Book - A History of Science 17
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Williams HS. A History of Science. (1904) Harper and Bros. New York.
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19th Century Medicine Part 1
Pasteur and the Germ Theory of Disease
The discovery of the anaesthetic power of drugs was destined presently, in addition to its direct beneficences, to aid greatly in the progress of scientific medicine, by facilitating those experimental studies of animals from which, before the day of anaesthesia, many humane physicians were withheld, and which in recent years have led to discoveries of such inestimable value to humanity. But for the moment this possibility was quite overshadowed by the direct benefits of anaesthesia, and the long strides that were taken in scientific medicine during the first fifteen years after Morton's discovery were mainly independent of such aid. These steps were taken, indeed, in a field that at first glance might seem to have a very slight connection with medicine. Moreover, the chief worker in the field was not himself a physician. He was a chemist, and the work in which he was now engaged was the study of alcoholic fermentation in vinous liquors. Yet these studies paved the way for the most important advances that medicine has made in any century towards the plane of true science; and to this man more than to any other single individual--it might almost be said more than to all other individuals--was due this wonderful advance. It is almost superfluous to add that the name of this marvellous chemist was Louis Pasteur.
The studies of fermentation which Pasteur entered upon in 1854 were aimed at the solution of a controversy that had been waging in the scientific world with varying degrees of activity for a quarter of a century. Back in the thirties, in the day of the early enthusiasm over the perfected microscope, there had arisen a new interest in the minute forms of life which Leeuwenhoek and some of the other early workers with the lens had first described, and which now were shown to be of almost universal prevalence. These minute organisms had been studied more or less by a host of observers, but in particular by the Frenchman Cagniard Latour and the German of cell-theory fame, Theodor Schwann. These men, working independently, had reached the conclusion, about 1837, that the micro-organisms play a vastly more important role in the economy of nature than any one previously had supposed. They held, for example, that the minute specks which largely make up the substance of yeast are living vegetable organisms, and that the growth of these organisms is the cause of the important and familiar process of fermentation. They even came to hold, at least tentatively, the opinion that the somewhat similar micro-organisms to be found in all putrefying matter, animal or vegetable, had a causal relation to the process of putrefaction.
This view, particularly as to the nature of putrefaction, was expressed even more outspokenly a little later by the French botanist Turpin. Views so supported naturally gained a following; it was equally natural that so radical an innovation should be antagonized. In this case it chanced that one of the most dominating scientific minds of the time, that of Liebig, took a firm and aggressive stand against the new doctrine. In 1839 he promulgated his famous doctrine of fermentation, in which he stood out firmly against any "vitalistic" explanation of the phenomena, alleging that the presence of micro-organisms in fermenting and putrefying substances was merely incidental, and in no sense causal. This opinion of the great German chemist was in a measure substantiated by experiments of his compatriot Helmholtz, whose earlier experiments confirmed, but later ones contradicted, the observations of Schwann, and this combined authority gave the vitalistic conception a blow from which it had not rallied at the time when Pasteur entered the field. Indeed, it was currently regarded as settled that the early students of the subject had vastly over-estimated the importance of micro-organisms.
And so it came as a new revelation to the generality of scientists of the time, when, in 1857 and the succeeding half-decade, Pasteur published the results of his researches, in which the question had been put to a series of altogether new tests, and brought to unequivocal demonstration.
He proved that the micro-organisms do all that his most imaginative predecessors had suspected, and more. Without them, he proved, there would be no fermentation, no putrefaction--no decay of any tissues, except by the slow process of oxidation. It is the microscopic yeast-plant which, by seizing on certain atoms of the molecule, liberates the remaining atoms in the form of carbonic-acid and alcohol, thus effecting fermentation; it is another microscopic plant--a bacterium, as Devaine had christened it--which in a similar way effects the destruction of organic molecules, producing the condition which we call putrefaction. Pasteur showed, to the amazement of biologists, that there are certain forms of these bacteria which secure the oxygen which all organic life requires, not from the air, but by breaking up unstable molecules in which oxygen is combined; that putrefaction, in short, has its foundation in the activities of these so-called anaerobic bacteria.
In a word, Pasteur showed that all the many familiar processes of the decay of organic tissues are, in effect, forms of fermentation, and would not take place at all except for the presence of the living micro-organisms. A piece of meat, for example, suspended in an atmosphere free from germs, will dry up gradually, without the slightest sign of putrefaction, regardless of the temperature or other conditions to which it may have been subjected. Let us witness one or two series of these experiments as presented by Pasteur himself in one of his numerous papers before the Academy of Sciences.
Experiments with Grape Sugar
"In the course of the discussion which took place before the Academy upon the subject of the generation of ferments properly so-called, there was a good deal said about that of wine, the oldest fermentation known. On this account I decided to disprove the theory of M. Fremy by a decisive experiment bearing solely upon the juice of grapes.
"I prepared forty flasks of a capacity of from two hundred and fifty to three hundred cubic centimetres and filled them half full with filtered grape-must, perfectly clear, and which, as is the case of all acidulated liquids that have been boiled for a few seconds, remains uncontaminated although the curved neck of the flask containing them remain constantly open during several months or years.
