless determination, and the meaning of work and life – in a modern world where meaning is so desperately sought.

“One does not ask those who suffer: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, that is enough for me.”

To Louis Pasteur, work was all about helping others, regardless of who they were. Today, no matter what we do for a living – we can, and should, make the welfare of others a career objective. Psychologists are finding that depressed people can acquire relief by putting the focus, not on themselves, but assisting others. The drudgery of work and its apparent meaningless can be replaced by something as simple as a friendly smile or word of encouragement, to lift the spirit of co-workers and customers alike.

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.”

Pasteur was not regarded as particularly intelligent or gifted. Nor did he view himself that way. He did, however, believe in the power of discipline. Pasteur worked to a fault – devoting all his time to research, experimentation and finding results. Today, millions spend countless hours on entertainment while complaining of career stagnation. They seek the easy path to an easy life. But tenacity – dogged single-minded pursuit, wins the day.

Meaningful work, and the sense of well being that accompanies it, comes with sacrifice.

“Do not let yourself be tainted with a barren skepticism.”

We all question at one time or another whether our work is really helping anyone. “What’s the point?” we may ask. Management has a responsibility to emphasize the “why” of work and cultivate a culture of purpose. How does each job, and the organization as a whole, help our communities, the planet and the enrichment of lives?

Each of us has a responsibility too, to carve out our own personal objectives in making a difference. For Louis Pasteur, that difference was finding cures to disease.

What Pasteur learned, and what many of us today need to understand, is that a meaningful life is not about happiness, but rather – earned happiness. And happiness may not always be the result. A sense of self-worth – knowing we are important – is as valid as “happiness”, perhaps even more so. Pasteur, as he worked like a maniac in his laboratory was not always happy. But he had the knowledge that he was making a difference.

In the 1800’s, as he worked on a vaccine for rabies, Louis Pasteur kept a gun in his laboratory.

The gun wasn’t there to kill rabid animals. Pasteur sent out the order that anyone working in the laboratory bitten by a sick animal was to be immediately shot in the head.

Determined to find a solution to the dreaded disease, Pasteur decided he would inject himself with rabies – risking his own life – to put his cure to the test. (One observer reported that Pasteur foolishly consumed a small amount of saliva from a sick dog to obtain a sample). Before Pasteur went too far in deliberately infecting himself, an 8-year old boy bitten 14 times by a rabid dog was brought before him. Pasteur’s vaccine saved the boy’s life, and has been saving lives ever since.

There was one case where Pasteur’s vaccine did not work – on a 10 year old girl who was too advanced in the disease. Pasteur held the girl tightly in his arms and watched her die, crying before her parents: “I so wish I could have saved your little one.”

Louis Pasteur, compassionate and caring, was so dedicated. it’s believed he had to be pulled away from his laboratory in order to attend his own wedding.

This amazing scientist created the first laboratory-developed vaccine, giving birth to a range of vaccines that would go on to save the lives of 10 million people worldwide each year.

Pasteur, perhaps naively, believed that one day all wars would come to an end as people devote themselves to making life better. He once remarked that he had a great deal of respect for children because of “what they may become.”

As he grew older, Pasteur wished he could stop time – not for selfish reasons – but to cure more diseases. His workaholic ways led to a series of strokes, one of which killed him at the age of 73 in 1895.

Today, people are realizing, as Pasteur did, that seeking materialistic things can leave us unfulfilled and work against developing a purposeful life. The spirit of Louis Pasteur lives on, urging each one of us to put meaning back into our work and our lives.

French chemist Louis (pronounced Loo-ee) Pasteur was deeply religious, praying daily in his laboratory to find cures. He believed in “infinity” and said that science was a way to bring people closer to God. Over a century after his death, he is still fighting infectious diseases through the foundation he created in 1887: The Pasteur Foundation. Scientists working for the Foundation hold over 500 patents and have been awarded 10 Nobel prizes, according to the Foundation’s web site. Pasteur is widely recognized as the founder of modern medicine.

This story is one of many to be featured in the new upcoming book I am writing called “Life Lessons from History’s Oddballs” to be available as both an e-book and printed publication on amazon and elsewhere. 

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