An anthology of early texts crucial to the birth of microbiology
:: Charles Cagniard-Latour (1777-1859):
Mémoire sur la Fermentation vineuse. 1837(1838).
:: Thénard, Becquerel, Turpin:
Rapport sur des observations et des expériences faites sur la
cause et les effets de la fermentation vineuse; par M. Cagniard-Latour.
:: Pierre J.F. Turpin (1775-1840):
Mémoire sur la cause et les effets de la fermentation alcoolique
et acéteuse. Lu à l'Académie en sa séance
de 20 août 1838. 1838(1840).
:: Jean-Jacques Colin (1784-1865):
Nouveau Mémoire sur la Fermentation. (ca. 1837).
:: Louis Pasteur (1822-1895): Mémoire
sur la fermentation appelée lactique. (1857); and, Mémoire
sur la fermentation alcoolique (1857).
drawing of microbial life
as he saw it under his microscope at the Grande Brasserie du Luxembourg,
that long night in October, 1837.
Certain understandings are so clearly the product of a difficult and highly
specialized intellectual evolution, and so clearly remote from any probable
intuition of daily experience, that their late arrival as accepted truths
is in no way surprising.
:: For example, quantum mechanics.
:: Others seem very much the reverse.
One tries to imagine what could have been thought before, and why it took
so long to get it right.
:: For example, fermentation.
:: And, since until fermentation was
understood to be microbial in nature, neither was human disease, this
is hardly an historical detail of interest only to wine-makers.
:: Nor is it a purely "modern" intuition
that fermentation is important: to trace the history of that concept from
the transformational wine-gods of antiquity - including Christ - just
until Pasteur, would be a long but fascinating book. Certainly by the
mid-17th century, fermentation was widely seen as the archetype of transformational
process in general, with specific analogies drawn between the fermentation
of wine and the "fermentations" of disease in the human body (e.g., Pascal,
1681, and Moreau,
1685, excerpts from both of which are posted earlier on this site).
And, by that same time, beer yeast had already been examined microscopically
and described (Leeuwenhoek, De fermento cerevisiæ, 1680).
:: So one wonders why the dots were
not connected a bit earlier; but the fact is that nearly 200 years later,
Pasteur still had to win a major and prolonged scientific battle before
it would be generally conceded that microbial life exists, and that both
fermentation and disease are the products of its activity.
:: Since he deserves, and receives,
all possible credit for having won that battle, it doesn't detract from
his accomplishment to note that he was by no means the first to demonstrate
convincingly that fermentation is the result of living micro-organisms;
he was simply the first to force the opponents of that thought to stand
down and admit defeat.
:: On June 12, 1837, twenty years before
Pasteur's first paper on the subject was presented to the Académie
des Sciences in Paris, Charles Cagniard-Latour presented a paper before
that same institution. It was entitled, Mémoire sur la Fermentation
vineuse. Since it is now known only from footnotes in specialist histories,
and appears seldom to have been read even then, I have transcribed it
in its entirety below. Three distinguished members of the Académie
- Thénard, Bequerel, and Turpin - then prepared a report and analysis
of Cagniard-Latour's Mémoire, which they presented in 1838,
which I have also transcribed in its entirety; and then Turpin separately
produced a Mémoire sur la cause et les effets de la fermentation
alcoolique et acéteuse, which he presented the same year. In
it, he reviews Cagniard-Latour's research in detail, repeats his major
experiments, adds many of his own, and provides - since he was a famous
scientific illustrator - several pages of plates illustrating the microorganisms
he observed. I have transcribed a chapter from this work as well, and
include one of the plates, in which Turpin depicts an organism that he
named Torula cervisiæ. It is what we now call Saccharomyces
cerevisiæ, and is, and always has been, the most important yeast
in the fermentation of both wine and beer.
:: The first thing that is surprising
in all this is that so little of it is wrong; Cagniard-Latour's paper
could still serve today to enlighten the freshman microbiology class as
to what it means to reason intelligently through a microscope.
:: The second thing that is surprising,
is that it had no effect. Despite being the work of internationally respected
scientists, despite being accepted and published by one of the world's
most important scientific institutions - and, of course, despite being
correct - it was simply shouted down, as was the work of two lesser-known
researchers in Germany, Schwann and Kützing, who independently both
of each other and of Cagniard-Latour, arrived at similar results.
:: The attacks were led by three of
the era's most important chemists - Justus von Liebig, J.J. Berzelius,
and F. Wöhler - and were reprehensible. Since they had absolutely
no experimental evidence to disprove a cellular theory of fermentation,
they simply ridiculed its proponents. Wöhler, for example, excerpted
parts of Turpin's paper in the Annalen der Pharmacie - of which
he and Liebig were the principal editors - and followed these excerpts
by a a heavy-handed burlesque, written by him but attributed anonymously,
entitled "The demystified secret of alcoholic fermentation" [Wöhler,
F. (anonymous) (1839) Ann. Pharm. (Heidelberg) 29, 100-104]. The [anonymous]
author pretended to have done careful research with a special microscope:
...Incredible numbers of small spheres are seen which are the eggs
of animals. When placed in sugar solution, they swell, burst, and animals
develop from them which multiply with inconceivable speed. The shape of
these animals is different from any of the hitherto described 600 species.
