Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/February 1878/Spontaneous Generation I
WITHIN ten minutes' walk of a little cottage which I have recently built in the Alps, there is a small lake, fed by the melted snows of the upper mountains. During the early weeks of summer no trace of life is to be discerned in this water; but invariably toward the end of July, or the beginning of August, swarms of tailed organisms are seen enjoying the sun's warmth along the shallow margins of the lake, and rushing with audible patter into the deeper water at the approach of danger. The origin of this periodic crowd of living things is by no means obvious. For years I had never noticed in the lake either an adult frog, or the smallest fragment of frog spawn; so that, were I not otherwise informed, I should have found the conclusion of Mathiole a natural one, namely, that tadpoles are generated in lake-mud by the vivifying action of the sun.
The checks which experience alone can furnish being absent, the spontaneous generation of creatures quite as high as the frog in the scale of being was assumed for ages to be a fact. Here, as elsewhere, the dominant mind of Aristotle stamped its notions on the world at large. For nearly twenty centuries after him men found no difficulty in believing in cases of spontaneous generation which would now be rejected as monstrous by the most fanatical supporter of the doctrine. Shell-fish of all kinds were considered to be without parental origin. Eels were supposed to spring spontaneously from the fat ooze of the Nile. Caterpillars were the spontaneous products of the leaves on which they fed, while winged insects, serpents, rats, and mice, were all thought capable of being generated without sexual intervention.
The most copious source of this life without an ancestry was putrefying flesh, and, lacking the checks imposed by fuller investigation, the conclusion that flesh possesses and exerts this generative power is a natural one. I well remember when a child of ten or twelve seeing a joint of imperfectly salted beef cut into, and coils of maggots laid bare within the mass. Without a moment's hesitation I jumped to the conclusion that these maggots had been spontaneously generated in the meat. I had no knowledge which could qualify or oppose this conclusion, and for the time it was irresistible. The childhood of the individual typifies that of the race, and the belief here enunciated was that of the world for nearly two thousand years.
To the examination of this very point the celebrated Francesco Redi, physician to the Grand-dukes Ferdinand II. and Cosmo III. of Tuscany, and a member of the Academy del Cimento, addressed himself in 1668. He had seen the maggots of putrefying flesh, and reflected on their possible origin. But he was not content with mere reflection, nor with the theoretic guess-work which his predecessors had founded upon their imperfect observations. Watching meat during its passage from freshness to decay, prior to the appearance of maggots he invariably observed flies buzzing round the meat and frequently alighting on it. The maggots, he thought, might be the half-developed progeny of these flies.
The inductive guess precedes experiment, by which, however, it must be finally tested. Redi knew this, and acted accordingly. Placing fresh meat in a jar and covering the mouth with paper, he found that though the meat putrefied in the ordinary way, it never bred maggots, while the same meat placed in open jars soon swarmed with these organisms. For the paper cover he then substituted fine gauze, through which the odor of the meat could rise. Over it the flies buzzed, and on it they laid their eggs, but, the meshes being too small to permit the eggs to fall through, no maggots were generated in the meat. They were, on the contrary, hatched upon the gauze. By a series of such experiments Redi destroyed the belief in the spontaneous generation of maggots in meat, and with it doubtless many related beliefs. The combat was continued by Vallisneri, Schwammerdam, and Réaumur, who succeeded in banishing the notion of spontaneous generation from the scientific minds of their day. Indeed, as regards such complex organisms as those which formed the subject of their researches, the notion was banished forever.
But the discovery and improvement of the microscope, though giving a death-blow to much that had been previously written and believed regarding spontaneous generation, brought also into view a world of life formed of individuals so minute—so close as it seemed to the ultimate particles of matter—as to suggest an easy passage from atoms to organisms. Animal and vegetable infusions exposed to the air were found clouded and crowded with creatures far beyond the reach of unaided vision, but perfectly visible to an eye strengthened by the microscope. With reference to their origin these organisms were called "infusoria." Stagnant pools were found full of them, and the obvious difficulty of assigning a germinal origin to existences so minute furnished the precise condition necessary to give new play to the notion of heterogenesis or spontaneous generation.
