Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 58.djvu/246

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THE fact that life did not exist upon the earth at a remote period of time, the possibility of its present existence as well as the prospect of its ultimate extinction, can be traced to the operation of certain physical conditions. These physical conditions upon which the maintenance of life as a whole depends are in their main issues beyond the control of man. We can but study, predict and it may be utilize their effects for our benefit. Life in its individual manifestations is, therefore, conditioned by the physical environment in which it is placed. Life rests on a physical basis, and the main springs of its energies are derived from a larger world outside itself. If these conditions, physical or chemical, are favorable, the functions of life proceed; if unfavorable, they cease—and death ultimately ensues. These factors have been studied and their effects utilized to conserve health or to prevent disease. It is our purpose this evening to study some of the purely physical factors, not in their direct bearing on man, but in relation to much lower forms in the scale of life—forms which constitute in number a family far exceeding that of the human species, and of which we may produce at will in a test-tube, within a few hours, a population equal to that of London. These lowly forms of life—the bacteria—belong to the vegetable kingdom, and each individual is represented by a simple cell.

These forms of life are ubiquitous in the soil, air and water, and are likewise to be met with in intimate association with plants and animals, whose tissues they may likewise invade with injurious or deadly effects. Their study is commonly termed bacteriology—a term frequently regarded as synonymous with a branch of purely medical investigation. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that bacteriology is solely concerned with the study of the germs of disease. The dangerous microbes are in a hopeless minority in comparison with the number of those which are continually performing varied and most useful functions in the economy of nature. Their wide importance is due to the fact that they insure the resolution and redistribution of dead and effete organic matter, which if allowed to accumulate would speedily render life impossible on the surface of the earth. If medicine ceased to regard the bacteria, their study would

  1. Lecture before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.