Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/March 1878/Spontaneous Generation II

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LET us now return to London and fix our attention on the dust of its air. Suppose a room in which the house-maid has finished her work to be completely closed, with the exception of an aperture in a shutter through which a sunbeam enters and crosses the room. The floating dust reveals the track of the light. Let a lens be placed in the aperture to condense the beam. Its parallel rays are now converged to a cone, at the apex of which the dust is raised to almost unbroken whiteness by the intensity of its illumination. Defended from all glare, the eye is peculiarly sensitive to this scattered light. The floating dust of London rooms is organic, and may be burned without leaving visible residue. The action of a spirit-lamp flame upon the floating matter has been elsewhere thus described:

"In a cylindrical beam which strongly illuminated the dust of our laboratory, I placed an ignited spirit-lamp. Mingling with the flame, and round its rim, were seen curious wreaths of darkness resembling an intensely black smoke. On placing the flame at some distance below the beam, the same dark masses stormed upward. They were blacker than the blackest smoke ever seen issuing from the funnel of a steamer; and their resemblance to smoke was so perfect as to prompt the conclusion that the apparently pure flame of the alcohol-lamp required but a beam of sufficient intensity to reveal its clouds of liberated carbon. "But is the blackness smoke? This question presented itself in a moment, and was thus answered: A red-hot poker was placed underneath the beam; from it the black wreaths also ascended. A large hydrogen-flame, which emits no smoke, was next employed, and it also produced with augmented copiousness those whirling masses of darkness. Smoke being out of the question, what is the darkness? It is simply that of stellar space; that is to say, blackness resulting from the absence from the track of the beam of all matter competent to scatter its light. When the flame was placed below the beam, the floating matter was destroyed in situ; and the heated air, freed from this matter, rose into the beam, jostled aside the illuminated particles, and substituted for their light the darkness due to its own perfect transparency. Nothing could more forcibly illustrate the invisibility of the agent which renders all things visible. The beam crossed, unseen, the black chasm formed by the transparent air, while, at both sides of the gap, the thick-strewed particles shone out like a luminous solid under the powerful illumination."[1]

Supposing an infusion intrinsically barren, but readily susceptible of putrefaction when exposed to common air, to be brought into contact with this unilluminable air, what would be the result? It would never putrefy. It might, however, be urged that the air is spoiled by its violent calcination. Oxygen passed through a spirit-lamp flame is, it may be thought, no longer the oxygen suitable for the development and maintenance of life. We have an easy escape from this difficulty, which is based, however, upon the unproved assumption that the air has been affected by the flame. Let a condensed beam be sent through a large flask or bolt-head containing common air. The track of the beam is seen within the flask—the dust revealing the light, and the light revealing the dust. Cork the flask, stuff its neck with cotton-wool, or simply turn it mouth downward and leave it undisturbed for a day or two. Examined afterward with the luminous beam, no track is visible; the light passes through the flask as through a vacuum. The floating matter has abolished itself, being now attached to the interior surface of the flask. Were it our object, as it will be subsequently, to effectually detain the dirt, we might coat that surface with some sticky substance. Here, then, without "torturing" the air in any way, we have found a means of ridding it, or rather of enabling it to rid itself, of floating matter.

We have now to devise a means of testing the action of such spontaneously purified air upon putrescible infusions. Wooden chambers, or cases, are accordingly constructed having glass fronts, side-windows, and back-doors. Through the bottoms of the chambers test-tubes pass air-tight, their open ends, for about one-fifth of the length of the tubes, being within the chambers. Provision is made for a free connection through sinuous channels between the inner and the outer air. Through such channels, though open, no dust will reach the chamber. The top of each chamber is perforated by a circular hole two inches in diameter and closed air-tight by a sheet of India-rubber. This is pierced in the middle by a pin, and through the pin-hole is pushed the shank of a long pipette, ending above in a small funnel. The shank also passes through a stuffing-box of cotton-wool moistened with glycerine; so that, tightly clasped by the rubber and wool, the pipette is not likely in its motions up and down to carry any dust into the chamber. The annexed woodcut shows a chamber with six test-tubes, its side-windows to w w, its pipette p C, and its sinuous channels a b which connect the air of the chamber with the outer air.

