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From ancient times, men have believed that, under certain peculiar circumstances, life could arise spontaneously: from the ooze of rivers could come eels and from the entrails of dead bulls, bees; worms from mud, and maggots from dead meat. This belief was held by Aristotle, Newton and Descartes, among many others, and apparently the great William Harvey too. The weight of centuries gradually disintegrated men’s beliefs in the spontaneous origin of maggots and mice, but the doctrine of spontaneous generation clung tenaciously to the question of bacterial origin.

In association with Buffon, the Irish Jesuit priest, John Needham declared that he could bring about at will the creation of living microbes in heat-sterilized broths, and presumably, in propitiation, theorized that God did not create living things directly but bade the earth and water to bring them forth. In his Dictioinaire Philosophique, Voltaire reflected that it was odd to read of Father Needham’s claim while atheists conversely ‘should deny a Creator yet attribute to themselves the power of creating eels’ But, wrote Thomas Huxley, ‘The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers was played, almost immediately, for the benefits of Buffon and Needham.

The Italian Abbe Spallenzani did an experiment. He showed that a broth sealed from the air while boiling never develops bacterial growths and hence never decomposes. To Needham’s objection that Spallenzani had ruined his broths and the air above them by excessive boiling, the Abbe replied by breaking the seals of his flasks. Air rushed in and bacterial growth began! But the essential conflict remained. Whatever Spallanzani and his followers did to remove seeds and contaminants was regarded by the spontaneous generationists as damaging to the ‘vital force’ from whence comes new life.

Thus, doubt remained, and into the controversy came the Titanic figure of Louis Pasteur. Believing that a solution to this problem was essential to the development of his theories concerning the role of bacteria in nature, Pasteur freely acknowledged the possibility that living bacteria very well might be arising anew from inanimate matter. To him, the research problem was largely a technical one: to repeat the work of those who claimed to have observed spontaneous generation but to employ infinite care to discover and exclude every possible concealed portal of bacterial entry. For the one that contended that life did not enter from the outside, the proof had to go to the question of possible contamination. Pasteur worked logically. After prolonged boiling, a broth would ferment only when air was admitted to it. Therefore, either air contained a factor necessary for the spontaneous generation of life or viable germs were borne by the air and seeded in the sterile nutrient broth. Pasteur designed ingenious flasks whose long Sshaped necks could be left open. Air was trapped in the sinuous glass tube. Broths boiled in these glass tubes remained sterile. When their necks were snapped to admit ordinary air, bacterial growth would then commence but not in every case. An occasional flask would remain sterile presumably because the bacterial population of the air is unevenly distributed. The forces of spontaneous generation would not be so erratic. Continuous scepticism drove Pasteur almost to fanatical efforts to control the ingredients of his experiments to destroy the doubts of the most sceptical. He ranged from the mountain air of Montanvert, which he showed to be almost sterile to those deep, clear wells whose waters had been rendered germ free by slow filtration through sandy soil. The latter discovery led to the familiar porcelain filters of the bacteriology laboratory. With pores small enough to exclude bacteria, solutions allowed to percolate through them could be reliably sterlised

The argument raged on and soon spilled beyond the boundaries of science to become a burning religious and philosophical question of the day. For many, Pasteur’s conclusions caused conflict because they seemed simultaneously to support the Biblical account of creation while denying a variety of other philosophical systems. The public was soon caught up in the crossfire of a vigorous series of public lectures and demonstrations by leading exponents of both views, novelists, clergymen, their adjuncts and friends.

Perhaps the most famous of these evenings in the theatre competing perhaps with a great debate between Huxley and Bishop Wiberforce for elegance of rhetoric was Pasteur’s public lecture at the Sorbonne on 7 April, 1864. Having shown his audience the swan necked flasks containing sterile broths, he concluded, “And, therefore, gentlemen, I could point to that liquid and say to you, I have taken my drop of water from the immensity of creation, and I have taken it full of the elements appropriated to the development of inferior beings. And I wait, I watch, I question it! — begging it to recommence for me the beautiful spectacle of the first creation. But it is dumb since these experiments were begun several years ago; it is dumb because I have kept it from the only thing man does not know how to produce: from the germs that float in the air, from Life, for Life is a germ and a germ is Life. Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment.” And it has not, Today these same flasks stand immutable: they are still free of microbial life.

