BECHAMP, PASTEUR, AND FERMENTATION
About 1854, Professor Pierre Jacques Antoine Bechamp, one of France’s greatest scientists, then Professor at the School of Pharmacy in the Faculty of Science at Strasbourg, later (1857-75) Professor of Medical Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Montpelier, a member of many scientific societies, and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, took up the study of fermentation.
He had succeeded in 1852 in so reducing the cost of producing aniline as to make it a commercial success, and his formula became the basis of the German dye industry. This brought him some fame, and many more problems to solve.
Up to this time, the idea prevailed that cane sugar, when dissolved in water, was spontaneously transformed at an ordinary temperature into invert sugar, which is a mixture of equal parts of glucose and fructose, but an experiment with starch had caused him to doubt the truth of this idea.
Therefore in May, 1854, Bechamp undertook a series of observations on this change, which came to be referred to as his “Beacon Experiment”. In this experiment, he dissolved perfectly pure cane sugar in water in a glass bottle containing air, but tightly stoppered. Several other bottles contained the same solution, but with a chemical added.
In the solution without any added chemical, moulds appeared in about thirty days, and inversion of the sugar in this bottle then went on rapidly, but moulds and inversion did not occur in the other bottles containing added chemicals. He measured the inversion frequently with a polariscope.
These observations were concluded on February 3, 1855, and his paper was published in the Report of the French Academy of Science for the session of February 19, 1855.
This left the moulds without an explanation, so he started a second series of observations on June 25, 1856 (at Strasbourg) in order to determine if possible, their origin, and on March 27, 1857, he started a third series of flasks to study the effects of creosote on the changes. Both series were ended at Montpelier on December 5, 1857.
In the second series he spilled a little liquid from flasks 1 and 2 during manipulation, so these two flasks contained a little air in contact with the liquid. In these two flasks, moulds soon appeared, and alteration in the medium ensued.
He also found that the changes were more rapid in the flask in which the mould grew more rapidly.
In the other nine flasks there was no air, no mould formed, and no inversion of the sugar occurred; plainly air was needed for the moulds and inversion to occur. This proved beyond any possibility of doubt that the moulds and inversion of the sugar could not be “spontaneous” action, but must be due to something carried in the air admitted to the first two flasks.
Yet Pasteur later called fermentation “life without air, or life without oxygen.”
At this time, it was quite generally believed that fermentation could not take place except in the presence of albuminoids, which were in general use by Pasteur and others as part of their solutions . Hence, their solutions could have contained these living organizations to start with.
Bechamp’s solutions contained only pure cane sugar and water, and when heated with fresh-slaked lime did not disengage ammonia – ample proof that they contained no albumen. Yet moulds, obviously living organisms, and therefore containing albuminoid matter, had appeared in these two solutions.
Bechamp proved to his own satisfaction that these moulds were living organisms and that cane sugar was inverted, as he said “… only in proportion to the development of moulds. These elementary vegetations then acting as ferments.”
Pasteur, apparently overlooking the air contact, challenged Bechamp’s statements, saying:
“… to be logical, Bechamp should say that he has proved that moulds arise in pure sugared water, without nitrogen, phosphates or other mineral elements, for that is an enormity that can be deduced from his work, in which there is not the expression of the least astonishment that moulds have been able to grow in pure water with pure sugar without any other mineral or organic principles.”
Bechamp’s retort to this was:
“A chemist au courant with science ought not to be surprised that moulds are developed in sweetened water, contained in contact with air in glass flasks. It is the astonishment of Pasteur that is astonishing”
As Bechamp started with no nitrogen whatever except what was in the air in the first two flasks, it is probably the first time any growth or any kind of organism was proved to have absorbed nitrogen from the air. Apparently Pasteur could not grasp this idea!
In the preface to his last book, The Third Element of the Blood, Bechamp says that these facts impressed him in the same way that the swing of the cathedral lamp had impressed Galileo. He realized that some living organisms had been carried into these two flasks in the small amount of air admitted, and acting as ferments had produced the mould and the inversion in the sugar. He compared the transformation of cane sugar in the presence of moulds to that produced upon starch by diastase, the ferment that converts starch into sugar.
He sent in his report on these findings to the Academy of Science in December 1857, and an extract was published in its reports of January 4, 1858,5 though the full paper was not published until September that year.
He says of these experiments:
“By its title the memoir was a work of pure chemistry, which had at first no other object than to determine whether or not pure cold water could invert cane sugar and if, further, the salts had any influence on the inversion. But soon the question, as I had foreseen, became complicated; it became at once physiological and dependent upon the phenomena of fermentation and the question of spontaneous generation. Thus from the study of a simple chemical fact, I was led to investigate the causes of fermentation, and the nature and origin of ferments.”
Although Schwann had suggested airborne germs in about 1837, he had not proved his ideas; here Bechamp proved them to exist.
Yet Pasteur in his 1857 memoirs still clings to the idea that both the moulds and ferments “take birth spontaneously”, although his solutions all contained dead yeast or yeast broth which might have carried germs or ferments from the start.