The chamber is carefully closed and permitted to remain quiet for two or three days. Examined at the beginning by a beam sent through its windows, the air is found laden with floating matter, which in three days has wholly disappeared. To prevent its ever rising again into the chambers, the internal surface is coated with glycerine. The fresh but putrescible liquid is introduced into the six tubes in succession by means of the pipette. Permitted to remain without further precaution, every one of the tubes would putrefy and till itself with life. The liquid has been in contact with dust-laden air by which it has been infected, and the infection must be destroyed.

PSM V12 D611 Biological spontaneous generation experiment.jpg

This is done by plunging the six tubes into a bath of heated oil and boiling the infusion. The time requisite to destroy the infection depends wholly upon its nature. Two minutes' boiling suffices to destroy some contagia, whereas two hundred minutes' boiling fails to destroy others. After the infusion has been sterilized, the oil-bath is withdrawn, and the liquid, whose putrescibility has been in no way affected by the boiling, is abandoned to the air of the chamber.

With such chambers I tested, in the autumn and winter of 1875-'76, infusions of the most various kinds, embracing natural animal liquids, the flesh and viscera of domestic animals, game, fish, and vegetables. More than fifty moteless chambers, each with its series of infusions, were then tested, many of them repeatedly. There was no shade of uncertainty in any of the results. In every instance we had, within the chamber, perfect limpidity and sweetness, which in some cases lasted for more than a year—without the chamber, with the same infusion, putridity, and its characteristic smells. In no instance was the least countenance lent to the notion that an infusion deprived by heat of its inherent life, and placed in contact with air cleansed of its visibly suspended matter, has any power whatever to generate life anew.

Remembering, then, the number and variety of the infusions employed, and the strictness of our adherence to the rules of preparation laid down by the heterogenists themselves; remembering that we have operated upon the very substances recommended by them as capable of furnishing even in untrained hands easy and decisive proofs of spontaneous generation, and that we have added to their substances many others of our own—if this pretended generative power were a reality, surely it must have manifested itself somewhere. Speaking roundly, I should say that at least 500 chances have been given to it, but it has nowhere appeared. The argument is now to be closed and clinched by an experiment which will remove every residue of doubt as to the ability of the infusions to sustain life. We open the backdoors of our sealed chambers, and permit the common air with its floating particles to have access to our tubes. For three months they have remained pellucid and sweet—flesh, fish, and vegetable extracts, purer than ever cook manufactured. Three days' exposure to the dusty air suffices to render them muddy, fetid, and swarming with infusorial life. The liquids are thus proved, one and all, ready for putrefaction when the contaminating agent is applied. I invite my colleague to reflect on these facts. How will he account for the absolute immunity of a liquid exposed for months in a warm room to optically pure air, and its infallible putrefaction in a few days when exposed to dust-laden air? He must, I submit, bow to the conclusion that the dust-particles are the cause of putrefactive life. And, unless he accepts the hypothesis that these particles, being dead in the air, are, in the liquid, miraculously kindled into living things, he must conclude that the life we have observed springs from germs or organisms diffused through the atmosphere.

