On this date, the chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was born in Dole in the Jura region of France.
From the time of the ancient Romans, through the Middle Ages, and until the late nineteenth century, it was generally accepted that some life forms arose spontaneously from nonliving matter. Such “spontaneous generation” appeared to occur primarily in decaying matter. For example, a seventeenth century recipe for the spontaneous production of mice required placing sweaty underwear and husks of wheat in an open-mouthed jar, then waiting for about 21 days, during which time it was alleged that the sweat from the underwear would penetrate the husks of wheat, changing them into mice. Likewise, the spontaneous generation hypothesis was proposed by scientists to explain the origin of the “animalcules” observed by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in his magnifying lenses and had received wide acceptance all over Europe. Although such a concept may seem laughable today, it was consistent with the other widely held cultural and religious beliefs of the time.
It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur that this fallacy was finally disproved. In 1859, the French Academy of Science offered the Alhumbert Prize of 2500 francs to whoever could shed “new light on the question of so-called spontaneous generation”. Young Pasteur’s award winning experiment was a clever variation of earlier experiments performed by John Needham (1713-1781) and Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Pasteur filled a long necked flask with meat broth. He then heated the glass neck and bent it into an “S” shape. Air could reach the broth, but gravity acted to trap airborne microorganisms in the curve of the neck. He then boiled the broth. After a time, no microorganisms had formed in the broth. When the flask was tipped so that the broth reached the microorganisms trapped in the neck, the broth quickly became cloudy with microscopic life.
Thus, Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation. Furthermore, Pasteur proved that some microorganisms are airborne. “There is no known circumstance in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings came into the world without germs, without parents similar to themselves,” he concluded in 1864. His experiment also supported germ theory. Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms are the cause of specific diseases. While Pasteur was not the first to propose germ theory (Girolamo Fracastoro, Agostino Bassi, Friedrich Henle and others had suggested it earlier), he developed it and conducted other experiments that clearly indicated its correctness, thereby managing to convince most of Europe it was true.
Despite what creationists and proponents of “intelligent design” may insist, Pasteur’s research on spontaneous generation did not demonstrate the impossibility of life arising in simple form from nonliving matter under conditions vastly different from those today and by means of a long and propitious series of chemical steps/selections. In particular, he did not show that life cannot arise once, and then evolve. Neither Pasteur, nor any other post-Darwin researcher in this field, denied the age of Earth or the fact of evolution. What Louis Pasteur and the others who denied spontaneous generation did demonstrate is that life does not currently spontaneously (i.e., within a matter of weeks) arise in complex form from nonlife in nature.
One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, this is enough for me: you belong to me and I shall help you.
– quoted in Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science (1950) by René Jules Dubos, p. 85