[Paris: Mallet-Bachelier, 1863].
Extremely rare separately-paginated offprint of the ne plus ultra of Pasteur’s work on spontaneous generation, and his proof that putrefaction was, like fermentation, caused by living organisms; this paper directly influenced Joseph Lister’s research on antisepsis (see below). Pasteur himself regarded the experiments described in this work as the most decisive (Rostand, p. 183), writing at the end of the paper that they struck the final blow against the doctrine of spontaneous generation (“Il sera superflu sans doute de faire remarquer que les expériences dont je viens d’entretenir l’Académie au sujet du sang et de l’urine portent un dernier coup à la doctrine des générations spontanées, aussi bien qu’à la théorie moderne des ferments”). Pasteur’s opponents had objected that in the experiments described in Pasteur’s earlier paper ‘Mémoire sur les Corpuscules organisées qui existent dans l’Atmosphere’ (1861), the heating of the fermentable materials may have destroyed the ‘vegetative forces’ needed to create new life. In the present work, Pasteur therefore collected blood and urine directly from the veins and bladders of healthy cattle. These mediums did not require heating to be sterilized and, as in his previous experiments, micro-organisms appeared only on exposure to atmospheric air.
“Many scientists of the vitalist persuasion, including Liebig, believed that putrefaction was due to a spontaneous breakdown of animal tissues once the chemical forces of affinity were no longer held in check by a vital force. It was also widely believed – and seemingly supported by observation – that infusoria and other organisms associated with decay were spontaneously generated in dead tissues. In this way, Pasteur was drawn into the acrimonious debate about the spontaneous generation of life.
“Careful experiments conducted by Pasteur showed that ‘combustion’ of organic substances does not occur in the absence of micro-organisms. In a prize-winning essay of 1861 [‘Mémoire sur les Corpuscules organisées…’], he described a variety of experiments that showed airborne micro-organisms to be responsible for the putrefaction of organic solutions. The most definitive of these was the demonstration that a boiled sugar solution in a swan-necked flask left open to the air did not undergo putrefaction, apparently because the airborne organisms became trapped in the bend of the neck. It could still be argued, however, that boiling organic solutions destroyed their ability to undergo spontaneous decomposition. Pasteur managed to disprove this by showing in 1863 [in the present paper] that urine and blood, drawn sterile from the body but otherwise untreated, did not take up any significant amount of oxygen over a [forty-day] period. Only if micro-organisms were present would fermentation or putrefaction occur, and only in this case would oxygen uptake occur” (Hunter, pp. 85-6).
“Pasteur extended to the phenomena of putrefaction the central conclusions of his work on fermentation. Like fermentation, he insisted, putrefaction can be traced to the vital activity of living ferments. Indeed, except for the action of microorganisms, the constituents of dead plants and animals could be considered “relatively indestructible.” To express the matter in more poetic terms, “life takes part in the work of death in all its phases,” for the decomposition associated with death depends on the development and multiplication of microorganisms. Moreover, death is as essential to the cycle of life as life is to the phenomena of death. For it is only as a consequence of death and putrefaction that carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen become available as nutrients to support the life of other organisms. Thus, in an eternal cycle, life stems from death and death from life” (DSB).
Beginning in 1864, Joseph Lister’s medical innovations and surgical practice were directly indebted to Louis Pasteur’s research on fermentation and putrefaction. “In 1864, while Lister was in Glasgow, a chemistry professor and colleague, Dr. Thomas Anderson, drew his attention to the latest work of Pasteur, specifically to “On the organized bodies which exist in the atmosphere” (1861) and to “Investigation into the role attributable to atmospheric gas” (1863) [the offered work]. The advice might have been serendipitous in that Lister began to read Pasteur’s papers at a time when he was struggling to control post-surgical infections…
“From 1864 on, Lister had been investigating whether Pasteur’s work on micro-organisms could be applied successfully to the management of wound infections through the use of antiseptics. To this end, he began experimenting with chemical compounds in the hospital, while replicating Pasteur’s bacteriological experiments not only to verify his findings, but also to gain a clearer understanding of the kinds of organisms endangering surgical patients. Lister had come to realize that the study of bacteria and the practice of surgery were interdependent sciences.
“Lister composed a series of interdisciplinary papers exploring the relation of bacteria and surgery. In “On a New Method of Treating Compound Fracture, Abscess, Etc.” (1867), he tried to determine how atmosphere related to the decomposition of organic substances. Pasteur’s research and Lister’s everyday practice strongly suggested that microbes, rather than gas, constituted the “essential cause” of putrescence: Turning now to the question how the atmosphere produces decomposition of organic substances, we find that a flood of light has been thrown upon this most important subject by the philosophical researches of M. Pasteur, who has demonstrated by thoroughly convincing evidence that it is not to its oxygen or to any of its gaseous constituents that the air owes this property, but to minute particles suspended in it, which are the germs of various low forms of life, long since revealed by the microscope, and regarded as merely accidental concomitants of putrescence, but now shown by Pasteur to be its essential cause, resolving the complex organic compounds into substances of simpler chemical constitution, just as the yeast plant converts sugar into alcohol and carbonic acid. [Collected Papers, vol. 2, p. 2]…
“In other 1867 papers, we see that Lister was acutely aware of how much he owed to Pasteur’s research of 1857-1863. “On The Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery” (9 August 1867), for one, emphasizes the theoretical importance of Pasteur’s research to medicine: But when it had been shown by the researches of Pasteur that the septic property of the atmosphere depended, not on the oxygen or any gaseous constituent, but on minute organisms suspended in it, which owed their energy to their vitality, it occurred to me that decomposition in the injured part might be avoided without excluding the air, by applying as a dressing some material capable of destroying the life of the floating particle. [“Antiseptic Principle,” Collected Papers, vol. 2, p. 37]” (victorianweb.org/science/health/depaolo.html).
OCLC lists just one copy of this offprint (University of Colorado).
Garrison-Morton 2477; Graeme K. Hunter, Vital Forces: The Discovery of the Molecular Basis of Life (2000); Jean Rostand, Le courrier d’un biologist (1970).
Offprint from Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Sciences, tome LVI, séance du 20 avril 1863 (journal pagination 734-40). [Paris: Mallet-Bachelier, 1863]. 4to, pp. 7, . Original green printed wrappers, uncut, very fine. Preserved in a blue cloth case with red lettering-piece along spine.