A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter VIII
Nineteenth-century medicine
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."[7]

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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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.