The Contemporry Review (1871)

Collected Essays VIII

[110] It has been known, from time immemorial, that the sweet liquids which may be obtained by expressing the juices of the fruits and stems of various plants, or by steeping malted barley in hot water, or by mixing honey with water–are liable to undergo a series of very singular changes, if freely exposed to the air and left to themselves, in warm weather. However clear and pellucid the liquid may have been when first prepared, however carefully it may have been freed, by straining and filtration, from even the finest visible impurities, it will not remain clear. After a time it will become cloudy and turbid; little bubbles will be seen rising to the surface, and their abundance will increase until the liquid hisses as if it were simmering on the fire. By degrees, some of the solid particles which produce the turbidity of the liquid [111] collect at its surface into a scum, which is blown up by the emerging air-bubbles into a thick, foamy froth. Another moiety sinks to the bottom, and accumulates as a muddy sediment, or "lees."

When this action has continued, with more or less violence, for a certain time, it gradually moderates. The evolution of bubbles slackens, and finally comes to an end; scum and lees alike settle at the bottom, and the fluid is once more clear and transparent. But it has acquired properties of which no trace existed in the original liquid. Instead of being a mere sweet fluid, mainly composed of sugar and water, the sugar has more or less completely disappeared; and it has acquired that peculiar smell and taste which we call "spirituous." Instead of being devoid of any obvious effect upon the animal economy, it has become possessed of a very wonderful influence on the nervous system; so that in small doses it exhilarates, while in larger it stupefies, and may even destroy life.

Moreover, if the original fluid is put into a still, and heated moderately, the first and last product of its distillation is simple water; while, when the altered fluid is subjected to the same process, the matter which is first condensed in the receiver is found to be a clear, volatile substance, which is lighter than water, has a pungent taste and smell, possesses the intoxicating powers of the fluid in an eminent degree, and takes fire the moment it [112] is brought in contact with a flame. The Alchemists called this volatile liquid, which they obtained from wine, "spirits of wine," just as they called hydrochloric acid "spirits of salt," and as we, to this day, call refined turpentine "spirits of turpentine." As the "spiritus," or breath, of a man was thought to be the most refined and subtle part of him, the intelligent essence of man was also conceived as a sort of breath, or spirit; and, by analogy, the most refined essence of anything was called its "spirit." And thus it has come about that we use the same word for the soul of man and for a glass of gin.

At the present day, however, we even more commonly use another name for this peculiar liquid–namely, "alcohol," and its origin is not less singular. The Dutch physician, Van Helmont, lived in the latter part of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century–in the transition period between alchemy and chemistry–and was rather more alchemist than chemist. Appended to his "Opera Omnia," published in 1707, there is a very needful "Clavis ad obscuriorum sensum referendum," in which the following passage occurs:–

Alcohol–Chymicis est liquor aut pulvis summè subtilisatus, vocabulo Orientalibus quoque, cum primis Habessinis, familiari, quibus cohol speciatim pulverem impalpabilem es antimonio pro oculis tingendis denotat . . . Hodie autem, ob analogiam, quivis pulvis tenerior ut pulvis oculorum cancri [113] summè subtilisatus alcohol audit, haud aliter ac spiritus rectificatissimi alcolisati dicuntur."

Similarly, Robert Boyle speaks of a fine powder as "alcohol"; and, so late as the middle of the last century, the English lexicographer, Nathan Bailey, defines "alcohol" as "the pure substance of anything separated from the more gross, a very fine and impalpable powder, or a very pure, well-rectified spirit." But, by the time of the publication of Lavoisier's "Traité Eléementaire de Chimie," in 1789, the term "alcohol," "alkohol," or "alkool" (for it is spelt in all three ways), which Van Helmont had applied primarily to a fine powder, and only secondarily to spirits of wine, had lost its primary meaning altogether; and, from the end of the last century until now, it has, I believe, been used exclusively as the denotation of spirits of wine, and bodies chemically allied to that substance.

The process which gives rise to alcohol in a saccharine fluid is known to us as "fermentation"; a term based upon the apparent boiling up or "effervescence" of the fermenting liquid, and of Latin origin.

