Page 12, 12th February 1937

12th February 1937
Page 12
Page 12, 12th February 1937 — MAKING OURSELVES FELT

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.


Locations: Lille


Related articles

Guild Of Mendel And Pasteur

Page 5 from 12th February 1937

New Departure In Biology

Page 12 from 22nd January 1937


Page 9 from 10th November 1939

The Church And War

Page 2 from 15th March 1946


Object Of The Biologists' Guild Of Mendel And Pasteur


S0 thorough and complete, indeed, were the experiments and demonstrations which accompanied all Pasteur's published work-of whatever kind-that it is important for us to remind ourselves that although he would never publicly and very rarely privately advance any of his ideas until he had tested

them in every conceivable manner, the real source of his success was his deep regard for theory coupled with an essential separation of scientific work from their practical and economic consequencies which might follow.

" Without theory." he says, addressing himself especially to the students during his opening speech as Dean of the new Faculty of Science at Lille (1854), " practice is but routine born of habit. Theory alone can bring forth and develop the spirit of invention. It is to you especially that it will belong not to share the opinions of those narrow minds who disdain everything in science which has not an immediate application. You know Franklin's charming saying? He was witnessing the first demonstration of a purely scientific discovery, and people round him said But what is the use of it? Franklin answered them, What is the use of a new born child?

Keep Your Early Enthusiasm

And again 34 years later (1888) at the height of his triumph, the opening of the Pasteur Institute: Keep your early enthusiasm, but let it ever be regulated by rigorous examinations and tests. Never advance anything which cannot be proved in a simple and decisive fashion. Worship the spirit of criticism. If reduced to itself, it is not an awakener of ideas or a stimulant to great things, but without it. everything is fallible, it always has the last word. It is, indeed, a hard task when you believe you have found an important scientific fact and are feverishly anxious to publish it, to constrain yourself for days, weeks, years, sometimes, to fight with yourself, to try to ruin your own experiments and only to proclaim your discovery after having exhausted all contrary hypothesis.

And well it was that his ideals were based on such solid foundations, for at every stage of his career, so epoch-making and therefore so subversive to generally accepted ideas were his discoveries that they one and all met with determined, influential and often long protracted and renewed opposition from the " vested " interests concerned. His very first results; those with tartaric racernic acid, were so fundamental that even Biot was at first sceptical about their correctness. Berzelius and Liebig would have nothing to do with the idea that fermentation was due to moro-organisms. Pouchet and Soly and many others continually did all they could to upset his work on spontaneous generation; the greater part of the industry itself and especially the " seed " merchants discouraged or even actively opposed his work on the silkworm diseases pebrine and flacherie; the wine-trade as a whole objected to that on the sowing of wine; while his masterpieces -the conquests of anthrax, swine fever, chicken cholera and hydrophobia-brought him in direct conflict with many agriculturists, most of the veterinarians and practically the whole of the medical profession in France, as also with authorities Iike Koch abroad.


Nor were the difficulties caused by this opposition his only ones, during his earlier years. The posts to which he was appointed not only tended to take him away from his actual researches, but left him without any laboratory, apparatus or attendants. For instance as Administrator to the Ecole Normale none of his official duties were directly connected with research and the facilities consisted of two completely unfurnished garrets. Yet here it was that. while scrupulously looking after the welfare of the students, not only as director of their scientific work, but also as overseer of such matters as hygiene and commissariat, some of his great work on alcoholic fermentation was accomplished.

And it was at this time that he wrote to his great friend Chappins (June, 1858): Yet I have grown accustomed to my attic,

and T should be sorry to leave it. Next holiday 1 hope to enlarge it. You, too, are struggling against material hindrance in your work : let it stimulate us my dear fellow, and not discourage us. Our discoveries will have the greater merit."

Simple and Sensitive

The remark about being sorry to leave his attic brings us back to Pasteur as an ordinary simple man who was homesick as a boy, for though he mastered the homesickness his affection for his old home, his family and his friends changed only by increasing as the years went by. His mother's sudden death in 1848 completely prostrated him for a time, and the deaths of his father, his sisters, three of his own daughters, many of his closest friends each in their turn left a permanent wound. The sufferings of others, including those of his laboratory animals, caused him the most acute agony and often reduced him to tears : every post-mortem and every hospital visit caused him a real martyrdom.