The experiments with hermetically-sealed flasks have reached the number of 940. A sample group of 130 of them were laid before the Royal Society on January 13, 1876. They were utterly free from life, having been completely sterilized by three minutes' boiling. I took special care that the temperatures to which the flasks were exposed should include those previously alleged to be efficient. I copied, indeed, accurately the conditions laid down by our most conspicuous heterogenist, but I failed to corroborate him. He then laid stress on the question of warmth, suddenly adding 30° to the temperatures with which both he and I had previously worked. Waiving all argument or protest against the caprice thus manifested, I met this new requirement also. The sealed tubes, which had proved barren in the Royal Institution, were suspended in perforated boxes, and placed under the supervision of an intelligent assistant in the Turkish Bath in Jermyn Street. From two to six days had been allowed for the generation of organisms in hermetically-sealed tubes. Mine remained in the washing-room of the bath for nine days. Thermometers placed in the boxes, and read off twice or three times a day, showed the temperature to vary from a minimum of 101° to a maximum of 112° Fahr. At the end of nine days the infusions were as clear as at the beginning. They were then removed to a warmer position. A temperature of 115° had been mentioned as particularly favorable to spontaneous generation. For fourteen days the temperature of the Turkish bath hovered about this point, falling once as low as 106°, reaching 116° on three occasions, 118° on one, and 119° on two. The result was quite the same as that just recorded. The higher temperatures proved perfectly incompetent to develop life.

Taking the actual experiment we have made as a basis of calculation, if our 940 flasks were opened on the hay-loft of the Bel Alp 858 of them would become filled with organisms. The escape of the remaining 82 strengthens our case against the heterogenists, proving as it does conclusively that not in the air, nor in the infusions, nor in anything continuous diffused through the air, but in discrete particles nourished by the infusions, we are to seek the cause of life. Our experiment proves these particles to be in some cases so far apart on the hay-loft as to permit 10 per cent, of our flasks to take in air without contracting contamination. A quarter of a century ago Pasteur proved the cause of "so-called spontaneous generation" to be discontinuous. I have already referred to his observation that 12 out of 20 flasks opened on the plains escaped infection, while 19 out of 20 flasks opened on the Mer de Glace escaped. Our own experiment at the Bel Alp is a more emphatic instance of the same kind, 90 per cent, of the flasks opened in the hay-loft being smitten, while not one of those opened on the free mountain-ledge was attacked. The power of the air as regards putrefactive infection is incessantly changing through natural causes, and we are able to alter it at will. Of a number of flasks opened in 1876 in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, 42 per cent, were smitten, while 58 per cent, escaped. In 1877 the proportion in the same laboratory was 68 per cent, smitten to 32 intact. The greater mortality, so to speak, of the infusions in 1877 was due to the presence of hay which diffused its germinal dust in the laboratory air, causing it to approximate, as regards infective virulence, to the air of the Alpine loft. I would ask my friend to bring his scientific penetration to bear upon all the foregoing facts. They do not prove spontaneous generation to be "impossible." My assertions, however, relate not to "possibilities," but to proofs, and the experiments just described do most distinctly prove the evidence on which the heterogenist relies to be written on waste paper.

My friend will not, I am persuaded, dispute these results; but he may be disposed to urge that other able and honorable men working at the same subject have arrived at conclusions different from mine. Most freely granted, but let me here recur to the remarks already made in speaking of the experiments of Spallanzani, to the effect that the failure of others to confirm his results by no means upsets their evidence. To fix the ideas, let us suppose that my colleague comes to the laboratory of the Royal Institution, repeats there my experiments, and obtains confirmatory results; and that he then goes to University or King's College, where, operating with the same infusions, he obtains contradictory results. Will he be disposed to conclude that the self-same substance is barren in Albemarle Street and fruitful in Gower Street or the Strand? His Alpine experience has already made known to him the literally infinite differences existing between different samples of air as regards their capacity for putrefactive infection. And, possessing this knowledge, will he not substitute, for the adventurous conclusion that an organic infusion is barren at one place and spontaneously generative at another, the more rational and obvious one that the air of the two localities which has had access to the infusion is infective in different degrees?