They have the shape of a Beindorf distilling flask (without the cooling
device). The tube of the bulb is some sort of a suction trunk which is
covered inside with fine long bristles. Teeth and eyes are not observed.
Incidentally, one can clearly distinguish a stomach, intestinal tract,
the anus (as a pink point), and the organs of urine excretion. From the
moment of emergence from the egg, one can see how the animals swallow
the sugar of the medium and how it gets into the stomach. It is digested
immediately, and this process is recognized with certainty from the elimination
of excrements. In short, these infusoria eat sugar, eliminate alcohol
from the intestinal tract, and CO2 from the urinary organs. The urinary
bladder in its filled state has the shape of a champagne bottle, in the
empty state it is a small bud. After some practice, one observes that
inside a gas bubble is formed, which increases its volume up to tenfold;
by some screw-like torsion, which the animal controls by means of circular
muscles around the body, the emptying of the bladder is accomplished...
From the anus of the animal one can see the incessant emergence of a fluid
that is lighter than the liquid medium, and from their enormously large
genitals a stream of CO2 is squirted at very short intervals... If the
quantity of water is insufficient, i.e. the concentration of sugar too
high, fermentation does not take place in the viscous liquid. This is
because the little organisms cannot change their place in the viscous
liquid: they die from indigestion caused by lack of exercise. The
"report" goes on to describe how the animals fall asleep under the influence
of a sedative, how they produce fusel oil by sweating and how they devour
each other after the fermentation.
:: In addition to its general sophmoric
prurience, one must note its remarkable lack of relevance to Turpin's
paper; the puerile jokes about anuses and genitals, for example, are entirely
problems of Wöhler's own, particularly since neither Cagniard-Latour
nor Turpin says virtually anything about "animals" to begin with. They
ascribe their microorganisms to the "vegetal" realm, their only reservation
being whether "animal" and "vegetable" are useful categories in dealing
with such life forms.
:: One is a little hard-pressed to
account for such intellectual Schadenfreude on the part of such
otherwise well-respected scientists, especially in the service of a cause
that turned out to be so spectacularly incorrect scientifically; but clearly
the idea of microbial life provoked a visceral reaction of anger and authoritarian
rejection that mere experimental evidence was powerless to overcome. And
their opposition was consistent; Liebig's opposition to Pasteur's experimental
results twenty years later was just as complete, and his arguments no
more valid. All told, they can fairly be said to have delayed the general
establishment of microbiology as a science by at least thirty years.
:: But of course the purpose of contemplating
history isn't so much to jump on dead fools as to avoid being live ones
ourselves, and there is nothing better than history to teach us the enormity
of that task, nor to entertain us while we fail at it.
:: So, it is quite right to wonder
why the Greeks did not intuitively understand the microbe, as they intuitively
understood the atom; or to wonder how entire millenia of wine-makers could
contemplate the astonishing spectacle of fermentation without collectively
concluding that is an "obviously" living process of "obviously" living
:: But, it it by no means right to
wonder at those things without wondering at the enormity of all that surrounds
us now, that we do not understand, that is equally "obvious".
:: From the Latin, ob + via, "near
(to) the way" ::
1. The translation of Wöhler's parody of Turpin is taken from: Fritz
Schlenk, (1997) "Early Research on Fermentation - a Story of Missed Opportunities"
, in New Beer in an Old Bottle: Eduard Buchner and the Growth of Biochemical
Knowledge (ed. Athel Cornish-Bowden), Universitat de València,
Valencia, Spain. Its use here is gratefully acknowledged.
2. Turpin was, in addition to being a plant physiologist, one of the leading
botanical illustrators of his time. The 1840 edition of his Mémoire
contains a series of extremely important plates depicting the microbes
he saw through his microscope; I have reproduced one of these as a separate
file. Since he comments on it at length in the text, I highly recommend
that you download and print it - preferably on high-quality matte "photographic"
paper - to accompany the anthology itself.
3. Addendum as of
November, 2002: When first posted in March of this year, this anthology
of early texts on the discovery of fermentation as a living process significantly
lacked an opposing view; that is, it lacked the expression of a position
explicitly opposed to the idea that fermentation is the result of microbial
:: I'm pleased to be able to remedy
that lack now with an essentially unknown paper by Jean-Jacques Colin
(1784-1865), who worked with Gay-Lussac for many years, then became Professor
of Chemistry at St. Cyr and later at Dijon. It is called Nouveau Mémoire
sur la Fermentation, was first read before the Académie
des Sciences, and was then published separately as a 43 page pamphlet
ca. 1837, which is the edition from which this transcription was made.
:: I've been able to find no other
record of this text; my own copy is from Becquerel's library, so perhaps
it was only printed in a small private edition for distribution to colleagues
of the author.
:: In any case it is ideally suited
to its purpose here: it reflects scientific research carried out at the
same time and in the same place as the other papers presented; it is the
work of a competent and thorough scientist, clearly aware of the findings
of Cagniard-Latour and others, who uses much the same equipment and many
of the same procedures, but nonetheless comes to quite opposite conclusions.