In spite of all this he flinched from nothing that he considered would help the progress of the plough to which he had put his hand-the advancenient of science for the benefit of humanity in general and of France in particular. The whole of his correspondence and of his work emits an atmosphere of self abnegation founded on his ideals of faith and duty, and coupled with enthusiasm and yet humble ambition.

Thus in a letter to his father (February, 18601, he says: " God grant that by my persevering labours I may bring a little stone to the frail and ill-assured edifice of our knowledge of these deep mysteries of Life and Death where alI our intellects have so lamentably failed." And on other occasions: " One man's life is worthless if not useful to others ": " It is everyone's duty to say In what way can I be useful?' " "And so the holiday for which I was hoping cannot he taken. The opportunity may not occur again."

" No effort is wasted ": " There are no vain prayers ": and in I 882, in reply 'to some who thought that he ought not to risk the infection of Yellow Fever, " What does it matter? Life in the midst of danger is the life, the real life, 'the life of sacrifice, of example, of fruitfulness," and in one of his last speeches, that was made at the celebration of his 70th birthday, " But whether our efforts are or are not favoured by life, let us be able to say when we come near the great goal, " have done what I could."

Self-Forgetful This faculty for completely forgetting self he exercised also in another way, for though ordinarily he was, as we sec, the most humble and affectionate man, when truth or a principle were at stake he became an absolute tiger in his eagerness to make it prevail, and nothing could prevent him"from' expressing his convictions or from taking whatever steps he thodgIfif necessary.

Criticism he always welcomed, but obscurantism and interference he would not tolerate at any price. This was true of religious as well as of scientific truths and principles. For instance at Arbois it was the custom on the patronal feast, that of St. Just on September 6, for a huge artificial grape made up of black and white grapes to be brought in procession to the parish church, escorted by fruit watchers with halberds, to the accompaniment of hymns and bells. Pasteur used to attend this ceremony. In 1885 modern ideas began to creep in and the fruit watchers were persuaded that such behaviour was childish and stupid. To their astonishment, however, the usual customs were carried out with Pasteur in the lead and as a result this simple act of faith was continued for many years longer.

Science and Religion

And again a much more memorable occasion-that of his inauguration in April, 1882, into Litres place in the Academie Franyaise, while paying his tribute to his predecessqr, who, for most of his life had been a Positurist, he felt it his duty not only to dissociate himself from most of Limes philosophy but to make quite clear what his own views were.

This he did in the words which now constitute his epitaph:

" Blessed is he who carries within himself a god, an ideal, and who obeys it; ideal of art, ideal of science, ideal of gospel

virtues; herein lie the springs of great thoughts and great actions; they all reflect light from the infinite."

The sublime. simplicity of this faith is made manifest by his reply to a friend who marvelled that one so conversant with science as he was could still keep his faith: " The more I know the more nearly does my faith approach that of the Breton peasant. Could I but know it all my faith would doubtless equal even that of the Breton peasant woman."

Artistic Scientist

Because Ile was so .actively engaged in the pursuit of science it may perhaps he thought :that he had no use for literature or for art. No one, however, could be as human as was Pasteur without a very real appreciation of branches of culture other than his own particular one, and actually he had very real ideas about both art and literature, having, even as a boy, shown a very considerable ability with crayons as a portrait artist and always retaining a love of good books. " The mind alone," he says, " can if necessary, suffice to science; both the mind and the heart intervene in literature, and that explains the secret of its superiority in leading the general train of thought." And again (1871) "The cultivation of science in its highest expression is perhaps even more necessary to the moral condition than to the material prosperity of a nation-great discoveries of thought in Art, in science and in Letters, in a word in disinterested exercise of the mind in every direction and centres of instruction from which it radiates introduce into the whole of Society that philosophical or scientific spirit, that spirit of 'discernment, which submits everything to severe reasoning, condemns ignorance, and scatters errors and prejudices. They raise the intellectual level and the moral sense, and through them the Divine idea itself is spread about. and intensified."

