Monday, September 28, 2009

September 28: He Introduced The Germ (Vol. 38, pp. 364-370)

Louis Pasteur died this day in 1895, so to mark this occasion, we have a paper that Pasteur delivered to the French Academy of Sciences on April 29, 1878. As with any academic paper, the writing is dry, but the information it contains -- "the theory of spontaneous generation is chimerical" and that diseases did not just pop up out of nowhere -- was a huge advance in science.

Pasteur had been dead barely 15 years when Dr. Eliot selected his work for Volume 38, a compendium of scientific papers. But even in 1909, Pasteur's place in the pantheon of science was secure,

The introduction to Pasteur's works says it all: "In respect to the number and importance, practical as well as scientific, of his discoveries, Pasteur has hardly a rival in the history of science. He may be regarded as the founder of modern stereo-chemistry; and his discovery that living organisms are the cause of fermentation is the basis of the whole modern germ-theory of disease and of the antiseptic method of treatment."

Pasteur was one of a group of scientists in the 19th century that broke ground in diverse areas. It was not so much a triumph of scientific principles over forklore and superstition as it was the triumph of reason.

It almost seems quaint now to think that people once had respect for science and the scientific method. In our world today, where facts are perceived to have a political bias and scientific studies routinely get slanted to fit the economic, social and political views of the moment, faith in scientific progress has waned. But that faith in necessary for human progress, Reason, bolstered by fact, must prevail.

"It is a terrifying thought that life is at the mercy of the multiplication of these minute bodies, it is a consoling hope that Science will always remain powerless before such enemies." Pasteur was writing about germs, but that statement could also be applied toward every force that seems determined to block progress.

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