Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Seung Yon Rhee
Line drawing of Louis Pasteur drawn by
David Wood from Genentech, Inc. Graphics Department.
|If one were to choose among the greatest benefactors of humanity, Louis Pasteur would certainly rank at the top. He solved the mysteries of rabies, anthrax, chicken cholera, and silkworm diseases, and contributed to the development of the first vaccines. He debunked the widely accepted myth of spontaneous generation, thereby setting the stage for modern biology and biochemistry. He described the scientific basis for fermentation, wine-making, and the brewing of beer. Pasteur's work gave birth to many branches of science, and he was singlehandedly responsible for some of the most important theoretical concepts and practical applications of modern science.|
Pasteur's achievements seem wildly diverse at first glance, but a more in-depth look at the evolution of his career indicates that there is a logical order to his discoveries. He is revered for possessing the most important qualities of a scientist: the ability to survey all the known data and link the data for all possible hypotheses, the patience and drive to conduct experiments under strictly controlled conditions, and the brilliance to uncover the road to the solution from the results.
On the discipline of rigid and strict experimental tests he commented, "Imagination should give wings to our thoughts but we always need decisive experimental proof, and when the moment comes to draw conclusions and to interpret the gathered observations, imagination must be checked and documented by the factual results of the experiment."
The famous philosopher Ernest Renan said of Pasteur's method of research, "This marvelous experimental method eliminates certain facts, brings forth others, interrogates nature, compels it to reply and stops only when the mind is fully satisfied. The charm of our studies, the enchantment of science, is that, everywhere and always, we can give the justification of our principles and the proof of our discoveries."
The pattern of logic in Pasteur's scientific career and the brilliance of his experimental method are well documented. It all started from studying crystal structure. As a student at the Ecole Normale, Pasteur observed that the organic compound tartrate, when synthesized in a laboratory, was optically inactive (unable to rotate the plane of polarized light), unlike the tartrate from grapes, because the synthetic tartrate is composed of two optically asymmetric crystals. With careful experimentation, he succeeded in separating the asymmetric crystals from each other and showed that each recovered optical activity. He then hypothesized that this molecular asymmetry is one of the mechanisms of life. In other words, living organisms only produce molecules that are of one specific orientation, and these molecules are always optically active.
This hypothesis was tested again by utilizing a synthetic tartrate solution that had been contaminated with mold. He found that this solution became more optically active with time and concluded that the mold was only utilizing one of the two crystals. Later in his career, he was approached with a contamination problem in alcoholic fermentation, which was thought to be an entirely chemical process at the time. After careful examination, he found that the fermenting solution contained optically active compounds and concluded that fermentation was a biological process carried out by microorganisms. This hypothesis, called the germ theory, was followed by many elegant experiments that showed unequivocally the existence of microorganisms and their effect on fermentation.
The germ theory was the foundation of numerous applications, such as the large scale brewing of beer, wine-making, pasteurization, and antiseptic operations. Another significant discovery facilitated by the germ theory was the nature of contagious diseases. Pasteur's intuited that if germs were the cause of fermentation, they could just as well be the cause of contagious diseases. This proved to be true for many diseases such as potato blight, silkworm diseases, and anthrax. After studying the characteristics of germs and viruses that caused diseases, he and others found that laboratory manipulations of the infectious agents can be used to immunize people and animals. The discovery that the rabies virus had a lag-time before inducing disease prompted the studies of post-infection treatment with weakened viruses. This treatment proved to work and has saved countless lives.
All of these achievements point to singular brilliance and perseverance in Pasteur's nature. His work served as the springboard for branches of science and medicine such as stereochemistry, microbiology, bacteriology, virology, immunology, and molecular biology. Moreover, his work has protected millions of people from disease through vaccination and pasteurization.
Make no mistake about it, Pasteur was a Christian but that did not hinder his science, in undergirded it. This article underlines this and reveals him to be one of the absolute greats of science.
