PARIS -- The Pasteur Institute is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, riding high on a tide of worldwide publicity stemming from its AIDS research. Nothing in its history can compare, except perhaps the sensation that Louis Pasteur himself created a century ago when he offered the world's first rabies vaccine, prompting a rush of victims to Paris.
Among the desperate crowd seeking Pasteur were 18 Russians from Smolensk who had been bitten by the same rabid wolf. He was able to save all but three of them.
But today's Pasteur Institute directors remain somewhat ambivalent about the latest wave of international fame that Dr. Luc Montagnier and his AIDS research team have generated.
"It's good publicity, like rabies was at the beginning," said Raymond Dedonder, the director, "but rabies was at the time not the most interesting disease. Diphtheria was worse."
"Many people, especially in the United States, had hardly heard of the Pasteur Institute, and now they know about it," said Maxime Schwartz, assistant director. "They have the wrong vision of the Pasteur Institute. They envision it as an AIDS institute. AIDS constitutes only between 5 and 10 percent of the research."
The institute is primarily involved in research into other infectious diseases such as malaria and hepatitis-B and fundamental research on such subjects as immunology, genetics, cell differentiation (as a way to understand the growth of cancer cells) and the relationship between viruses and cancer.
Whereas Montagnier has 50 people on his AIDS research team, the institute itself employs more than 2,000 people, including 500 permanent researchers. In its 70-bed hospital, only five to 20 of these beds are usually devoted to AIDS patients.
In the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the institute was not eager to get involved. "I was told we should not touch a marginal disease in marginal people because this could do something bad for the reputation of the Pasteur Institute because this disease was linked to homosexual people," said Montagnier. "Of course, this has changed. I think the reputation of the Pasteur Institute has increased."
The institute depends on the French government for half of its $83 million annual budget. The other half is financed through private contributions.
One surprise payoff attributed to the AIDS publicity was the auction in April of the late Duchess of Windsor's jewels, which brought in more than $50 million -- four times as much as Sotheby's experts had predicted when they first evaluated the bequest.
Ten minutes before the sale began, according to Marie-Odile Deutsch, a spokesman for Sotheby's, it was announced to the assembled bidders that the Pasteur Institute intended to use the proceeds to construct a new laboratory building devoted to research into retroviruses, cancer and AIDS. "We wanted to make people think they were giving their money for something more than just a souvenir of the Duchess of Windsor," said Deutsch.
Among the bidders was actress Elizabeth Taylor, who has been a major AIDS fund raiser in the United States. She bought a brooch for more than $600,000, according to Sotheby's.
"She did this as a gesture," said Montagnier, who met the actress when she visited the Pasteur Institute on her way home from the auction in Geneva. "I showed her my lab and a picture of the virus."