Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/83

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73
A HALF-CENTURY OF SCIENCE.

duction in the lower plants was doubtful, or at least doubted by some eminent authorities, as recently as 1853, when the actual process of fertilization in the common bladderwrack of our shores was observed by Thuret, while the reproduction of the larger fungi was first worked out by De Bary in 1863.

As regards lichens, Schwendener proposed, in 1869, the startling theory, now, however, accepted by some of the highest authorities, that lichens are not autonomous organisms, but commensal associations of a fungus parasitic on an alga. With reference to the higher cryptogams it is hardly too much to say that the whole of our exact knowledge of their life-history has been obtained during the last half-century. Thus, in the case of ferns, the male organs, or antheridia, were first discovered by Nägeli in 1844, and the archegonia, or female organs, by Suminski in 1848. The early stages in the development of mosses were worked out by Valentine in 1833. Lastly, the principle of alternation of generations in plants was discovered by Hofmeister. This eminent naturalist also, in 1851-54, pointed out the homologies of the reproductive processes in mosses, vascular cryptogams, gymnosperms, and angiosperms.

Nothing could have appeared less likely than that researches into the theory of spontaneous generation should have led to practical improvements in medical science. Yet such has been the case. Only a few years ago bacteria seemed mere scientific curiosities. It had long been known that an infusion—say, of hay—would, if exposed to the atmosphere, be found, after a certain time, to teem with living forms. Even those few who still believe that life would be spontaneously generated in such an infusion, will admit that these minute organisms are, if not entirely, yet mainly, derived from germs floating in our atmosphere; and, if precautions are taken to exclude such germs, as in the careful experiments especially of Pasteur, Tyndall, and Roberts, every one will grant that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred no such development of life will take place. These facts have led to most important results in surgery. One reason why compound fractures are so dangerous, is because, the skin being broken, the air obtains access to the wound, bringing with it innumerable germs, which too often set up putrefying action. Lister first made a practical application of these observations. He set himself to find some substance capable of killing the germs, without being itself too potent a caustic, and he found that dilute carbolic acid fulfilled these conditions. This discovery has enabled many operations to be performed which would previously have been almost hopeless.

The same idea seems destined to prove as useful in medicine as in surgery. There is great reason to suppose that many diseases, especially those of a zymotic character, have their origin in the germs of special organisms. We know that fevers run a certain definite course. The parasitic organisms are at first few, but gradually multiply at the