As regards workmanship, moreover, he will not fail to bear in mind that fruitfulness may be due to errors of manipulation, while barrenness involves the presumption of correct experiment. It is only the careful worker that can secure the latter, while it is open to every novice to obtain the former. Barrenness is the result at which the conscientious experimenter, whatever his theoretic convictions may be, ought to aim, omitting no pains to secure it, and resorting, only when there is no escape from it, to the conclusion that the life observed comes from no source which correct experiment could neutralize or avoid. Let us again take a definite case. Supposing my colleague to operate with the same apparent care on 100 infusions—or rather on 100 samples of the same infusion—and that 50 of them prove fruitful and 50 barren. Are we to say that the evidence for and against heterogeny is equally balanced? There are some who would not only say this, but who would treasure up the 50 fruitful flasks, as "positive results, and lower the evidential value of the 50 barren flasks by labeling them "negative" results. This, as shown by Dr. William Roberts, is an exact inversion of the true order of the terms positive and negative.[2] Not such, I trust, would be the course pursued by my friend. As regards the 50 fruitful flasks he would, I doubt not, repeat the experiment with redoubled care and scrutiny, and, not by one repetition only, but by many, assure himself that he had not fallen into error. Such faithful scrutiny fully carried out would infallibly lead him to the conclusion that here, as in all other cases, the evidence in favor of spontaneous generation crumbles in the grasp of the competent inquirer.

The botanist knows that different seeds possess different powers of resistance to heat.[3] Some are killed by a momentary exposure to the boiling temperature, while others withstand it for several hours. Most of our ordinary seeds are rapidly killed, while Pouchet made known to the Paris Academy of Sciences, in 1866, that certain seeds, which had been transported in fleeces of wool from Brazil, germinated after four hours' boiling. The germs of the air vary as much among themselves as the seeds of the botanist. In some localities the diffused germs are so tender that boiling for five minutes, or even less, would be sure to destroy them all; in other localities the diffused germs are so obstinate that many hours' boiling would be requisite to deprive them of their power of germination. The absence or presence of a truss of desiccated hay would produce differences as great as those here described. The greatest endurance that I have ever observed— and I believe it is the greatest on record—was a case of survival after eight hours' boiling. As regards their power of resisting heat, the infusorial germs of our atmosphere might be classified under the following and intermediate heads: Killed in five minutes; not killed in five minutes but killed in fifteen; not killed in fifteen minutes but killed in thirty; not killed in thirty minutes but killed in an hour; not killed in an hour but killed in two hours; not killed in two but killed three hours; not killed in three but killed in four hours. I have had several cases of survival after four and five hours' boiling, some survivals after six, and one after eight hours' boiling. Thus far has experiment actually reached, but there is no valid warrant for fixing upon even eight hours as the extreme limit of vital resistance. Probably more extended researches (though mine have been very extensive) would reveal germs more obstinate still. It is also certain that we might begin earlier, and find germs which are destroyed by a temperature far below that of boiling water. In the presence of such facts, to speak of a death-point of bacteria and their germs would be mere nonsense—but of this more anon.

We have now to test one of the principal foundations of the doctrine of spontaneous generation as formulated in this country. With this view, I place before my friend and co-inquirer two liquids which have been kept for six months in one of our sealed chambers, exposed to optically pure air. The one is a mineral solution containing in proper proportions all the substances which enter into the composition of bacteria, the other is an infusion of turnip—it might be any one of a hundred other infusions, animal or vegetable. Both liquids are as clear as distilled water, and there is no trace of life in either of them. They are, in fact, completely sterilized. A mutton-chop, over which a little water has been poured to keep its juices from drying up, has lain for three days upon a plate in our warm room. It smells offensively. Placing a drop of the fetid mutton-juice under a microscope, it is found swarming with the bacteria which live by putrefaction, and without which no putrefaction can occur. With a speck of the swarming liquid I inoculate the clear mineral solution and the clear turnip-infusion, as a surgeon might inoculate an infant with vaccine lymph. In four-and-twenty hours the transparent liquids have become turbid throughout, and, instead of being barren as at first, they are teeming with life. The experiment may be repeated a thousand times with the same invariable result. To the naked eye the liquids at the beginning were alike, being both equally transparent—to the naked eye they are alike at the end, being both equally muddy. Instead of putrid mutton-juice we might take as a source of infection any one of a hundred other putrid liquids, animal or vegetable. So long as the liquid contains the living bacteria, a speck of it communicated to the clear mineral solution, or to the clear turnip-infusion, produces in twenty-four hours the effect that we have described.