The scientific world was soon divided into two hostile camps, the leaders of which alone can here be briefly alluded to. On the one side we have Buffon and Needham, the former postulating his "organic molecules," and the latter assuming the existence of a special "vegetative force" which drew the molecules together so as to form living things. On the other side we have the celebrated Abbé Lazzaro Spallanzani, who in 1877 published results counter to those announced by Needham in 1748, and obtained by methods so precise as to completely overthrow the convictions based upon the labors of his predecessor. Charging his flasks with organic infusions, he sealed their necks with the blow-pipe, subjected them in this condition to the heat of boiling water, and subsequently exposed them to temperatures favorable to the development of life. The infusions continued unchanged for months, and when the flasks were subsequently opened no trace of life was found.
Here I may forestall matters so far as to say that the success of Spallanzani's experiments depended wholly on the locality in which he worked. The air around him must have been free from the more obdurate infusorial germs, for otherwise the process he followed would, as was long afterward proved by Wyman, have infallibly yielded life. But his refutation of the doctrine of spontaneous generation is not the less valid on this account. Nor is it in any way upset by the fact that others in repeating his experiments obtained life when he obtained none. Rather is the refutation strengthened by such differences. Given two experimenters equally skillful and equally careful, operating in different places on the same infusions, in the same way, and assuming the one to obtain life while the other fails to obtain it; then its well-established absence in the one case proves that some ingredient foreign to the infusion must be its cause in the other.
Spallanzani's sealed flasks contained but small quantities of air, and as oxygen was afterward shown to be generally essential to life, it was thought that the. absence of life observed by Spallanzani might have been due to the lack of this vitalizing gas. To dissipate this doubt, Schulze in 1836 half-tilled a flask with distilled water, to which animal and vegetable matters were added. First boiling his infusion to destroy whatever life it might contain, Schulze sucked daily into his flask air which had passed through a series of bulbs containing concentrated sulphuric acid, where all germs of life suspended in the air were supposed to be destroyed. From May to August this process was continued without any development of infusorial life.
Here, again, the success of Schulze was due to his working in comparatively pure air, but even in such air his experiment is a very risky one. Germs will pass, unwetted and unscathed, through sulphuric acid, unless the most special care is taken to detain them. I have repeatedly failed, by repeating Schulze's experiments, to obtain his results. Others have failed likewise. The air passes in bubbles through the bulbs, and, to render the method secure, the passage of the air must be so slow as to cause the whole of its floating matter, even to the core of each bubble, to touch the surrounding liquid. But, if this precaution be observed, water will be found quite as effectual as sulphuric acid. By the aid of an air pump, in a highly-infective atmosphere, I have thus drawn air for weeks without intermission, first through bulbs containing water, and afterward through vessels containing organic infusions, without any appearance of life. The germs were not killed, but they were effectually intercepted, while the objection that the air had been injured by being brought into contact with strongly corrosive substances was avoided.
The brief paper of Schulze, published in Poggendorf’s Annalen for 1836, was followed in 1837 by another short and pregnant communication by Schwann. Redi, as we have seen, traced the maggots of putrefying flesh to the eggs of flies. But he did not and he could not know the meaning of putrefaction itself. He had not the instrumental means to inform him that it also is a phenomenon attendant on the development of life. This was first proved in the paper now alluded to. Schwann placed flesh in a flask filled to one-third of its capacity with water, sterilized the flask by boiling, and then supplied it for months with calcined air. Throughout this time "there appeared no mould, no infusoria, no putrefaction; the flesh remained unaltered, while the liquid continued as clear as it was immediately after boiling." Schwann then varied his experimental argument, with no alteration in the result. His final conclusion was, that putrefaction is due to decompositions of organic matter attendant on the multiplication therein of minute organisms. These organisms were derived not from the air, but from something contained in the air, which was destroyed by a sufficiently high temperature. There never was a more determined opponent of the doctrine of spontaneous generation than Schwann, though a strange attempt was made a year and a half ago to enlist him and others equally opposed to it on the side of the doctrine.
