Louis Pasteur Vs. Robert Koch

These two gentlemen are Robert Koch (left) and Louis Pasteur (right), and although they’re sadly not known in history for having very nice beards, they are widely known for being two of the most influential figures in the field of microbiology


Louis Pasteur is best known in microbiology for the discovery that germs and bacteria cause rotting and disease rather than what scientists believed a long time ago, which was that bacteria and germs appear on the object/person because of rotting and disease, or a “spontaneous generation”, rather than a cause for the disease. But his greatest achievement would be his pasteurization method (invented in 1860’s, France), a heat-treatment process that kills harmful bacteria and viruses in foods and drinks like wine, beer, and milk.


Meanwhile, Robert Koch is known for discovering the anthrax disease cycle, and for the bacteria that causes tuberculosis and cholera. He received a Nobel prize for medicine in 1905.


To answer the question you probably have right now: Why are we talking about them?, well, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, besides their recognized achievements, were also known to have had a rivalry in their field of work.


Summer 1881: both Pasteur and Koch attended the Seventh National Medical Congress held in London, Koch had a demonstration there and afterwards, Pasteur complimented him on his work. Although they had a friendly meeting, a few months after the Medical Congress, Koch and his students published articles that criticised Pasteur on his experiments, accusing him of having “contaminated” bacterium cultures and making mistakes in his vaccine studies. Koch also stated that; 


Of these conclusions of Pasteur on the etiology of anthrax, there is little which is new, and that which is new is erroneous. . . Up to now, Pasteur’s work on anthrax has led to nothing, ( “Pasteur-Koch: Distinctive Ways of Thinking About Infectious Diseases” ).


*In this quote, Koch is essentially that in Pasteur’s work on Anthrax there’s nothing that is new, and anything new in his studies is wrong.


Now that was bad, but they weren’t fully enemies yet.


In Geneva, in September 1882. at the fourth International Congress of Hygiene and Demography, Pasteur presented a speech on reducing severity of diseases and vaccination, and Pasteur talked about Koch’s work in his speech as “recueil allemand,” which is French for “a collection of German works”.


Now, Koch and Pasteur are both from different countries. Koch from Germany, and Pasteur from France. They did NOT understand each other at all, which is why they needed a translator.

However, by accident, the translator who was translating Pasteur’s French speech for Koch accidentally translated “recueil allemand,” a collection of German works, into “orgueil allemand,” which means German arrogance. 


Do keep in mind that these series of events occurred after the German-Franco war of 1780, which means that tensions between Germany and France was practically a teetering tower, waiting to fall, and in that time Germany and France were also locked in the scramble for Africa, in which countries in Europe tried to colonise African and Asian territories, this meant that Koch saw this accident as a great insult to both his country and his pride.

On Pasteur’s side, he remained blissfully unaware of the translation fault that had taken place, until Koch unleashed his fury in a newspaper response to Pasteur’s “insult”, Koch’s reply was a long heated and emotional letter, in which Koch reviewed Pasteur’s microbiological achievements and said this;

. . . Concerning inoculation against anthrax, all what we heard was some completely useless data,” “he [Pasteur] is not even a physician,” and “all this material served only as a vehicle for a violent polemic directed against me, ( “Pasteur-Koch: Distinctive Ways of Thinking About Infectious Diseases” )

*In Pasteur’s speech, all he (Koch) heard was useless data, Pasteur wasn’t even a physician and that all of his research was just a way to violently insult Koch.


Pasteur, seeing this article, shot back by criticising the honorary degree that Koch had received from the university of Bonn, Germany.

With Pasteur and Koch pegged against each other, they both raced to be the first to invent a vaccine for the cholera epidemic at the time, a race which Koch won.

Soon after, the last encounter they had was in 1885 when Pasteur published his work on Rabies vaccination, because of this, Koch went against the use of vaccines and attempted to play down the importance of Pasteur’s findings. Yet only a few years later Koch used Pasteur’s work to create a similar vaccine against rabies.

If you were expecting more to the rivalry, sadly this is where the story ends.The Pasteur-Koch rivalry: a prime example that scientists can get into petty fights like the rest of us plebeians.

Though their feud was bitter and mostly caused by their country’s political standings, it greatly benefited the world through the development of new vaccination technology which helped to cure and stop many diseases and outbreaks, and their research continues to be relevant to the microbiology field to this day in the fight against HIV, AIDS and other modern-day diseases. 




Ullmann, Agnes. “Louis Pasteur.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 July 2017, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-Pasteur


Stevenson, Lloyd Grenfell. “Robert Koch.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Mar. 2017, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Koch.


The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Pasteurization.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Jan. 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/pasteurization.


The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Spontaneous Generation.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Mar. 2011, http://www.britannica.com/science/spontaneous-generation.


Asmadmin.  American Society for Microbiology, http://www.asm.org/index.php/component/content/article/114-unknown/unknown/4469-pasteur-koch-distinctive-ways-of-thinking-about-infectious-diseases.

Hoovler, Evan. “9 Thrilling Stories of Real Super-Scientists Who Were Arch-Enemies.” Syfy, SYFY WIRE, 16 June 2017, http://www.syfy.com/syfywire/9-thrilling-stories-real-super-scientists-who-were-arch-enemies.


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