On a Petty Scientist

Unfair. Combative. Competitive to the point of belittling enemies and isolating friends. Arrogant. Inflexible. Vain. Petty.

Hardly a glowing recommendation for anyone. Yet, we all know the man these words were used to describe, even if those words would make you think he was a terrible person, hated by society and his peers. This man, however, wanted the public to love him and appreciate him. He spent a good deal of his life trying desperately to gain public acclaim and notoriety. He achieved it, ultimately, and loved the spotlight when he got it.

At the same time, paradoxically, he insisted on keeping his work a secret; one biographer described him as, “a secretive and deceptive brute.” As an old man, he instructed his family to not make his notebooks public after his death. Part of the reason for this secrecy was that the work he was doing was in the medical research realm. While there is nothing wrong with that, this man understood that ideas and concepts had value, and he was loathe to share credit—or money—with almost anyone.

Besides, it wouldn’t do for people to hear that he was conducting medical experiments on animals and humans without a medical license or without any real medical training to speak of.

You might think that this man was a charlatan, but you’d be wrong. He was completely legitimate in his work and research. But to practice medicine without a license is never a good idea, even if one were successful in research and treatment. So, on one level, his insistence on secrecy is understandable.

The other reason for his secrecy was that he sometimes faced charges of plagiarism in his work. True, some of those accusations came about through professional jealousy—we all know instances of professional people who cannot stand to have someone they consider to be an amateur become successful—but some of the accusations we know today to be legitimate. He did indeed “borrow” liberally from some of the work of others and even close colleagues. Perhaps you read that sentence, and you might think he was not a legitimate researcher.

On the other hand, this man was indeed a degreed physicist and chemist despite not being a good student as a child. So, it was not correct to say that he was not a scientist. His most important research—and this research was legitimately his—is rightly internationally recognized and appreciated today.

In fact, if you had cereal for breakfast this morning, you have been touched by him.

We have even named the method of making milk safe after this arrogant, vain, jealous, obstinate, petty, and incredibly talented genius who perfected the process: Pasteurization.

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