He does conclude that the ferment is a living being, yet states that this “cannot be irrefutably demonstrated”.
But Bechamp had demonstrated it “irrefutably” in his paper, and also had proved that water alone caused no alteration, there was no spontaneous alteration, and that moulds do not develop, nor inversion occur, without contact with the air; thus some airborne organism must cause the moulds and the inversion.
According to Miss Hume, Bechamp was also the first to distinguish between the “organized” or living ferment and the soluble ferment which he obtained by crushing the moulds, and which he found to act directly on the sugar, causing rapid inversion.
He named this substance zymase, in a paper Memoirs on Fermentation by Organized Ferments, which he read before the Academy of Science on April 4, 1864.
Strange to say, exactly the same word is used by others whom various encyclopaedias have credited with this discovery in 1897, over 30 years later!
In this paper he also gave his final complete explanation of the phenomena of fermentation, as being due to the nutrition of living organisms; i.e. a process of absorption, assimilation, and excretion.
In the preface to his last work (The Third Element of the Blood), Bechamp says (p.16):
“It resulted that the soluble ferment was allied to the insoluble by the relation of product to producer; the soluble ferment being unable to exist without the organized ferment, which is necessarily insoluble.
Further, as the soluble ferment and the albuminoid matter, being nitrogenous, could only be formed by obtaining the nitrogen from the limited volume of air left in the flasks, it was at the same time demonstrated that the free nitrogen of the air could help directly in the synthesis of the nitrogenous substance of plants; which up to that time had been a disputed question.
Thus it became evident that since the material forming the structure of moulds and yeast was elaborated within the organism, it must also be true that the soluble ferments and products of fermentation are also secreted there, as was the case with the soluble ferment that inverted the cane sugar. Hence I became assured that that which is called fermentation is in reality the phenomena of nutrition, assimilation and disassimilation, and the excretion of the products disassimilated.”
He explained further:
“In these solutions there existed no albuminoid substance; they were made with pure cane sugar, which heated with fresh-slaked lime, does not give off ammonia. It thus appears evident that airborne germs found the sugared solution a favourable medium for their development, and it must be admitted that the ferment is here produced by the generation of fungi.
The matter that develops in the sugared water sometimes presents itself in the form of little isolated bodies, and sometimes in the form of voluminous colourless membranes which come out in one mass from the flasks. These membranes, heated with caustic potash, give off ammonia in abundance.”
This proved that albuminoids were present, hence the little bodies were living matter. It also proves that Professor Bechamp understood the formation and growth of moulds and ferments in 1857, years before Pasteur comprehended these physiological processes!
In 1859, over a year after Bechamp’s paper covering his 1857 experiments was printed, Pasteur started another experiment more in line with Bechamp’s ideas, in fact apparently inspired by them.
He omitted all yeast but used ammonia, which contains nitrogen, in his solutions, and then ascribed the origin of lactic yeast to the atmospheric air. He was surprised that animal and vegetable matter should appear and grow in such an environment. He says:
“As to the origin of the lactic yeast in these experiments, it is solely due to the atmospheric air; we fall back here upon facts of spontaneous generation.”
After asserting that excluding atmospheric air or boiling the solution will prevent the formation of organisms, or fermentations, he says:
“On this point, the question of spontaneous generation has made progress.”
In a still later memoir plainly inspired by Bechamp’s Beacon Experiment, Pasteur again constantly refers to the spontaneous production of yeasts and fermentation.
There is no question but that he still believed in spontaneous generation of germs and ferments at this time, and his reasoning appears somewhat childish when compared to Bechamp’s work.
However, in 1860, he started another experiment in which he prepared 73 phials of unfermented liquid to expose at various points on a much advertised-in-advance trip. He opened and resealed various phials at different places, the last twenty on the Mer de Glace above Chamonix.
He practically repeated Bechamp’s experiments here, but of course he had to use a different and more spectacular method to get attention.
From this time he veered away from spontaneous generation, and began to explain the same occurrences (fermentation) as being caused by germs in the air.
Paul de Kruif in Microbe Hunters (a grandiose attempt to exalt some of the original experimenters in serumology), glosses over Pasteur’s willingness to steal credit for the ideas of others, and after describing his use, without credit, of Ballard’s suggestion of the swan neck bottle to admit dust-free and germ-free air into a flask, says of this “high Alps” experiment:
“Then Pasteur invented an experiment that was – so far as one can tell from a careful search through the records – really his own. It was a grand experiment, a semi-public experiment, an experiment that meant rushing across France in trains, it was a test in which he had to slither on glaciers.” (p.83)
However, de Kruif doubted thoroughly that it was Pasteur’s, and well he might! Yet little did he realize how few of Pasteur’s foolhardy claims were either his own or, in fact, even true in any particular.
