Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 81.djvu/14

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
8
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

cells changed according to the conditions of fermentation. Incidentally he demonstrated in alcoholic fermentation, the formation of glycerin and succinic acid in addition to the well-known products alcohol and carbonic acid. In short, the outcome was that Pasteur completely demonstrated that the fermentations which lead to the production of alcohol, vinegar, lactic acid and butyric acid are all due to the presence and growth of minute organisms, or, in his own words, "The chemical act of fermentation is essentially a correlative phenomenon of a vital act beginning and ending with it."

The demonstration of the part played by specific microorganisms in the different fermentations was, as may readily be seen, suggestive of the etiology of infectious diseases. It was in the midst of these labors that the Académie des Sciences conferred upon Pasteur the Prize for Experimental Physiology (for 1859), and it was Claude Bernard who drew up the report and dwelt upon the "physiological tendency in Pasteur's researches." Ten years before, Bernard had characterized the process of fermentation as "obscure."

The results of the investigation of fermentation led naturally to a debate among the academicians concerning spontaneous generation, and in this dispute Pasteur took a most important part. The older examples of spontaneous generation, as, for example, the development of mice from a mixture of soiled linen and cheese and of maggots from decomposing meat, had long been discarded, but the demonstration that fermentation and putrefaction were due to microscopic living organisms raised the question: Whence comes this microscopic life? Do or do not these bodies arise spontaneously in putrescible and fermentable fluids? The results of several investigations were already at hand. Thus Spallanzani (1769) had shown that if a putrescible fluid was hermetically sealed in flasks and the flasks heated in boiling water, decomposition did not occur; Schulze (1836) had obtained the same result by filtering through strong solutions of acids and alkalies the air which entered such flasks, as had also Schwann (1837), by first passing the air through heated tubes; and likewise Schroeder and Dusch (1854) by filtering the air through cotton plugs. All these procedures robbed the air of the suspended microorganisms and, as the fluids had previously been sterilized by heat, decomposition did not occur. But at the time these procedures, though now recognized as the basic principles of bacteriological technique, as applied to sterilization and asepsis, did not gain general credence. "Philosophic argumentation always returned to the fore." The theory of spontaneous generation would not down, and from 1858 to 1862 it was the most important matter of debate in the discussions of the Académie des Sciences.

Pouchet and Pasteur were the disputants, the former defending the thesis that "animals and plants could be generated in a medium abso