"In a small quantity of water I washed a part of a bunch of grapes, the grapes and the stalks together, and the stalks separately. This washing was easily done by means of a small badger's-hair brush. The washing-water collected the dust upon the surface of the grapes and the stalks, and it was easily shown under the microscope that this water held in suspension a multitude of minute organisms closely resembling either fungoid spores, or those of alcoholic Yeast, or those of Mycoderma vini, etc. This being done, ten of the forty flasks were preserved for reference; in ten of the remainder, through the straight tube attached to each, some drops of the washing-water were introduced; in a third series of ten flasks a few drops of the same liquid were placed after it had been boiled; and, finally, in the ten remaining flasks were placed some drops of grape-juice taken from the inside of a perfect fruit. In order to carry out this experiment, the straight tube of each flask was drawn out into a fine and firm point in the lamp, and then curved. This fine and closed point was filed round near the end and inserted into the grape while resting upon some hard substance. When the point was felt to touch the support of the grape it was by a slight pressure broken off at the point file mark. Then, if care had been taken to create a slight vacuum in the flask, a drop of the juice of the grape got into it, the filed point was withdrawn, and the aperture immediately closed in the alcohol lamp. This decreased pressure of the atmosphere in the flask was obtained by the following means: After warming the sides of the flask either in the hands or in the lamp-flame, thus causing a small quantity of air to be driven out of the end of the curved neck, this end was closed in the lamp. After the flask was cooled, there was a tendency to suck in the drop of grape-juice in the manner just described.
"The drop of grape-juice which enters into the flask by this suction ordinarily remains in the curved part of the tube, so that to mix it with the must it was necessary to incline the flask so as to bring the must into contact with the juice and then replace the flask in its normal position. The four series of comparative experiments produced the following results:
"The first ten flasks containing the grape-must boiled in pure air did not show the production of any organism. The grape-must could possibly remain in them for an indefinite number of years. Those in the second series, containing the water in which the grapes had been washed separately and together, showed without exception an alcoholic fermentation which in several cases began to appear at the end of forty-eight hours when the experiment took place at ordinary summer temperature. At the same time that the yeast appeared, in the form of white traces, which little by little united themselves in the form of a deposit on the sides of all the flasks, there were seen to form little flakes of Mycellium, often as a single fungoid growth or in combination, these fungoid growths being quite independent of the must or of any alcoholic yeast. Often, also, the Mycoderma vini appeared after some days upon the surface of the liquid. The Vibria and the lactic ferments properly so called did not appear on account of the nature of the liquid.
"The third series of flasks, the washing-water in which had been previously boiled, remained unchanged, as in the first series. Those of the fourth series, in which was the juice of the interior of the grapes, remained equally free from change, although I was not always able, on account of the delicacy of the experiment, to eliminate every chance of error. These experiments cannot leave the least doubt in the mind as to the following facts:
Grape-must, after heating, never ferments on contact with the air, when the air has been deprived of the germs which it ordinarily holds in a state of suspension.
"The boiled grape-must ferments when there is introduced into it a very small quantity of water in which the surface of the grapes or their stalks have been washed.
"The grape-must does not ferment when this washing-water has been boiled and afterwards cooled.
"The grape-must does not ferment when there is added to it a small quantity of the juice of the inside of the grape.
"The yeast, therefore, which causes the fermentation of the grapes in the vintage-tub comes from the outside and not from the inside of the grapes. Thus is destroyed the hypothesis of MM. Trecol and Fremy, who surmised that the albuminous matter transformed itself into yeast on account of the vital germs which were natural to it. With greater reason, therefore, there is no longer any question of the theory of Liebig of the transformation of albuminoid matter into ferments on account of the oxidation."
Foreign Organisms and the Wort of Beer
"The method which I have just followed," Pasteur continues, "in order to show that there exists a correlation between the diseases of beer and certain microscopic organisms leaves no room for doubt, it seems to me, in regard to the principles I am expounding.
"Every time that the microscope reveals in the leaven, and especially in the active yeast, the production of organisms foreign to the alcoholic yeast properly so called, the flavor of the beer leaves something to be desired, much or little, according to the abundance and the character of these little germs. Moreover, when a finished beer of good quality loses after a time its agreeable flavor and becomes sour, it can be easily shown that the alcoholic yeast deposited in the bottles or the casks, although originally pure, at least in appearance, is found to be contaminated gradually with these filiform or other ferments. All this can be deduced from the facts already given, but some critics may perhaps declare that these foreign ferments are the consequences of the diseased condition, itself produced by unknown causes.
"Although this gratuitous hypothesis may be difficult to uphold, I will endeavor to corroborate the preceding observations by a clearer method of investigation. This consists in showing that the beer never has any unpleasant taste in all cases when the alcoholic ferment properly so called is not mixed with foreign ferments; that it is the same in the case of wort, and that wort, liable to changes as it is, can be preserved unaltered if it is kept from those microscopic parasites which find in it a suitable nourishment and a field for growth.