In a discussion of spontaneous generation at the Sorbonne during a meeting on November 22, 1861, Pasteur had the nerve to claim, in the presence of Professor Bechamp, all credit for the proof that living organisms appeared in a medium devoid of albuminoid matter! Bechamp asked him to admit knowledge of Bechamp’s 1857 work, but did not charge him with plagiarism, and Pasteur evaded the question, merely admitting that Bechamp’s work was “rigidly exact”. This was not an accident, but deliberate premeditated fraud; however, Bechamp was too much of a gentleman to make any unpleasant charges.
That it took several more years to get the spontaneous generation idea entirely out of Pasteur’s head is indicated by the article on Pasteur in the 14th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which says:
“The recognition of the fact that both lactic and alcohol fermentation were hastened by exposure to air naturally led Pasteur to wonder whether his invisible organisms were always present in the atmosphere or whether they were spontaneously generated. By a series of intricate experiments, including the filtration of air and the famous exposure of unfermented liquids to the pure air of the high Alps, he was able to declare with certainty in 1864 that the minute organisms causing fermentation were not spontaneously generated but came from similar organisms with which ordinary air was impregnated.”
Here it is again – not until 1864 did he give up his idea of spontaneous generation – and the high Alps stuff was only high theatre, well advertised in advance, to enable him to grab Bechamp’s discovery, and yet have some ‘new stuff’ to attract attention to himself. Of course, he could not follow exactly the same methods; some one might bring up Bechamp’s memoirs, hence the “high Alps” and “slithering on glaciers”.
His experiments made in 1859 also indicated knowledge of Bechamp’s work without albuminoids, and his evasion of Bechamp’s question at the Sorbonne meeting in 1861 lends further support to such a belief, while his attacks on Bechamp would indicate that he recognized a rival and was keenly jealous.
Note that this final acceptance of ideas that Bechamp had brought forward six years earlier did not come until after Bechamp had published his complete paper, with a full and most thoroughly proven explanation of the processes of fermentation.
However, Pasteur had, on completion of his “high Alps” experiment in 1860, accepted, or began to accept, the idea that germs of the air caused fermentation; and soon he leaped way ahead to the conclusion that these germs also caused disease, as Plenciz had suggested about a hundred years before!
Of this idea, he had no more proof than Plenciz, except that it was now known there were germs in existence, which Plenciz, apparently, did not prove.
Although Bechamp had made clear the physiological nature of fermentation in his paper on his 1857 experiments (published in 1858), and had given more complete details in his 1864 paper, Pasteur apparently had not fully grasped its true nature as late as 1872, when he published a paper in which he stated:
“That which separates the chemical phenomenon of fermentation from a crowd of other acts and especially from the acts of ordinary life is the fact of the decomposition of a weight of fermentative matter much superior to the weight of the ferment.”
Could anyone make such a statement who really understood the true nature of fermentative action? Apparently Pasteur did not!
In collaboration with A. Estor, Bechamp answered this with an effort to make the nature of fermentation clear, in a paper printed on page 1523 of the same volume, in which he said:
“Suppose an adult man to have lived a century, and to weigh on average 60 kilograms. He will have consumed in that time, besides other foods, the equivalent of 20,000 kilograms of flesh, and produced about 800 kilograms of urea. Of course there is no suggestion that this mass of flesh and urea could at any moment of his life form part of his being.
Just as a man consumes all that food only by repeating the same act a great many times, the yeast cell consumes the great mass of sugar only by constantly assimilating and disassimilating it, bit by bit. Now, that which only one man will consume in a century, a sufficient number of men would absorb in a day.
It is the same with the yeast; the sugar that a small number of cells would only consume in a year, a greater number would destroy in a day. In both cases, the more numerous the individuals, the more rapid the consumption.”
Is that not clear enough, even for a man whose diploma was marked “mediocre in Chemistry” (Pasteur) to comprehend? It seems that a child should be able to understand it.
Yet Pasteur repeated his statement four years later in Etudes sur la Bier (1876), so Bechamp’s clear explanation apparently failed to have any effect – at least on him.
Here is proof that from eight to fourteen years after Bechamp had completely disclosed the physiological nature of fermentation and described its action minutely, Pasteur had not yet grasped the facts regarding the process!
In its article on fermentation, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:
“Fermentation, according to Pasteur, was caused by the growth and multiplication of unicellular organisms out of contact with free oxygen, under which circumstances they acquire the power of taking oxygen from chemical compounds in the medium in which they are growing. In other words, ‘fermentation is life without air, or life without oxygen’. This theory of fermentation was materially modified in 1892 and 1894 by A. J. Brown, who described experiments which were in disagreement with Pasteur’s dictum.”
So did Bechamp over 35 years earlier – in 1855 and 1858 – and Pasteur appropriated and perverted his ideas.
Pasteur also jumped to the conclusion that each kind of fermentation had one specific germ, while Bechamp proved that each micro-organism might vary its fermentative effect in conformity with the medium in which it finds itself. He also showed that these micro-organisms, under varying conditions, might even change their shape, as has been recently proved so conclusively by F. Loehnis and N. R. Smith of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and others.
Pasteur, however, proceeded to classify his germs and label each with a definite and unalterable function, wherein he was wrong again, as we shall see later.