"Louis Pasteur’s calling was to investigate God’s creation and to help mankind through his discoveries. Let no one claim that faith in God is a detriment to science! Pasteur said, “The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.” In his last famous speech, he says:
You young men—doctors and scientists of the future—do not let yourselves be tainted by apparent skepticism; nor discouraged by the sadness of certain hours that creep over nations. Do not become angry at your opponents, for no scientific theory has ever been accepted without opposition. Live in the serene peace of libraries and laboratories. Say to yourselves, first, “What have I done for my instruction?” And as you gradually advance, “What am I accomplishing?” Until the time comes when you may have the immense happiness of thinking that you have contributed in some way to the welfare and progress of mankind. (Vallery-Radot 1901, vol. 2, pp. 297–298)At first glance, Pasteur’s achievements seem to be a miscellaneous assortment of discoveries (table 1). They in fact form a cohesive whole, in which one can easily follow his unity of thought. We have tried to describe just a few of his projects that led to his remarkable discoveries. You will see that, like a brilliant detective, this great man of science conducted investigations using his wealth of experience and scientific guidelines. It is this method of study that held true for other men of God, each one of whom was called and was devoted to a particular field dealing with a specific problem."
|Table 1. Louis Pasteur and his major milestones in microbiology.|
|Date:||Milestones in Microbiology:|
|1822||Birth of Louis Pasteur in Dole, France|
|1844–1848||Discovers crystal rotation of polarized light to the right and left|
|1857||Shows lactic acid formation in milk and butter is due to bacteria|
|1861–1864||Disproves spontaneous generation|
|1862||Elected to the Academy of Sciences|
|1864||Invents pasteurization for wine and other foods|
|1867||Helps Joseph Lister develop aseptic surgery|
|1870||Publishes his studies on the diseases of silkworms|
|1873||Elected to the Academy of Medicine|
|1877||Propounds the germ theory of disease|
|1879||Discovers immunization against chicken cholera, using attenuated bacteria|
|1881||Successful experiment of vaccinating sheep against anthrax|
|1881||Awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor|
|1882||Elected to the Academie Francaise|
|1885||Successfully tests his first vaccine against rabies on Joseph Meister|
|1894||The Pasteur Institute succeeds in producing vaccine for diphtheria|
|1895||Death of Louis Pasteur at Saint Cloud (near Paris), France|
Now one could say, at the risk of some superficiality, that there exist principally two types of scientists. The ones, and they are rare, wish to understand the world, to know nature; the others, far more frequent, wish to explain it. The first are searching for truth, often with knowledge that they will not attain it; the second strive for plausibility, for the achievement of an intellectually consistent, and hence successful, view of the world. (Chargaff 1971, pp. 637)
Almost all historians recognize Pasteur’s great contributions to science, microbiology, and medicine. He was an experimentalist and daily performed operational science. Pasteur is a prime example of the principle that one does not have to be an evolutionist to conduct good science. However, in recent years his Christian and creation views are being challenged. His most straightforward, anti-evolution remarks came from his studies on whether life can spontaneously arise. His case for special creation is best seen in his experiments disproving spontaneous generation. These experiments took place over a period of about five years. It was during this time that Pasteur “converted” from being a chemist to a microbiologist."
I also thought this little bit was especially worthwhile:
"The theory of biogenesis states that life can only come from other life. This idea mirrors the principles of Genesis 1: life begets life and like begets like. Yet evolutionists imagine that at one time several billion years ago, life did spontaneously appear. For example, German organic chemist Dr. Günther Wächtershäuser and his colleague Dr. Claudia Huber of the Munich Technical University have suggested that the first polypeptide chains necessary for life formed at the bottom of a primal ocean, in the heated environment of undersea volcanoes. But science continues to show a total lack of evidence that would suggest any living cell (even the smallest) could originate spontaneously through time and chance. Recently the evolutionist Franklin Harold (2001, p. 218) said, “The crux of the matter is that living organisms cannot be rationally and systematically deduced from the principles that generally do account for the properties of inanimate matter.” It has always been known that Louis Pasteur opposed the doctrine of spontaneous generation, and he presented compelling empirical evidence against it. He believed that the idea of spontaneous generation did not fit with the view of God as the Creator of life.
This is why the problem of spontaneous generation is all absorbing, and all-important. It is the very problem of life and of its origin. To bring about spontaneous generation would be to create a germ. It would be creating life; it would be to solve the problem of its origin. It would mean to go from matter to life through conditions of environment and of matter. God as Author of life would then no longer be needed. Matter would replace Him. God would need to be invoked only as Author of the motions of the universe. (Dubos 1950, pp. 395–396)"
Back to the Creation and Evolution series featuring Ian Juby next...