"I am afraid that the experiments you quote, M. Pasteur, will turn against you. The world into which you wish to take us is really too fantastic."  La Presse, 1860

By 1860, Louis Pasteur had already proven that microorganisms in the air caused infectious diseases and decay, and that they could be killed by heat. He had studied the phenomenon in beer, wine and milk. His discovery was difficult for most to believe, however, because it contradicted the common theory of the time—that microorganisms were produced by spoiling rather than being the cause.  

Determined to prove his theory beyond a doubt, Pasteur conducted his experiments once more before a group of famous scientists at the University of Paris. He successfully debunked the widely-accepted myth of spontaneous generation, thus describing the scientific basis for fermentation and pasteurization.

One could say that at that moment, Pasteur began a revolution in 19th century medicine. His advances in chemistry and laboratory techniques led him to make new discoveries, including the mysteries of chicken cholera, anthrax and rabies. He also pioneered the development of many of the first vaccines—concepts that replaced old ideas of infectious disease epidemiology with bacteriology and virology.

Pasteur finds a home

Known for its pioneering spirit and continuing legacy of great medical advances, it seems appropriate that UTMB’s Blocker History of Medicine Collection is home to one of Pasteur’s largest, most comprehensive collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts.

“Few people in the world change the world,” said Bobby Marlin, Moody Medical Library archivist. “Pasteur was one of those individuals.”

The 130-piece collection is available for use in research and chronicles Pasteur’s career in great depth and detail, ranging from autographed letters and items from his personal library to equipment used in his laboratory.

“It’s a welcoming way to learn about Pasteur and his studies and see what books and materials Pasteur used in his research,” said Kelly Caldwell, senior library assistant.

What began as a small display in the Galveston National Laboratory soon turned into a much more expansive project once it moved to the library.

“After sitting together at a table surrounded by old photographs, hand-written letters, manuscripts, microscopes, pipettes and rare books, we were inspired to conceptualize a unique and intriguing exhibit. We envisioned displaying as many elements as possible to show who Louis Pasteur was and what his medical contributions were,” said Lisa Reyna, senior library assistant. 

Making it happen

Truman Blocker remains a legendary figure on UTMB’s campus and as the legend goes he had a presence that filled the room.

Blocker graduated from UTMB in 1933, and after spending a number of years in various residencies, he returned to UTMB as an assistant professor of surgery. Later, he served as a military surgeon in the Air Force and Army, after which he returned to his alma mater, some say at the behest of Dr. Chauncey Leake, UTMB’s executive vice president at the time.

As professor and chief of a new division of plastic and maxillofacial surgery, Blocker became internationally known for his pioneering work in treating burn patients and mass casualties. He mobilized the entire campus as truckloads of casualties arrived from the worst industrial accident in American history—the infamous 1947 Texas City Disaster. He also helped numerous Japanese patients disfigured by American atomic bombs at the end of World War II. He would later become UTMB’s first president.

Those who knew Blocker and Leake describe them as good friends and perpetual students who realized that knowledge of medical history is key to unlocking the answers to current questions and problems.

“You could tell Dr. Blocker believed in UTMB and was deeply committed,” said Dr. Armond Goldman, professor emeritus in the Department of Pediatrics and founder of the UTMB Division of Immunology and Allergy. “Dr. Leake was an extraordinary man—probably the strongest non-physician who ever led UTMB. He was a scholar, a pharmacologist, and above all, a believer in broad, well-rounded education.”

Blocker became interested in the Pasteur collection when he was contacted by Jeremy Norman, a book collector in San Francisco. Blocker asked Goldman, who was in San Francisco at the time, to evaluate the collection and let him know what he thought.

 “You know how the sun never sets in the Arctic Circle? It was like that—almost as if time had stopped as Mr. Norman led me through the collection,” Goldman said. “I believe I stayed for nearly 12 hours. Although I didn’t know the monetary worth of the collection, to me, it was priceless.”

Blocker obtained the collection in 1977 for UTMB thanks to the generosity of the Moody Foundation.   The foundation also helped purchase many smaller groups of books from trusted dealers that Blocker and library staff considered important to the completion of the rare book holdings.  Together, Blocker and Leake took every opportunity to add to UTMB’s library collection over the years.

Today, stepping into the rare book collection at UTMB is a very special experience. It is a joy for scholars and bibliophiles. It is a place that captures the sense of adventure in discovery. The Blocker History of Medicine collection provides a vehicle for future generations to recognize and acknowledge the strides that science has made in the understanding of illnesses and diseases that we have today. The archive of trial and error is a way to see where we were, to appreciate the challenges we faced, and to understand what helped us move forward. It is a reminder that in spite of the wealth of medical knowledge that exists today, there are more great discoveries to come.  And its centerpiece is one of the greatest discoverers of all, Louis Pasteur.