The physical character of the agent which produces putrefaction was further revealed by Helmholtz in 1843. By means of a membrane he separated a sterilized putrescible liquid from a putrefying one. The sterilized infusion remained perfectly intact. Hence it was not the liquid of the putrefying mass—for it could freely diffuse through the membrane—but something contained in the liquid, and which was stopped by the membrane, that caused the putrefaction. In 1854 Schroeder and Von Dusch struck into this inquiry, which was subsequently followed up by Schroeder alone. These able experimenters employed plugs of cotton-wool to filter the air supplied to their infusions. Fed with such air, in the great majority of cases the putrescible liquids remained perfectly sweet after boiling. Milk formed a conspicuous exception to the general rule. It putrefied after boiling, though supplied with carefully-filtered air. The researches of Schroeder bring us up to the year 1859.
In that year a book was published which seemed to overturn some of the best-established facts of previous investigators. Its title was "Hétérogénie," and its author was F. A. Pouchet, Director of the Museum of Natural History at Rouen. Ardent, laborious, learned, full not only of scientific but of metaphysical fervor, he threw his whole energy into the inquiry. Never did a subject require the exercise of the cold, critical faculty more than this one—calm study in the unraveling of complex phenomena, care in the preparation of experiments, care in their execution, skillful variation of conditions, and incessant questioning of results, until repetition had placed them beyond doubt or question. To a man of Pouchet's temperament, the subject was full of danger—danger not lessened by the theoretic bias with which he approached it. This is revealed by the opening words of his preface: "Lorsque, par la méditation, il fut évident pour moi que la génération spontanée était encore l'un des moyens qu'emploie la nature pour la reproduction des êtres, je m'appliquai a découvrir par quels procédés on pouvait parvenir à en mettre les phénomènes en évidence." It is needless to say that such a prepossession required a strong curb. Pouchet repeated the experiments of Schulze and Schwann with results diametrically opposed to theirs. He heaped experiment upon experiment, and argument upon argument, spicing with the sarcasm of the advocate the logic of the man of science. In view of the multitudes required to produce the observed results, be ridiculed the assumption of atmospheric germs. This was one of his strongest points. "Si les Proto-organismes que nous voyons pulluler partout et dans tout, avaient leurs germes disséminés dans l'atmosphère, dans la proportion mathématiquement indispensable à cet effet, l'air en serait totalement obscurci, car ils devraient s'y trouver beaucoup plus serres que les globules d'eau qui forment nos nuages épais. II n'y a pas là la moindre exagération." Recurring to the subject, he exclaims, "L'air dans lequel nous vivons aurait presque la densité du fer." There is often a virulent contagion in a confident tone, and this hardihood of argumentative assertion was sure to influence minds swayed not by knowledge, but by authority. Had Pouchet known that "the blue ethereal sky" is formed of suspended particles, through which the sun freely shines, he would hardly have ventured upon this line of argument.
Pouchet's pursuit of this inquiry strengthened the conviction with which he began it, and landed him in downright credulity in the end. I do not question his ability as an observer, but the inquiry needed a disciplined experimenter. This latter implies not mere ability to look at things as Nature offers them to our inspection, but to force her to show herself under conditions prescribed by the experimenter himself. Here Pouchet lacked the necessary discipline. Yet the vigor of his onset raised clouds of doubt, which for a time obscured the whole field of inquiry. So difficult indeed did the subject seem, and so incapable of definite solution, that when Pasteur made known his intention to take it up, his friends Biot and Dumas expressed their regret, earnestly exhorting him to set a definite and rigid limit to the time he purposed spending in this apparently unprofitable field.
Schooled by his education as a chemist, and by special researches on the closely related question of fermentation, Pasteur took up this subject under particularly favorable conditions. His work and his culture had given strength and finish to his natural aptitudes. In 1862, accordingly, he published a paper "On the Organized Corpuscles existing in the Atmosphere," which must forever remain classical. By the most ingenious devices he collected the floating particles of the air surrounding his laboratory in the Rue d'Ulm, and subjected them to microscopic examination. Many of them he found to be organized particles. Sowing them in sterilized infusions, he obtained abundant crops of microscopic organisms. By more refined methods he repeated and confirmed the experiments of Schwann, which had been contested by Pouchet, Montegazza, Joly, and Musset. He also confirmed the experiments of Schroeder and Von Dusch. He showed that the cause which communicated life to his infusions was not uniformly diffused through the air; that there were aerial interspaces which possessed no power to generate life. Standing on the Mer de Glace, near the Montanvert, he snipped off the ends of a number of hermetically-scaled flasks containing organic infusions. One out of twenty of the flasks thus supplied with glacier air showed signs of life afterward, while eight out of twenty of the same infusions, supplied with the air of the plains, became crowded with life. He took his flasks into the caves under the Observatory of Paris, and found the still air in these caves devoid of generative power. These and other experiments, carried out with a severity perfectly obvious to the instructed scientific reader, and accompanied by a logic equally severe, restored the conviction that, even in these lower reaches of the scale of being, life does not appear without the operation of antecedent life.