We now vary the experiment thus: Opening the back-door of another closed chamber which has contained for months the pure mineral solution and the pure turnip-infusion side by side, I drop into each of them a small pinch of laboratory dust. The effect here is tardier than when the speck of putrid liquid was employed. In three days, however, after its infection with the dust, the turnip-infusion is muddy, and swarming as before with bacteria. But what about the mineral solution which, in our first experiment, behaved in a manner undistinguishable from the turnip-juice? At the end of three days there is not a bacterium to be found in it. At the end of three weeks it is equally innocent of bacterial life. We may repeat the experiment with the solution and the infusion a hundred times, with the same invariable result. Always in the case of the latter the sowing of the atmospheric dust yields a crop of bacteria—never in the former does the dry germinal matter kindle into active life.[4] What is the inference which the reflecting mind must draw from this experiment? Is it not as clear as day that while both liquids are able to feed the bacteria and to enable them to increase and multiply, after they have been once fully developed, only one of the liquids is able to develop into active bacteria the germinal dust of the air?

I invite my friend to reflect upon this conclusion; he will, I think, see that there is no escape from it. He may, if he prefers it, hold the opinion, which I consider erroneous, that bacteria exist in the air, not as germs but as desiccated organisms. The inference remains that, while the one liquid is able to force the passage from the inactive to the active state, the other is not.

But this is not at all the inference which has been drawn from experiments with the mineral solution. Seeing its ability to nourish bacteria when once inoculated with the living active organism, and observing that no bacteria appeared in the solution after long exposure to the air, the inference was drawn that neither bacteria nor their germs existed in the air. Throughout Germany the ablest literature of the subject, even that opposed to heterogeny, is infected with this error; while heterogenists at home and abroad have based upon it a triumphant demonstration of their doctrine. It is proved, they say, by the deportment of the mineral solution that neither bacteria nor their germs exist in the air; hence, if, on exposing a thoroughly sterilized turnip-infusion to the air, bacteria appear, they must of necessity have been spontaneously generated. In the words of Dr. Bastian, uttered not in a popular book, but in the "Proceedings of the Royal Society,"[5] with reference to this very experiment: "We can only infer that while the boiled saline solution is quite incapable of engendering bacteria, such organisms are able to arise de novo in the boiled organic infusion." I would ask my eminent colleague what he thinks of this reasoning now? The datum is, "A mineral solution exposed to common air does not develop bacteria:" the inference is, "Therefore, if a turnip-infusion similarly exposed develop bacteria, they must be spontaneously generated." The inference, on the face of it, is an unwarranted one. But, while as matter of logic it is inconclusive, as matter of fact it is chimerical. London air is as surely charged with the germs of bacteria as London chimneys are with smoke. The inference just referred to is completely disposed of by the simple question: "Why, when your sterilized organic infusion is exposed to optically pure air, should this generation of life de novo utterly cease? Why should I be able to preserve my turnip-juice side by side with your saline solution for the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, in free connection with the general atmosphere, on the sole condition that the portion of that atmosphere in contact with the juice shall be visibly free from floating dust, while three days' exposure to that dust fills it with bacteria?" Am I over-sanguine in hoping that, as regards the argument here set forth, he who runs may read, and he who reads may understand? Let me add, however, that while exposing the fallacy of the inferences drawn from it, I regard the observation that the boiled saline solution can sustain the developed organisms, while it cannot develop them from the dry germinal matter of the air, as an important addition to our knowledge. We are indebted for it to Dr. Burdon-Sanderson, who soon saw that his first interpretation of it went too far, and who, in a communication recently presented to the Royal Society, abandons the interpretation altogether.

