Rabbits were present on the First Fleet, but they were domesticated and never became feral. It was on Christmas Day 1859 that a couple of dozen wild European rabbits were off loaded from the Brig Lightning, destined for Thomas Austins' property near Geelong. Within a remarkably short time, the descendants of these rabbits were over-running Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, fast on their way to Queensland and Western Australia. Separate releases meant Tasmania and New Zealand were battling their own rabbit plagues.
Less than half a century later, the colonies were desperate for a solution. Bounties on the rabbits was not working and the problem was growing to the extent that graziers threatened to walk off the land. The colonial governments, dependent on the funds from grazing leases, were nervous. So the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes proposed an international competition, with a prize equivalent to $10 million today, for anyone that could come up with a biological solution.
The Inter-colonial Rabbit Commission formed to judge the 1500 entries was the forerunner of the constitutional conferences that resulted in the formation of the Australian nation.
Author Stephen Dando-Collins has unearthed the extraordinary story of the bid by the world's most famous scientist, Louis Pasteur, to capture the $10 million prize. By 1887, Pasteur had a remarkable history of achievement: he had given birth to the science of microbiology by debunking the theory of spontaneous generation; developed a vaccine for rabies; uncovered the basis of beer and wine fermentation and laid the foundation of modern experimental methods. His legacy, the Pasteur Institute was not yet a reality, with a public subscription falling short of the target to commence building.
Recovering from a stroke brought on by the financial worry of completing his Institute, Pasteur's wife read him an advertisement for the rabbit competition placed by the NSW government. A eureka moment (or a voilà one?) followed as the famed scientist was convinced he had the solution to the plague: fowl cholera. He'd previously worked on the disease and knew it killed rabbits in a matter of hours. He immediately made plans to capture the $10 million prize.
Pasteur’s 24-year-old nephew, Adrien Loir, was his assistant-cum-emissary having worked at his right hand for six years and represented the famed scientist to the Czar of Russia and the beer brewer's of Holland. Loir was sent to test the fowl cholera technique on a rabbit-infested enclosure at the Pommery Champagne Estate and following that success was packed off to Sydney at the head of a small team.
What follows is nothing short of extraordinary. Only hours into the trip, Loir finds that his English interpreter is a fraud, speaking less French than Loir had English. This is the first of a long series of hurdles put in the way of the young scientist in his quest to win the prize and cement his uncle's legacy. Dando-Collins unfolds political and scientific intrigue, sabotage attempts and much more as the dashing Loir becomes a favourite to the colony's social elite. The legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt even plays a part as she takes him under her wing (and more...) during the Sydney season of her world tour.
Stephen Dando-Collins last book was Bligh's Other Mutiny in which he told the story of Bligh's lesser-known second mutiny, losing the Governorship of New South Wales, effectively leaving the colony a republic for two years. That book combined excellent research and a tale that made it hard to put down. Pasteur's Gambit is told at an equivalent pace so I found myself thinking "just one more chapter before bed". Dando-Collins does an excellent job of describing the science and the historical context without ever becoming tedious and the book is certainly not just for scientists or people interested in the rabbit story. The purists may pick up that the author transposes viruses and bacteria a few times and - heaven forbid - refers once to the rabbit as a rodent (it is of course a lagomorph).
Pasteur's Gambit is a fantastic story made better by the fact that it is true. Dando-Collins has uncovered a story very few people knew anything about, gone on to research rich untapped material, and skillfully laid it out. The result is part science, part history, sprinklings of drama and ultimately a real adventure.