The main position of Pasteur, though often assailed, has never yet been shaken. It has, on the contrary, been strengthened by practical researches of the most momentous kind. He has applied the knowledge won from his inquiries to the preservation of wine and beer, to the manufacture of vinegar, to the staying of the plague which threatened utter destruction to the silk-husbandry of France, and to the examination of other formidable diseases which assail the higher animals, including man. His relation to the improvements which Prof. Lister has introduced into surgery is shown by a letter quoted in his "Études sur la Bière." Prof. Lister there expressly thanks Pasteur for having given him the only principle which could have conducted the antiseptic system to a successful issue. The strictures regarding Pasteur's defects of reasoning, to which we have been lately accustomed, delivered with a tone of supercilious contempt, where reverent teachableness would have been the fitting state of mind, throw abundant light upon their author, but none upon Pasteur.
Redi, as we have seen, proved the maggots of putrefying flesh to be derived from the eggs of flies; Schwann proved putrefaction itself to be the concomitant of far lower forms of life than those dealt with by Redi. Our knowledge here, as elsewhere in connection with this subject, has been vastly extended by Prof. Cohn, of Breslau. "No putrefaction," he says, "can occur in a nitrogenous substance if its bacteria be destroyed and new ones prevented from entering it. Putrefaction begins as soon as bacteria, even in the smallest numbers, are admitted either accidentally or purposely. It progresses in direct proportion to the multiplication of the bacteria, it is retarded when they exhibit low vitality, and is stopped by all influences which either hinder their development or kill them. All bactericidal media are therefore antiseptic and disinfecting." It was these organisms acting in wound and abscess which so frequently converted our hospitals into charnel-houses, and it is their destruction by the antiseptic system that now renders justifiable operations which no surgeon would have attempted a few years ago. The gain is immense—to the practising surgeon as well as to the patient practised upon. Contrast the anxiety of never feeling sure whether the most brilliant operation might not be rendered nugatory by the access of a few particles of unseen hospital-dust, with the comfort derived from the knowledge that all power of mischief on the part of such dust has been surely and certainly annihilated. But the action of living contagia extends beyond the domain of the surgeon. The power of reproduction and indefinite self-multiplication which is characteristic of living things, coupled with the undeviating fact of contagia "breeding true," has given strength and consistency to a belief long entertained by penetrating minds that epidemic diseases generally are the concomitants of parasitic life. "There begins to be faintly visible to us a vast and destructive laboratory of Nature wherein the diseases which are most fatal to animal life, and the changes to which dead organic matter is passively liable, appear bound together by what must at least be called a very close analogy of causation." According to this view, which, as I have said, is daily gaining converts, a contagious disease may be defined as a conflict between the person smitten by it and a specific organism which multiplies at his expense, appropriating his air and moisture, disintegrating his tissues, or poisoning him by the decompositions incident to its growth.
During the ten years extending from 1859 to 1869, researches on radiant heat in its relations to the gaseous form of matter occupied my continual attention. When air was experimented on, I had to cleanse it effectually of floating matter, and, while doing so, I was surprised to notice that, at the ordinary rate of transfer, such matter passed freely through alkalies, acids, alcohols, and ethers. The eye being kept sensitive by darkness, a concentrated beam of light was found to be a most searching test for suspended matter both in water and in air—a test indeed indefinitely more searching and severe than that furnished by the most powerful microscope. With the aid of such a beam I examined air filtered by cotton-wood, air long kept free from agitation, so as to allow the floating matter to subside, calcined air, and air filtered by the deeper cells of the human lungs. In all cases the correspondence between my experiments and those of Schroeder, Pasteur, and Lister, in regard to spontaneous generation, was perfect. The air which they found inoperative was proved by
the luminous beam to be optically pure and therefore germless. Having worked at the subject both by experiment and reflection, on Friday evening, the 21st of January, 1870, I brought it before the members of the Royal Institution. Two or three months subsequently, for sufficient practical reasons, I ventured to direct public attention to the subject in a letter to the Times. Such was my first contact with this important question.
