Nonlethal Heroes Needed


Recently, on my favorite television channel, Turner Classic Movies, I saw a couple of old biopics. One was about French chemist Louis Pasteur, and the other was about Paul Ehrlich, a German scientist.

They reminded me of how poisoned our culture has become. Hollywood’s idea of heroes today are soldiers, cops, psychopaths or comic-book fantasy characters — all essentially killers. Yet Pasteur and Ehrlich did more for the human race and saved more lives than all the generals who have ever been born.

Pasteur, from whose name the verb "pasteurize" comes, fought a lonely battle trying to convince physicians that most diseases were caused by microbes. He was ridiculed and eventually run out of Paris for publicly warning that unless physicians boiled their instruments and washed their hands, they risked killing their patients.

That, at least, is the movie version, which demonstrates that Old Hollywood knew how to make even lab work exciting. Pasteur later was acclaimed for devising vaccines that protected sheep from anthrax and could prevent humans bitten by rabid animals from dying of hydrophobia.

I wonder how the bigmouths in politics who decided to campaign against all things French when France refused to join us in the war against Iraq handled the fact that we and everyone else owe so much to that French chemist. Our children can drink milk without fear of contracting tuberculosis. A bite from a rabid animal is no longer a death sentence. Anthrax, which used to devastate agriculture, has become rare. And today, the entire medical and scientific professions recognize the role that microbes play in human diseases.

Ehrlich was a pioneer in chemotherapy. After helping to develop a serum that cured diphtheria, he became convinced that chemicals could be used to combat the microbes that caused disease. He eventually developed a compound that successfully treated syphilis.

Both movies detail the struggles of these pioneers against skeptics in the Establishment. Scientists, as one of them pointed out, are scientists for only a few hours a day. The rest of the time they are human beings and consequently can quickly convert their beliefs into dogma and, like the medieval church, view new knowledge and new ideas as heresy. It’s difficult to imagine respected physicians scoffing at the idea of washing their hands and sterilizing their instruments, but it happened. They scoffed at the idea that most diseases were caused by microbes. For years sea captains had been reporting that crewmen sick with scurvy were cured when they landed and were able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, yet for years the British medical establishment dismissed the idea that diet played any part at all in scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency).

I believe we are seeing that today with the evolutionists, who react with rage to the idea of intelligent design, despite the obvious flaws in the evolutionary theory. Rather than examining the idea of intelligent design with an open mind, they attack it.

My point is that surely America’s massive entertainment industry could find some heroes who are benefiting human beings instead of killing them. Granted, it will require some creative people to make a film exciting without special effects, armies of stuntmen and gallons of fake blood.

Paul Muni, the actor who played Pasteur, said the greatest compliment he received was not the Academy Award but when a mother told him that after seeing the movie, her son asked for a microscope. That’s a heck of a lot better than a kid asking for a gun or a sword.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.