We now proceed to the calm and thorough consideration of another subject, more important if possible than the foregoing one, but like it somewhat difficult to seize by reason of the very opulence of the phraseology, logical and rhetorical, in which it has been set forth. The subject now to be considered relates to what has been called "the death-point of bacteria." Those who happen to be acquainted with the modern English literature of the question will remember how challenge after challenge has been issued to panspermatists in general, and to one or two home workers in particular, to come to close quarters on this cardinal point. It is obviously the stronghold of the English heterogenist. "Water," he says, "is boiling merrily over a fire, when some luckless person upsets the vessel so that the heated fluid exercises its scathing influence upon an uncovered portion of the body—hand, arm, or face. Here at all events there is no room for doubt. Boiling water unquestionably exercises a most pernicious and rapidly-destructive effect upon the living matter of which we are composed."[6] And, lest it should be supposed that it is the high organization which, in this case, renders the body susceptible to heat, he refers to the action of boiling water on the hen's-egg to dissipate the notion. "The conclusion," he says, "would seem to force itself upon us that there is something intrinsically deleterious in the action of boiling water upon living matter—whether this matter be of high or of low organization."[7] Again, at another place, "It has been shown that the briefest exposure to the influence of boiling water is destructive of all living matter."[8] Throughout his prolonged disquisitions on this subject, Dr. Bastian makes special kinds of living matter do duty for all kinds. To invalidate the foregoing statements it is only necessary to say that eight years before they were made it had been known to the wool-staplers of Elbœuf, and Pouchet had published the fact in the Comptes-Rendus of the Paris Academy of Sciences[9] that the desiccated seeds of the Brazilian plant medicago survived fully four hours' boiling. Pouchet himself boiled the seeds, and found some of them swollen and disintegrated, while others remained hard and unswollen. Sown in the same earth, the latter germinated while the former did not. So much for the heterogenist's mistake regarding ordinary seeds; we must now examine whether no error underlies his experiments and his reasonings as to "the death-point of bacteria."

The experiments already recorded plainly show that there is a marked difference between the dry bacterial matter of the air, and the wet, soft, and active bacteria of putrefying organic liquids. The one can be luxuriantly bred in the saline solution, the others refuse to be born there, while both of them are copiously developed in a sterilized turnip-infusion. Inferences, as we have already seen, founded on the deportment of the one liquid cannot with the warrant of scientific logic be extended to the other. But this is exactly what the heterogenist has done, thus repeating, as regards the death-point of bacteria, the error into which he fell concerning the germs of the air. Let us boil our muddy mineral solution with its swarming bacteria for five minutes. In the soft, succulent condition in which they exist in the solution not one of them escapes destruction. The same is true of the turnip-infusion if it be inoculated with the living bacteria only—the aërial dust being carefully excluded. In both cases the dead organisms sink to the bottom of the liquid, and without reinoculation no fresh organisms will arise. But the case is entirely different when we inoculate our turnip-infusion with the desiccated germinal matter afloat in the air.

