Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/499

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ing 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."[1] 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

    sirten 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."

  1. "Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council," 1874, p. 5.