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History: Great myths die hard

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Finding that part of the story of Louis Pasteur's rabies vaccine is false, Héloïse Dufour and Sean Carroll explore how science fables are born, spread and die.

John Snow's ending of London's 1854 cholera outbreak, Joseph Lister's development of antiseptic surgery, Alexander Fleming's invention of the drug penicillin — the history of science and medicine is full of such stories of great deeds by heroic figures.

But these are myths. They are grounded in some reality, yet careful historical research has revealed them to be far from accurate1, 2. And, despite having been exposed by historians, the fables live on — in books, on television, in classrooms and online.

We have discovered that another story from the history of science — the heroic death of Joseph Meister, the first person to be saved by Louis Pasteur's rabies vaccine — is also a myth. Here we dissect Meister's story to understand how such myths are born, why they die so reluctantly, and what could be done to puncture them.

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