The question of the origin of ferments is intimately connected with that of spontaneous generation. In fact, from the time of Van Helmont and others, who, even in the seventeenth century, gave directions for the production of mice, frogs, eels, etc., the partisans of this mode of generation have, by the progress of the tendency to examine into the causes of things, been driven from the larger animals or plants visible to the naked eye, to the smallest living productions, which we can observe only by the aid of the microscope. But ferments are found among these inferior microscopic organisms. Redi, a member of the Academy of Cimento, showed that the worms in putrefied flesh, which were at first thought to be of spontaneous origin, are only the larvæ from the eggs of flies, and that all that was necessary, to prevent entirely the birth of these larvæ, was to surround the decomposing meat with fine gauze; he was the first to ascertain that parasitic animals are sexual and able to lay eggs.
The invention of the microscope, and the numerous observations by which it was followed, toward the end of the seventeenth, and the commencement of the eighteenth century, gave fresh impulse to the doctrine of spontaneous generation, which had lost all credit in questions concerning the origin of living beings of a higher order.
The question now was how to explain the origin of the various living productions, revealed by the microscope in infusions of vegetable and animal substances, among which no apparent symptom of sexual generation could then be found.
The subject was studied for the first time in a scientific manner by Needham, who published, in 1745, in London, a work on this subject. This observer did for infusoria what had already been done for the higher organisms. He protected, or rather endeavored to protect, vegetable or animal infusions from the action of germs, seeds, or any other agents of multiplication which could come from without. At the same time he destroyed by a physical agent, heat, the germs which might be supposed to exist beforehand in the liquid. Under these conditions, either living beings will be produced in the midst of the infusion, or none will be found there; in the former case, it must be admitted that these organisms are developed in the medium which is suitable to them, without the intervention of any germ; in the second, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is false. In reality, the question can only be resolved in this manner, and all experimenters
- Abridged from "Schützenbergcr on Fermentations," No. XX. of the "International Scientific Series."