Our Teutonic cousins call the same process "gähren," "gäsen," "göschen," and "gischen"; but, oddly enough, we do not seem to have retained their verb or their substantive denoting the action itself, though we do use names identical with, or plainly derived from, theirs for [114] the scum and lees. These are called, in Low German, "gäscht" and "gischt"; in Anglo-Saxon "gest," "gist," and "yst," whence our "yeast." Again, in Low German and in Anglo-Saxon there is another name for yeast, having the form "barm," or "beorm"; and, in the Midland Counties, "barm" is the name by which yeast is still best known. In High German, there is a third name for yeast, "hefe," which is not represented in English, so far as I know.

All these words are said by philologers to be derived from roots expressive of the intestine motion of a fermenting substance. Thus "hefe" is derived from "heben," to raise; "barm" from "beren" or "bären," to bear up; "yeast," "yst," and "gist," have all to do with seething and foam, with "yeasty" waves, and "gusty" breezes.

The same reference to the swelling up of the fermenting substance is seen in the Gallo-Latin terms "levure" and "leaven."

It is highly creditable to the ingenuity of our ancestors that the peculiar property of fermented liquids, in virtue of which they "make glad the heart of man," seems to have been known in the remotest periods of which we have any record. All savages take to alcoholic fluids as if they were to the manner born. Our Vedic forefathers intoxicated themselves with the juice of the "soma"; Noah, by a not unnatural reaction against a superfluity of water, appears to have [115] taken the earliest practicable opportunity of qualifying that which he was obliged to drink; and the ghosts of the ancient Egyptians were solaced by pictures of banquets in which the wine-cup passes round, graven on the walls of their tombs. A knowledge of the process of fermentation, therefore, was in all probability possessed by the prehistoric populations of the globe; and it must have become a matter of great interest even to primæval wine-bibbers to study the methods by which fermented liquids could be surely manufactured. No doubt it was soon discovered that the most certain, as well as the most expeditious, way of making a sweet juice ferment was to add to it a little of the scum, or lees, of another fermenting juice. And it can hardly be questioned that this singular excitation of fermentation in one fluid, by a sort of infection, or inoculation, of a little ferment taken from some other fluid, together with the strange swelling, foaming, and hissing of the fermented substance, must have always attracted attention from the more thoughtful. Nevertheless, the commencement of the scientific analysis of the phenomena dates from a period not earlier than the first half of the seventeenth century.

At this time, Van Helmont made a first step, by pointing out that the peculiar hissing and bubbling of a fermented liquid is due, not to the evolution of common air (which he, as the inventor [116] of the term "gas," calls "gas ventosum"), but to that of a peculiar kind of air such as is occasionally met with in caves, mines, and wells, and which he calls "gas sylvestre."

But a century elapsed before the nature of this "gas sylvestre," or, as it was afterwards called, "fixed air," was clearly determined, and it was found to be identical with that deadly "choke-damp'' by which the lives of those who descend into old wells, or mines, or brewers' vats, are sometimes suddenly ended; and with the poisonous aëriform fluid which is produced by the combustion of charcoal, and now goes by the name of carbonic acid gas.

During the same time it gradually became evident that the presence of sugar was essential to the production of alcohol and the evolution of carbonic acid gas, which are the two great and conspicuous products of fermentation. And finally, in 1787, the Italian chemist, Fabroni, made the capital discovery that the yeast ferment, the presence of which is necessary to fermentation, is what he termed a "vegeto-animal" substance; that is, a body which gives off ammoniacal salts when it is burned, and is, in other ways, similar to the gluten of plants and the albumen and casein of animals.

These discoveries prepared the way for the illustrious Frenchman, Lavoisier, who first approached the problem of fermentation with a [117] complete conception of the nature of the work to be done. The words in which he expresses this conception, in the treatise on elementary chemistry to which reference has already been made, mark the year 1789 as the commencement of a revolution of not less moment in the world of science than that which simultaneously burst over the political world, and soon engulfed Lavoisier himself in one of its mad eddies.

"We may lay it down as an incontestable axiom that, in all the operations of art and nature, nothing is created; an equal quantity of matter exists both before and after the experiment: the quality and quantity of the elements remain precisely the same, and nothing hikes place beyond changes and modifications in the combinations of these elements. Upon this principle the whole art of performing chemical experiments depends; we must always suppose an exact equality between the elements of the body examined and those of the products of its analysis.