This letter, I believe, gave occasion for the first public utterance of Dr. Bastian in relation to this question. He did me the honor to inform me, as others had informed Pasteur, that the subject "pertains to the biologist and physician." He expressed "amazement" at my reasoning, and warned me that before what I had done could be undone "much irreparable mischief might be occasioned." With far less preliminary experience to guide and warn him, Dr. Bastian was far bolder than Pouchet in his experiments, and far more adventurous in his conclusions. With organic infusions he obtained the results of his celebrated predecessor, but he did far more—the atoms and molecules of inorganic liquids passing under his manipulation into those more "complex chemical compounds" which we dignify by calling them "living organisms." For five years, or thereabouts, Dr. Bastian ploughed the field without impediment from me, and, now that one can overlook the work, I am bound in truth to say that very wonderful ploughing it has been. As regards the public who take an interest in such things, and apparently also as regards a large portion of the medical profession, he certainly succeeded in restoring the subject to a state of uncertainty similar to that which followed the publication of Pouchet's volume in 1859.
It is desirable that this uncertainty should be removed from the public mind, and doubly desirable on practical grounds that it should be removed from the minds of medical men. In the present article, therefore, I propose discussing this question face to face with some eminent and fair-minded member of the medical profession who, as regards spontaneous generation, entertains views adverse to mine. Such a one it would be easy to name; but it is perhaps better to rest in the impersonal. I shall therefore simply call my proposed co-inquirer my friend. With him at my side I shall endeavor, to the best of my ability, so to conduct this discussion that he who runs may read, and that he who reads may understand.
Let us begin at the beginning. I ask my friend to step into the laboratory of the Royal Institution, where I place before him a basin of thin turnip-slices barely covered with distilled water kept at a temperature of 120° Fahr. After digesting the turnip for four or five hours we pour off the liquid, boil it, filter it, and obtain an infusion as clear as filtered drinking-water. We cool the infusion, test its specific gravity, and find it to be 1006 or higher—water being 1000. A number of small, clean, empty flasks, of the shape here
shown, are before us. One of them is slightly warmed with a spirit-lamp, and its open end is then dipped into the turnip-infusion. The warmed glass is afterward chilled, the air within the flask cools, contracts, and is followed in its contraction by the infusion. Thus we get a small quantity of liquid into the flask. We now heat this liquid carefully. Steam is produced, which issues from the open neck, carrying the air of the flask along with it. After a few seconds' ebullition, the open neck is again plunged into the infusion. The steam within the flask condenses, the liquid enters to supply its place, and in this way we fill our little flask to about four-fifths of its volume. This description is typical; we may thus fill a thousand flasks with a thousand different infusions.
I now ask my friend to notice a trough made of sheet-copper, with two rows of handy little Bunsen burners underneath it. This trough, or bath, is nearly filled with oil; a piece of thin plank constitutes a kind of lid for the oil-bath. The wood is perforated with circular apertures wide enough to allow our small flask to pass through and plunge itself in the oil, which has been heated, say, to 250° Fahr. Clasped all round by the hot liquid, the infusion in the flask rises to its boiling-point, which is not sensibly over 212° Fahr. Steam issues from the open neck of the flask, and the boiling is continued for five minutes. With a pair of small brass tongs an assistant now seizes the neck near its junction with the flask, and partially lifts the latter out of the oil. The steam does not cease to issue, but its violence is abated. With a second pair of tongs held in one hand, the neck of the flask is seized close to its open end, while with the other hand a Bunsen's flame or an ordinary spirit-flame is brought under the middle of the neck. The glass reddens, whitens, softens, and as it is gently drawn out the neck diminishes in diameter, until the canal is completely blocked up. The tongs with the fragment of severed neck being withdrawn, the flask, with its contents diminished by evaporation, is lifted from the oil-bath perfectly sealed hermetically.
