Some Awesome People

Friday, March 16, 2012

Louis Pasteur - Part 2

A Great Benefactor

Part II

Nevertheless the joy which young Louis felt in finding himself back in his home was mingled with shame. The sacrifice his parents had made for him had been in vain. That must not be. It was a question of "If you don't at first succeed. . . ." So a second start was made at the Royal College of Besancon which was only thirty miles from home. This time all went well. Determined to persevere, he applied himself with such zeal to his studies that soon he was helping his comrades and also imparting some of his knowledge through correspondence to his father.
In these affectionate letters to his family he revealed his inmost thoughts. Remembering his previous failure, he wrote to his sisters, saying: "It is the will which opens the door to brilliant careers . . ." and he goes on to stress that whatever may be the task, the will to work, coupled with the helping hand of God, ensures success.
For although, then as now, there were scoffers, atheists and unbelievers at the college, this clever reflective student found no difficulty in reconciling religion and science . He felt convinced that his love of beauty, his regard for morality and nobility of character and his sense of duty all came from a source and that source was God. And although he was not an instructed or practising Catholic, nevertheless it was at this time that he determined to try and practise in his daily life the precept of Jesus Christ "Love one another"; a precept he fulfilled both as a student and as the most outstanding scientist of his day.

At the age of eighteen, Louis took his degree as Bachelor of Letters. This was the height of his father's ambition. He hoped that his son would settle down as a teacher at the college, but Louis' old master and friend, M. Romanet, urged that he should take a special course in mathematics and chemistry to qualify for the entrance to the Ecole Normale of Paris, his former goal. Two years later he passed the entrance examinations, fifteenth out of twenty-two. It was not good enough. He was refused admission and settled down to another year of study, supporting himself by early morning coaching. In a letter home, he wrote:
"Don't worry about my health. I need not get up till 5.45. That is not too early."
Elsewhere we read that, with a growing enthusiasm for chemistry and the laboratory, he worked from four in the morning until nine at night. In addition to his studies, he sometimes went with other students to hear a famous preacher, Pere Lacordaire, in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

At his second attempt in the examinations Louis came out fourth with distinction in physics and chemistry. Already he was attracting attention as a clever young scientist. On the advice of his colleagues, he refused a position as Professor of Physics so that he might work instead for the final degree of Doctor of Science. For this, as a result of extensive research on crystallography, he submitted a treatise which gave the first glimpse of molecular architecture to the world.
The examiners, incredulous, submitted it to Biot, the greatest living authority on the subject. Biot's investigation convinced him that his own years of labour had been thrown into the shade by this young man of twenty-five. Nevertheless, grasping the newcomer warmly by the hand, he exclaimed:
"My dear fellow, I have so loved science all my life that your discovery fills me with joy."
This was the beginning of a great friendship. Indeed Louis was to refer to Biot as his "spiritual father", one who ever urged on him "the need for the highest moral discipline and rigorous scientific integrity".

One can well imagine the joy it must have been both to himself and his family to hear that he had received his degree as Doctor of Science; a joy, alas, cut short by the death of his mother. Shortly afterwards he was appointed as Professor of Chemistry at Strasbourg University, where he pictured himself settling down quietly as lecturer with one of his sisters to keep house for him. But things turned out differently. M. Laurent, the president of the college, had a charming daughter. Louis fell in love with Marie and she with him, so on May 29th, 1849, they were married in the little Catholic church of St. Madeleine, at Strasbourg.
Humanly speaking, it was an ideal marriage, for not only was it based on a deep and enduring love but, as the daughter of a scholar, Marie encouraged and helped him in his work. As the years passed, although he loved his home and the company of his gentle wife and children, he spent more and more time in the laboratory. His wife made no complaint for she was convinced that such research would in the end be of great service to mankind.

So each day he would leave home early for the laboratory while she made her way to church. For Marie was an ardent Catholic, loving the Mass and all that her faith stood for. Few men were practising Catholics in France in those days, so perhaps she was not unduly distressed that her husband, such a good, kind, self-sacrificing man, never accompanied her to church. But we may be sure that she never ceased to pray that his simple sincere faith in God and the immortality of the soul would lead him to the Truth, the Way and the Life found in its entirety in His Holy Catholic Church.
Quietly the years slipped by. How pleased she must have been at his advancement when he gave her the news:  "My dear, I've been appointed as Director of Scientific Studies at the Ecole Normale!"

And how great her pride as from that time onwards one scientific discovery after another brought him recognition and honour even though they brought in their train violent opposition and mocking hostility as well.

Before giving a brief description of these discoveries, which were to have such far-reaching results, it is as well to consider the ignorance, which prevailed with regard to medicine and surgery a hundred years ago. Liebig, the greatest German scientist, had affirmed that both decomposition and fermentation were purely physico-chemical in character. No one suspected that disease was due to living microbes, bacteria and germs, or that cleanliness played a vital part as a preventive and in the successful treatment of the sick. Operations were performed by surgeons wearing their everyday frock coats with dirty and even rusty instruments, so it was little wonder that the result was so often blood poisoning, gangrene and death. In addition to these evils, small-pox, tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and other contagious diseases were rampant, preventive treatment by vaccination and inoculation being unknown.

Into this prevailing ignorance, a brilliant scientist was to bring light into darkness.  From experiments with the fermentation of beer Louis Pasteur discovered living "animalcules," which he declared played an important part in fermentation and putrefaction.

"Those who attempt to explain putrefaction of animal substances by the presence of animalcules argue like a child . . ." retorted Liebig and his followers.

Since the time of Aristotle, naturalists and philosophers had believed in "spontaneous generation". Virgil describes how a swarm of bees can be made to originate from the rotting carcase of a young bull! While Van Belmont, a Belgian physician, contributes the following:
"Squeeze soiled linen into the mouth of a vessel containing grains of wheat. After 21 days the wheat will be found to have been transformed into mice."
Even in Pasteur's time, it was held that microscopic forms of life arose spontaneously without pre-existing germs. Pasteur entered the fray. He wrote to a friend saying: "It is the will of God that by the utmost perseverance I add something to the little that is known of the mysteries of life and death."

After extensive experiments, some of which were conducted in the pure air of the Alps, he proved that fermentation and putrefaction were not due to the presence of air as was believed but to living microbes in the air, microbes which greatly increased amid dust and dirt. Thus this great man in refuting the theory of spontaneous generation laid the foundation to the then unknown science of bacteriology. His claims met with ridicule and mockery in the press and everywhere.
"The world to which you pretend to lead us, M. Pasteur, is too fantastic " sneered his opponents.
"The man is preposterous a charlatan!" others declared.
Nevertheless his discovery aroused the greatest interest among his supporters in the world of science and elsewhere. Not only was he awarded the prize by the Academy of Sciences for the best experiment on spontaneous generation, but the whole of Paris flocked to his lectures. One thing was lacking. Biot, whose nobility of character and love of science had been a source of inspiration to him, was not there to witness his success. He was dead. 

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