On Fermentation

Author: Louis Pasteur

On Fermentation

Louis Pasteur

We maintain, adducing incontestable experimental evidence in support of our theory, that living, organized ferments spring only from similar organisms likewise endowed with life; and that the germs of these ferments exist in a state of suspension in the air, or on the exterior surface of objects. M. Fremy asserts that these ferments are formed by the force of hemi-organisms acting on albuminous substances, in contact with the air. We may put the matter more precisely by two examples:—

Wine is produced by a ferment, that is to say, by minute, vegetative cells which multiply by budding. According to us, the germs of these cells abound in autumn on the surface of grapes and on the woody parts of their branches; and the proofs which we have given of this fact are as clear as any evidence can be. According to M. Fremy, the cells of ferment are produced by spontaneous generation, that is to say, by the transformation of nitrogenous substances contained in the juice of the grape, as soon as that juice is brought into contact with the air.

Again, blood flows from a vein; it putrefies, and in a very short time swarms with bacteria or virbios. According to us the germs of these bacteria and virbios have been introduced by particles of dust floating in the air or derived from the surface of objects, possibly the body of the wounded animal, or the vessels employed, or a variety of other objects. M. Fremy, on the other hand, asserts that these bacteria or virbios are produced spontaneously, because the albumin, and the fibrin of the blood themselves possess a semi-organization, which causes them, when in contact with the air, to change spontaneously into these marvelously active minute beings.

Has M. Fremy given any proof of the truth of his theory? By no manner of means; he confines himself to asserting that things are as he says they are. He is constantly speaking of hemi-organism and its effects, but we do not find his affirmations supported by a single experimental proof. There is, nevertheless, a very simple means of testing the truth of the theory of hemi-organism; and on this point M. Fremy and ourselves are quite at one. This means consists in taking a quantity of grape juice, wine, blood, etc., from the very interior of the organs which contain those liquids, with the necessary precautions to avoid contact with the particles of dust in suspension in the air or spread over objects. According to the hypothesis of M. Fremy, these liquids must of necessity ferment in the presence of pure air. According to us, the very opposite of this must be the case. Here, then, is a crucial experiment of the most decisive kind for determining the merits of the rival theories, a criterion, moreover, which M. Fremy perfectly admits. In 1863, and again in 1872, we published the earliest experiments that were made in accordance with this decisive method. The result was as follows: The grape juice did not ferment in vessels full of air, air deprived of its particles of dust—that is to say, it did not produce any of the ferments of wine; the blood did not putrefy—that is to say, it yielded neither bacteria nor virbios; urine did not become ammoniacal—that is to say, it did not give rise to any organism; in a word, the origin of life manifested itself in no single instance.

The hemi-organism hypothesis is, therefore, absolutely untenable, and we have no doubt that our learned friend will eventually declare as much before the Academy, since he has more than once publicly expressed his readiness to do so as soon as our demonstrations appear convincing to him. How can he resist the evidence of such facts and proofs? Persistence in such a course can benefit nobody, but it may depreciate the dignity of science in general esteem. It would gratify us extremely to find the rigorous exactness of our studies on this subject acknowledged by M. Fremy, and regarded by that gentleman with the same favour bestowed upon it everywhere abroad. It may be doubted if there exists at the present day a single person beyond the Rhine who believes in the correctness of Liebig’s theory, of which M. Fremy’s hemi-organism is merely a variation. If M. Fremy still hesitates to accept our demonstrations, the observations of Mr. Tyndall may effect his conversion.

London, February 16, 1876.

"Dear Mr. Pasteur:

"For the first time in the history of science, we are justified in cherishing confidently the hope that, as far as epidemic diseases are concerned, medicine will soon be delivered from empiricism, and placed on a real scientific basis; when that great day shall come, humanity will, in my opinion, recognize the fact that the greatest part of its gratitude will be due to you.

"Believe me, ever very faithfully yours,

We need scarcely say that we read this letter with liveliest gratification, and were delighted to learn that our studies had received the support of one renowned in the scientific world alike for rigorous accuracy in his experiments as for the lucid and picturesque clearness of all his writings. The reward as well as the ambition of the man of science consists in earning the approbation of his fellow-workers, or that of those he esteems masters.

Mr. Tyndall has observed this remarkable fact, that in a box, the sides of which are coated with glycerine, and the dimensions of which may be variable and of considerable size, all the particles of dust floating in the air inside fall and adhere to the glycerine in the course of a few days. The air in the case is then as pure as that in our double-necked flasks. Moreover, a transmitted ray of light will tell us the moment when this purity is obtained. Mr. Tyndall has proved, in fact, that to the eye rendered sensitive by remaining in darkness for a little while, the course of the ray is visible as long as there are any floating particles of dust capable of reflecting or diffusing light, and that, on the other hand, it becomes quite obscure and invisible to the same eye as soon as the air has deposited all its solid particles. When it has done this, which it will do very quickly—in two or three days, if we employ one of the boxes used by Mr. Tyndall—it has been proved that any organic infusions whatever may be preserved in the case without undergoing the least putrefactive change, or without producing bacteria.

On the other hand, bacteria will swarm in similar infusions, after an interval of from two to four days, if the vessels which contain them are exposed to the air by which the cases are surrounded. Mr. Tyndall can drop into his boxes, at any time he wishes, some blood from a vein or an artery of an animal, and show conclusively that such blood will not, under these circumstances, undergo any putrefactive change.

Mr. Tyndall concludes his work with a consideration of the probable application of the results given in his paper to the etiology of contagious diseases. We share his views on this subject entirely, and we are obliged to him for having recalled to mind the following statement from our Studies on the Silkworm Disease: "Man has it in his power to cause parasitic diseases to disappear off the surface of the globe, if, as we firmly believe, the doctrine of spontaneous generation is a chimera."

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Chicago: Louis Pasteur, On Fermentation in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 319–322. Original Sources, accessed April 18, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GKV3C33GSNEASUZ.

MLA: Pasteur, Louis. On Fermentation, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Vol. 10, Milwaukee, WI, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 319–322. Original Sources. 18 Apr. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GKV3C33GSNEASUZ.

Harvard: Pasteur, L, On Fermentation. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, WI, pp.319–322. Original Sources, retrieved 18 April 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GKV3C33GSNEASUZ.