The "death-point" of bacteria is the maximum temperature at which they can live, or the minimum temperature at which they cease to live. If, for example, they survive a temperature of 140°, and do not survive a temperature of 150°, the death-point lies somewhere between these two temperatures. Vaccine lymph, for example, is proved by Messrs. Braidwood and Vacher to be deprived of its power of infection by brief exposure to a temperature between 140° and 150° Fahr. This may be regarded as the death-point of the lymph, or rather of the particles diffused in the lymph, which constitute the real contagium. If no time, however, be named for the application of the heat, the term "death-point" is a vague one. An infusion, for example, which will resist five hours' continuous exposure to the boiling temperature, will succumb to five days' exposure to a temperature 50° below that of boiling. The fully-developed, soft bacteria of putrefying liquids are not only killed by five minutes' boiling, but by less than a single minute's boiling—indeed, they are slain at about the same temperature as the vaccine. The same is true of the plastic, active bacteria of the turnip-infusion.[10] But, instead of choosing a putrefying liquid for inoculation, let us prepare and employ our inoculating substance in the following simple way: Let a small wisp of hay, desiccated by age, be washed in a glass of water, and let a perfectly sterilized turnip-infusion be inoculated with the washing liquid. After three hours' continuous boiling the infusion thus infected will often develop luxuriant bacterial life. Precisely the same occurs if a turnip infusion be prepared in an atmosphere well charged with desiccated hay-germs. The infusion in this case infects itself without special inoculation, and its subsequent resistance to sterilization is often very great. On the 1st of March last I purposely infected the air of our laboratory with the germinal dust of a sapless kind of hay mown in 1875. Ten groups of flasks were charged with turnip infusion prepared in the infected laboratory, and were afterward subjected to the boiling temperature for periods varying from 15 minutes to 240 minutes. Out of the ten groups only one was sterilized—that, namely, which had been boiled for four hours. Every flask of the nine groups which had been boiled for 15, 30, 45, 60, 75, 90, 105, 120, and 180 minutes respectively, bred organisms afterward. The same is true of other vegetable infusions. On the 28th of February last, for example, I boiled six flasks, containing cucumber-infusion prepared in an infected atmosphere, for periods of 15, 30, 45, 60, 120, and 180 minutes. Every flask of the group subsequently developed organisms. On the same day, in the case of three flasks, the boiling was prolonged to 240, 300, and 360 minutes; and these three flasks were completely sterilized. Animal infusions, which under ordinary circumstances are rendered infallibly barren by five minutes' boiling, behave like the vegetable infusions in an infective atmosphere. On the 30th of March, for example, five flasks were charged with a clear infusion of beef and boiled for 60 minutes, 120 minutes, 180 minutes, 240 minutes, and 300 minutes respectively. Every one of them became subsequently crowded with organisms, and the same happened to a perfectly pellucid mutton-infusion prepared at the same time. The cases are to be numbered by hundreds in which similar powers of resistance were manifested by infusions of the most diverse kinds.

In the presence of such facts I would ask my eminent colleague whether it is necessary to dwell for a single instant on the one-sidedness of the evidence which led to the conclusion that all living matter has its life destroyed by "the briefest exposure to the influence of boiling water." An infusion proved to be barren by six months' exposure to moteless air kept at a temperature of 90° Fahr., when inoculated with full-grown, active bacteria, fills itself in two days with organisms so sensitive as to be killed by a few minutes' exposure to a temperature much below that of boiling water. But the extension of this result to the desiccated germinal matter of the air is without warrant or justification. This is obvious without going beyond the argument itself. But we have gone far beyond the argument and proved by multiplied experiment the alleged destruction of all living matter by the briefest exposure to the influence of boiling water to be a delusion. The whole logical edifice raised upon this basis falls, therefore, to the ground; and the argument that bacteria and their germs being destroyed at 140° must, if they appear after exposure to 212°, be spontaneously generated, is, I trust, silenced forever.

Through the precautions, variations, and repetitions observed and executed with the view of rendering its results secure, the separate vessels employed in this inquiry have mounted up in two years to nearly 10,000. Here, however, and with good reason, the editor cries, "Halt!" I had hoped, when I began, to carry the argument further. Besides the philosophic interest attaching to the problem of life's origin, which will be always immense, there are the practical interests involved in the application of the doctrines here discussed to surgery and medicine. The antiseptic system, at which I have already glanced, illustrates the manner in which beneficent results of the gravest moment follow in the wake of clear theoretic insight. Surgery was once a noble art; it is now, as well, a noble science. Prior to the introduction of the antiseptic system, the thoughtful surgeon could not have failed to learn empirically that there is something in the air which often defeated the most consummate operative skill. That something the antiseptic treatment destroys or renders innocuous. At King's College Mr. Lister operates and dresses while a fine shower of mixed carbolic acid and water, produced in the simplest manner, falls upon the wound, the lint and gauze employed in the subsequent dressing being duly saturated with the antiseptic. At St. Bartholomew's Mr. Callender employs the dilute carbolic acid without the spray; but, as regards the real point aimed at—the preventing of the wound from becoming a nidus for the propagation of septic bacteria —the practice in both hospitals is the same. Commending itself as it does to the scientifically-trained mind, the antiseptic system has struck deep root in Germany.