Sixty such flasks filled, boiled, and sealed, in the manner described, and containing strong infusions of beef, mutton, turnip, and cucumber, are carefully packed in saw-dust and transported to the Alps. Thither, to an elevation of about 7,000 feet above the sea, I invite my co-inquirer to accompany me. It is the month of July, and the weather is favorable to putrefaction. We open our box at the Bel-Alp, and count out fifty-four flasks, with their liquids as clear as filtered drinking-water. In six flasks, however, the infusion is found muddy. We closely examine these, and discover that every one of them has had its fragile end broken off in the transit from London. Air has entered the flasks, and the observed muddiness is the result. My colleague knows as well as I do what this means. Examined with a pocket-lens, or even with a microscope of insufficient power, nothing is seen in the muddy liquid; but regarded with a magnifying power of a thousand diameters or so, what an astonishing appearance does it present! Leeuwenhoek estimated the population of a single drop of stagnant water at 500,000,000: probably the population of a drop of our turbid infusion would be this many times multiplied. The field of the microscope is crowded with organisms, some wabbling slowly, others shooting rapidly across the microscopic field. They dart hither and thither like a rain of minute projectiles; they pirouette and spin so quickly round, that the retention of the retinal impression transforms the little living rod into a twirling wheel. And yet the most celebrated naturalists tell us that they are vegetables. From the rod-like shape which they so frequently assume, these organisms are called bacteria—a term, be it here remarked, which covers organisms of very diverse kinds.
Has this multitudinous life been spontaneously generated in these six flasks, or is it the progeny of living germinal matter carried into the flasks by the entering air? If the infusions have a self-generative power, how are the sterility and consequent clearness of the fifty-four uninjured flasks to be accounted for? My colleague may urge—and fairly urge—that the assumption of germinal matter is by no means necessary; that the air itself may be the one thing needed to wake up the dormant infusions. We will examine this point immediately. But I would meanwhile remind my friend that I am working on the exact lines laid down by our most conspicuous heterogenist. He distinctly affirms that the withdrawal of the atmospheric pressure above the infusion favors the production of organisms; and he accounts for their absence in tins of preserved meat, fruit, and vegetables, by the hypothesis that fermentation has begun in such tins, that gases have been generated, the pressure of which has stifled the incipient life and stopped its further development. This is Dr. Bastian's theory of preserved meats. Its author has never, to my knowledge, pierced a tin of preserved meat, fruit, or vegetable, under water with a view of testing its truth. Had he done so, he would have found it erroneous. In well-preserved tins I have invariably found, not an outrush of gas, but an inrush of water, when the tin was perforated. I have noticed this recently in tins which have lain perfectly good for sixty-three years in the Royal Institution. Modern tins, subjected to the same test, yielded the same result. From time to time, moreover, during the last two years, I have placed glass tubes, containing clear infusions of turnip, hay, beef, and mutton, in iron bottles, and subjected them to air-pressures varying from ten to twenty-seven atmospheres—pressures, it is needless to say, far more than sufficient to tear a preserved meat-tin to shreds. After ten days these infusions were taken from their bottles rotten with putrefaction and teeming with life. Thus collapses an hypothesis which had no rational foundation, and which could never have seen the light had the slightest attempt been made to verify it.
Our fifty-four vacuous and pellucid flasks also declare against this heterogenist. We expose them to a warm Alpine sun by day, and at night we suspend them in a warm kitchen. Four of them have been accidentally broken; but at the end of a month we find the fifty remaining ones as clear as at the commencement. There is no sign of putrefaction or of life in any of them. We divide these flasks into two groups of twenty-three and twenty-seven respectively (an accident of counting rendered the division uneven). The question now is whether the admission of air can liberate any generative energy in the infusions. Our next experiment will answer this question and something more. We carry the flasks to a hay-loft, and there, with a pair of steel pliers, snip off the sealed ends of the group of twenty-three. Each snipping-off is of course followed by an inrush of air. We now carry our twenty-seven flasks, our pliers, and a spirit-lamp, to a ledge overlooking the Aletsch glacier, about two hundred feet above the hay-loft, from which ledge the mountain falls almost precipitously to the northeast for about a thousand feet. A gentle wind blows toward us from the northeast—that is, across the crests and snow-fields of the Oberland mountains. We are, therefore, bathed by air which must have been for a good while out of practical contact with either animal or vegetable life. I stand carefully to leeward of the flasks, for no dust or particle from my clothes or body must be blown toward them. An assistant ignites the spirit-lamp, into the flame of which I plunge the pliers, thereby destroying all attached germs or organisms. Then I snip off the sealed end of the flask. Prior to every snipping the same process is gone through, no flask being opened without the previous cleansing of the pliers by the flame. In this way we charge our twenty-seven flasks with clean vivifying mountain-air.