"The employment of this second method has, moreover, the advantage of proving with certainty the proposition that I advanced at first--namely, that the germs of these organisms are derived from the dust of the atmosphere, carried about and deposited upon all objects, or scattered over the utensils and the materials used in a brewery-materials naturally charged with microscopic germs, and which the various operations in the store-rooms and the malt-house may multiply indefinitely.
"Let us take a glass flask with a long neck of from two hundred and fifty to three hundred cubic centimetres capacity, and place in it some wort, with or without hops, and then in the flame of a lamp draw out the neck of the flask to a fine point, afterwards heating the liquid until the steam comes out of the end of the neck. It can then be allowed to cool without any other precautions; but for additional safety there can be introduced into the little point a small wad of asbestos at the moment that the flame is withdrawn from beneath the flask. Before thus placing the asbestos it also can be passed through the flame, as well as after it has been put into the end of the tube. The air which then first re-enters the flask will thus come into contact with the heated glass and the heated liquid, so as to destroy the vitality of any dust germs that may exist in the air. The air itself will re-enter very gradually, and slowly enough to enable any dust to be taken up by the drop of water which the air forces up the curvature of the tube. Ultimately the tube will be dry, but the re-entering of the air will be so slow that the particles of dust will fall upon the sides of the tube. The experiments show that with this kind of vessel, allowing free communication with the air, and the dust not being allowed to enter, the dust will not enter at all events for a period of ten or twelve years, which has been the longest period devoted to these trials; and the liquid, if it were naturally limpid, will not be in the least polluted neither on its surface nor in its mass, although the outside of the flask may become thickly coated with dust. This is a most irrefutable proof of the impossibility of dust getting inside the flask.
"The wort thus prepared remains uncontaminated indefinitely, in spite of its susceptibility to change when exposed to the air under conditions which allow it to gather the dusty particles which float in the atmosphere. It is the same in the case of urine, beef-tea, and grape-must, and generally with all those putrefactable and fermentable liquids which have the property when heated to boiling-point of destroying the vitality of dust germs."
There was nothing in these studies bearing directly upon the question of animal diseases, yet before they were finished they had stimulated progress in more than one field of pathology. At the very outset they sufficed to start afresh the inquiry as to the role played by micro-organisms in disease. In particular they led the French physician Devaine to return to some interrupted studies which he had made ten years before in reference to the animal disease called anthrax, or splenic fever, a disease that cost the farmers of Europe millions of francs annually through loss of sheep and cattle. In 1850 Devaine had seen multitudes of bacteria in the blood of animals who had died of anthrax, but he did not at that time think of them as having a causal relation to the disease. Now, however, in 1863, stimulated by Pasteur's new revelations regarding the power of bacteria, he returned to the subject, and soon became convinced, through experiments by means of inoculation, that the microscopic organisms he had discovered were the veritable and the sole cause of the infectious disease anthrax.
The publication of this belief in 1863 aroused a furor of controversy. That a microscopic vegetable could cause a virulent systemic disease was an idea altogether too startling to be accepted in a day, and the generality of biologists and physicians demanded more convincing proofs than Devaine as yet was able to offer.
Naturally a host of other investigators all over the world entered the field. Foremost among these was the German Dr. Robert Koch, who soon corroborated all that Devaine had observed, and carried the experiments further in the direction of the cultivation of successive generations of the bacteria in artificial media, inoculations being made from such pure cultures of the eighth generation, with the astonishing result that animals thus inoculated succumbed to the disease.
Such experiments seem demonstrative, yet the world was unconvinced, and in 1876, while the controversy was still at its height, Pasteur was prevailed upon to take the matter in hand. The great chemist was becoming more and more exclusively a biologist as the years passed, and in recent years his famous studies of the silk-worm diseases, which he proved due to bacterial infection, and of the question of spontaneous generation, had given him unequalled resources in microscopical technique. And so when, with the aid of his laboratory associates Duclaux and Chamberland and Roux, he took up the mooted anthrax question the scientific world awaited the issue with bated breath. And when, in 1877, Pasteur was ready to report on his studies of anthrax, he came forward with such a wealth of demonstrative experiments--experiments the rigid accuracy of which no one would for a moment think of questioning--going to prove the bacterial origin of anthrax, that scepticism was at last quieted for all time to come.
Henceforth no one could doubt that the contagious disease anthrax is due exclusively to the introduction into an animal's system of a specific germ--a microscopic plant--which develops there. And no logical mind could have a reasonable doubt that what is proved true of one infectious disease would some day be proved true also of other, perhaps of all, forms of infectious maladies.
Hitherto the cause of contagion, by which certain maladies spread from individual to individual, had been a total mystery, quite unillumined by the vague terms "miasm," "humor," "virus," and the like cloaks of ignorance. Here and there a prophet of science, as Schwann and Henle, had guessed the secret; but guessing, in science, is far enough from knowing. Now, for the first time, the world KNEW, and medicine had taken another gigantic stride towards the heights of exact science.
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Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2021, October 27) Embryology Book - A History of Science 17. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Book_-_A_History_of_Science_17
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