It is an interesting fact that despite the ringing declaration of Pasteur, the issue did not die completely. And although far from healthy, it is not yet dead. In his fascinating biography of Pasteur, Rene Dubos has traced the later developments which saw new eruptions of the controversy, new technical progress and criticism, and new energetic figures in the breach of the battle such as Bastion, and the immortal Tyndall, against the doctrine of spontaneous generation. There was also new ‘sorrow’ for Pasteur as he read years later, in 1877, the last jottings of the great psychologist Claude Bernard and saw in them the ‘mystical’ suggestion that yeast may arise from grape juice. Even at this late date, Pasteurwas stirred to new experiments again to prove to the dead Bernard and his followers the correctness of his position.

It seems to me that spontaneous generation is not only a possibility, but a completely reasonable possibility which should never be relinquished from scientific thought. Before men knew of bacteria, they accepted the doctrine of spontaneous generation as the ‘only reasonable alternative’ to a belief in supernatural creation. But today, as we look with satisfaction at the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, we must not forget that science has rationally concluded that life once did originate on earth by spontaneous generation. It was really Pasteur’s evidence against spontaneous generation that for the first time brought the whole difficult question of the origin of life before the scientific world. In the above controversy, what was unreasonable was the parade of men who claimed to have ‘proved’ or who resolutely ‘believed in’ spontaneous generation on the face of proof— not that spontaneous generation cannot occur — but that their work was shot through with experimental error. The acceptable evidence also makes it clear that spontaneous generation, if it does not occur, must obviously he. highly improbable even under present conditions. Logic tells us that science can only prove an event improbable: it can never prove it impossible - and Gamow has appropriately remarked that nobody is really certain what would happen if a hermetically sealed can were opened after a couple of million years. Modem science agrees that it was highly improbable for life to have arisen in the pre-Cambrian seas, but it concluded, nevertheless, that there it did occur. With this, I think, Pasteur would agree.

Aside from their theoretical implications, these researchers had the great practical result of putting bacteriology on a solid footing. It was now clear how precisely careful one had to be to avoid bacterial contamination in the laboratory. We now knew what ‘sterile’ meant and knew that there could be no such thing as ‘partial sterlisation’. The discovery of bacteria high in the upper atmosphere, in the mid of the deep see bottom, in the waters of hot springs, and in the Arctic glaciers established bacterial ubiquity as almost absolute. In recognition of this, Lord Lister introduced aseptic technique into the practice of surgery. It was the revolution in technique alone that made possible modern bacteriology and the subsequent research connecting bacteria to phenomena of human concern, research which today is more prodigious than ever. We are just beginning to understand the relationship to bacteria of certain human diseases, to soil chemistry, nutrition, and the phenomenon of antibiosis, wherein a product of one organism (e.g. penicillin) is detrimental to another.

It is not an exaggeration then to say that the emergence of the cell theory represents biology’s most significant and fruitful advance. The realisation that all plants and animals are composed of cells which are essentially alike, that cells are all formed by the same fundamental division process, that the total organism is a whole made u of the activities and interrelations of its individual cells, opened up horizons we have not even begun to approach. The cell, is a microcosm of life, for in its origin, nature and continuity, resides the entire problem of biology.

Pasteur began his work on the basis of the contention that:

  1. either air contained a factor necessary for the spontaneous generation of life or viable germs were borne in by the air and seeded in the sterile nutrient broth.
  2. after prolonged boiling, a broth would ferment only when air was admitted to it.
  3. both A and B
  4. neither A nor B
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