We place the fifty flasks, with their necks open, over a kitchen stove, in a temperature varying from 50° to 90° Fahr., and in three days find twenty-one out of the twenty-three flasks opened on the hay-loft invaded by organisms—two only of the group remaining free from them. After three weeks' exposure to precisely the same conditions, not one of the twenty-seven flasks opened in free air had given way. No germ from the kitchen-air had ascended the narrow necks, the flasks being shaped to produce this result. They are still in the Alps, as clear, I doubt not, and as free from life as they were when sent off from London.
What is my colleague's conclusion from the experiment before us? Twenty-seven putrescible infusions, first in vacuo, and afterward supplied with the most invigorating air, have shown no sign of putrefaction or of life. And as to the others, I almost shrink from asking him whether the hay-loft has rendered them spontaneously generative. Is not the inference here imperative that it is not the air of the loft—which is connected through a constantly-open door with the general atmosphere—but something contained in the air, that has produced the effects observed? What is this something? A sunbeam glinting through a chink in the roof or wall, and traversing the air of the loft, would show it to be laden with suspended dust-particles. Indeed, the dust is distinctly visible in the diffused daylight. Can it have been the origin of the observed life? If so, are we not bound by all antecedent experience to regard these fruitful particles as the germs of the life observed?
The name of Baron Liebig has been constantly mixed up with these discussions. "We have," it is said, "his authority for assuming that dead decaying matter can produce fermentation." True, but with Liebig fermentation was by no means synonymous with life. It will be observed, by the careful reader of Dr. Bastian's works, that whenever their author refers to this alleged power of decaying matter, he invariably couples with it the vague term "fermentation," thus softening the shock of the hypothesis which he insinuates rather than asserts. But our present intention is to brush all vagueness aside. We therefore ask, "Does the life of our flasks proceed from dead particles?" If my co-inquirer should reply "Yes," then I would ask him: "What warrant does Nature offer for such an assumption? Where, amid the multitude of vital phenomena in which her operations have been clearly traced, is the slightest countenance given to the notion that the sowing of dead particles can produce a living crop?" With regard to Baron Liebig, had he studied the revelations of the microscope in relation to these questions, a mind so penetrating could never have missed the significance of the facts revealed. He, however, neglected the microscope, and fell into error—but not into error so gross as that in support of which his authority has been invoked. Were he now alive, he would, I doubt not, repudiate the use often made of his name—Liebig's view of fermentation was at least a scientific one, founded on profound conceptions of molecular instability. But this view by no means involves the notion that the planting of dead particles—"Stickstoffsplittern," as Cohn contemptuously calls them is followed by the sprouting of infusorial life.
- "Je ne conseillerais à personne," said Dumas to his already famous pupil, "de rester trop longtemps dans ce sujet."—("Annales de Chemie et de Physique," 1862, vol. lxiv., p. 22.) Since that time the illustrious Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Sciences has had good reason to revise this "counsel."
- P. 43.
- In his last excellent memoir, Cohn expresses himself thus: "Wer noch heut die Fäulniss von einer spontanen Dissociation der Proteinmolecule, oder von einem unorganisirten Ferment ableitet, oder gar aus 'Stickstoffsplittern' die Balken zur Stütze seiner Fäulnisstheorie zu zimmern versucht, hat zuerst den Satz 'keine Fäulniss ohne Bacterium Termo' zu widerlegen."
- "Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council," 1874, p. 5.
- "It is further held that bacteria or allied organisms are prone to be engendered as correlative products, coming into existence in the several fermentations, just as independently as other less complex chemical compounds."—(Bastian, "Transactions of the Pathological Society," vol. xxvi., p. 258.)
- "Beginnings of Life," vol. i., p. 418.
- An actual experiment made three months ago at the Bel-Alp is here described.