It would also have given me pleasure to point out the present position of the "germ-theory" in reference to the phenomena of infectious disease, distinguishing arguments based on analogy—which, however, are terribly strong—from those based on actual observation. I should have liked to follow up the account I have already given[11] of the truly excellent researches of a young and an unknown German physician named Koch, on splenic fever, by an account of what Pasteur has recently done with reference to the same subject. Here we have before us a living contagium of the most fatal power, which we can follow from the beginning to the end of its life-cycle.[12] We find it in the blood or spleen of a smitten animal in the state say of short motionless rods. We place these rods in a nutritive liquid on the warm stage of the microscope, and see them lengthening into filaments which lie side by side, or, crossing each other, become coiled into knots of a complexity not to be unraveled. We finally see those filaments resolving themselves into innumerable spores, each with death potentially housed within it, yet not to be distinguished microscopically from the harmless germs of Bacillus subtilis. The bacterium of splenic fever is called Bacillus anthracis. This formidable organism was shown to me by M. Pasteur in Paris last July. His recent investigations regarding the part it plays pathologically certainly rank among the most remarkable labors of that remarkable man. Observer after observer had strayed and fallen in this land of pitfalls, a multitude of opposing conclusions and mutually-destructive theories being the result. In association with his younger physiological colleague M. Joubert, Pasteur struck in amid the chaos, and soon reduced the whole of it to harmony. They proved, among other things, that in cases where previous observers in France had supposed themselves to be dealing solely with splenic fever, another equally virulent factor was simultaneously active. Splenic fever was often overmastered by septicæmia, and results due solely to the latter had been frequently made the ground of pathological inferences regarding the character and cause of the former. Combining duly the two factors, all the previous irregularities disappeared, every result obtained receiving the fullest explanation. On studying the account of this masterly investigation, the words wherewith Pasteur himself feelingly alludes to the difficulties and dangers of the experimenter's art came home to me with especial force: "J'ai tant de fois éprouve que dans cet art difficile de l'expérimentation les plus hahiles bronchent à chaque pas, et que l'interprétation des faits n'est pas moins périlleuse."[13]

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  1. "Fragments of Science," fifth edition, pp. 128, 129.
  2. See his truly philosophical remarks on this head in the British Medical Journal, 1876, p. 282.
  3. I am indebted to Dr. Thistleton Dyer for various illustrations of such differences. It is, however, surprising that a subject of such high scientific importance should not have been more thoroughly explored. Here the scoundrels who deal in killed seeds might be able to add to our knowledge.
  4. This is the deportment of the mineral solution as described by others. My own experiments would lead me to say that the development of the bacteria, though exceedingly slow and difficult, is not impossible.
  5. Vol. xxi., p. 130.
  6. Bastian, "Evolution," p. 133.
  7. Ibid., p. 135.
  8. Ibid., p. 46.
  9. Vol. Ixiii., p. 939.
  10. In my paper in the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1876, I pointed out and illustrated experimentally the difference, as regards rapidity of development, between water-germs and air-germs; the growth from the already softened water-germs proving to be practically as rapid as from developed bacteria. This preparedness of the germ for rapid development is associated with its preparedness for rapid destruction.
  11. Fortnightly Review, November, 1876.
  12. Dallinger and Drysdale had previously shown what skill and patience can accomplish by their admirable observations on the life-history of the monads.
  13. Comptes Rendus, lxxxiii., p. 177.