The Key to His Character

Knowing this much about the depth of his faith and the breadth of his outlook we have the key to the rest of his character and the explanation of the fruitfulness of his last twenty-four years in spite of partial paralysis, for they were the sources of his disinterestedness, his charity, his perseverance, his wonderful powers of intuition, of which I cannot refrain from giving these further examples.

Towards the end of the Franco-Prussian war when it looked as if intellectual pursuits would be indefinitely held up in France he received the offer of a very good University post • from Italy, but could not make up his mind whether he could serve his country the more by remaining in France or by carrying on research abroad. As soon, however, as he was offered increased inducements in the shape of salary and facilities he immediately and definitely refused the offer, so making clear that what mattered to him was science not the gains which it might bring.

Reference has been made already to sonic of the means he took to repay those who had helped him, but it was in 1867 that he showed to what extent his gratitude could go. He was then offered the post of Inspector of Higher Education, but learning that Balard, who had been inatrumentaI in obtaining one of his first posts for him, was a candidate he not only withdrew but urged Balard's claims.

Incapable of Thinking Ill of Anyone

His incapacity for thinking ill of anyone is well brought out by an incident which occurred soon after the death of his friend, Claude Bernard, who had been unusually reticent with him for some months before his death. This was the discovery among Bernard's papers of some notes which seemed to show that he had carried out some experiments which upset some of Pasteur's findings.

Instead of feeling the resentment which most of us would have experienced under similar circumstances Pasteur expressed himself thus : " Since he thought that he held in his hands a proof that the interpretation I had given to my experiments was fallacious, did he not simply wish to wait to inform me of it until the time when he thought himself ready for a definite statement'? I prefer to attribute high motives to my friends' actions."

Though the whole of his work bears continual witness to his perseverance that on silkworms does so in an especial way, for just as results should have been confirming his ideas everything went wrong to such an extent that most people would have retired defeated. Pasteur, however, set to work to check up matters and soon discovered that he had made no mistake, but that a second disease was the cause of the discrepancy.

Truth and its Fruit

The depth of his intuition and the foundations on which he raised his scientific edifices are made evident by the following excerpt from a reply to a persistent critic:

" You wish to upset what you call my theory, apparently in order to defend another; allow me to tell you by what signs -these theories are recognisable: the characteristic of erroneous theories is the impossibility of ever forseeing new facts: whenever such a fact is discovered, these theories have to be grafted with further hypothesis in order to accommodate them. True theories, on the contrary, are the expression of actual facts and are characterised by being able to predict new facts, a natural consequence of those already known. In a ward the characteristic of a true theory is its fruitfulness."

In addition to the two sources to which we have referred-his parents and his ideals Pasteur was deeply indebted to a third-his wife, but there is no need to labour the point here. For us, no matter what our calling or our position in society, what matters is the real secret of his success-the adoption of, and holding to, the ideals which he developed so early in his life.

Objects of the Guild

As the main objects of our Guild are the promotion of a real understanding interest in biology this may fittingly conclude with a quotation from one of our own ministers-Disraeli-which appealed deeply to Pasteur, coupled with one from Pasteur himself.

Disraeli : " Public health is the foundation upon which rests the happiness of the people and the power of the State. Take the most beautiful kingdom, give it intelligent and laborious citizens, prosperous manufacturers, productive agriculture; let arts flourish, let architects cover the land with temples and palaces: in order to defend all these riches have first rate weapons, fleets of torpedo boats-if the population remains stationary, if it decreases yearly in viaour and stature, the Nation must perish."

Pasteur : " When I see a child he inspires me with two feelings: tenderness for what he is now, respect for what may become hereafter." What would be , say. were he alive to-day when most of the so-called Christian nations are reducing population by refusing to follow some of the most fundamental laws of biology.

I am sure that you all agree with me that if our Guild fails to make itself felt as it should, the fault will be ours for forget-. ting that our exemplars are Mendel and Pasteur,.

blog comments powered by Disqus