"Hence, since from must of grapes we procure alcohol and carbonic acid, I have an undoubted right to suppose that must consists of carbonic acid and alcohol. From these premisses we have two modes of ascertaining what passes during vinous fermentation: either by determining the nature of, and the elements which compose, the fermentable substances; or by accurately examining the products resulting from fermentation; and it is evident that the knowledge of either of these must lead to accurate conclusions concerning the nature and composition of the other. From these considerations it became necessary accurately to determine the constituent elements of the fermentable substances; and for this purpose I did not make use of the compound juices of fruits, the rigorous analysis of which is perhaps impossible, but made choice of sugar, which is easily analysed, and the nature of which I have already explained. This substance is a true vegetable oxyd, with two bases, composed of [118] hydrogen and carbon, brought to the state of an oxyd by means of a certain proportion of oxygen; and these three elements are combined in such a way that a very slight force is sufficient to destroy the equilibrium of their connection."

After giving the details of his analysis of sugar and of the products of fermentation, Lavoisier continues:–

The effect of the vinous fermentation upon sugar is thus reduced to the mere separation of its elements into two portions; one part is oxygenated at the expense of the other, so as to form carbonic acid; while the other part, being disoxygenated in favour of the latter, is converted into the combustible substance called alkohol; therefore, if it were possible to re-unite alkohol and carbonic acid together, we ought to form sugar."1

Thus Lavoisier thought he had demonstrated that the carbonic acid and the alcohol which are produced by the process of fermentation, are equal in weight to the sugar which disappears; but the application of the more refined methods of modern chemistry to the investigation of the products of fermentation by Pasteur, in 1860 proved that this is not exactly true, and that there is a deficit of from 5 to 7 per cent. of the sugar which is not covered by the alcohol and carbonic acid evolved. The greater part of this deficit is accounted for by the discovery of two substances, glycerine and succinic acid, of the existence of which Lavoisier was unaware, in the [119] fermented liquid. But about 1-1/2 per cent. still remains to be made good. According to Pasteur, it has been appropriated by the yeast, but the fact that such appropriation takes place cannot be said to be actually proved.

However this may be, there can be no doubt that the constituent elements of fully 98 per cent. of the sugar which has vanished during fermentation have simply undergone rearrangement; like the soldiers of a brigade, who at the word of command divide themselves into the independent regiments to which they belong. The brigade is sugar, the regiments are carbonic acid, succinic acid, alcohol, and glycerine.

From the time of Fabroni, onwards, it has been admitted that the agent by which this surprising rearrangement of the particles of the sugar is effected is the yeast. But the first thoroughly conclusive evidence of the necessity of yeast for the fermentation of sugar was furnished by Appert, whose method of preserving perishable articles of food excited so much attention in France at the beginning of this century. Gay-Lussac, in his "Memoire sur la Fermentation,"2 alludes to Appert's method of preserving beer-wort unfermented for an indefinite time, by simply boiling the wort and closing the vessel in which the boiling fluid is contained, in such a way as thoroughly to exclude air; and he [120] shows that, if a little yeast be introduced into such wort, after it has cooled, the wort at once begins to ferment, even though every precaution be taken to exclude air. And this statement has since received full confirmation from Pasteur.

On the other hand, Schwann, Schroeder and Dusch, and Pasteur, have amply proved that air may be allowed to have free access to beer-wort, without exciting fermentation, if only efficient precautions are taken to prevent the entry of particles of yeast along with the air.

Thus, the truth that the fermentation of a simple solution of sugar in water depends upon the presence of yeast, rests upon an unassailable foundation; and the inquiry into the exact nature of the substance which possesses such a wonderful chemical influence becomes profoundly interesting.

The first step towards the solution of this problem was made two centuries ago by the patient and painstaking Dutch naturalist, Leeuwenhoek, who in the year 1680 wrote thus:–

Sapissime examinavi fermentum cerevisiæ, semperque hoc ex globulis per materiam pellucidam fluitantibus, quam cerevisiam esse censui, constare observavi: vidi etiam evidentissime, unumquemque hujus fermenti globulum denuo ex sex distinctis globulis constare, accurate eidem quantitate et formæ, cui globulis sanguinis nostri, respondentibus.

"Verum talis mihi de horum origine et formatione conceptus formabam; globulis nempe ex quibus farina Tritici, Hordei, Avenæ, Fagotritici, se constat aquæ calore dissolvi et aquæ com[121]misceri; hac, vero aqua, quam cerevisiam vocare licet, refrigescente, multos ex minimis particulis in cerevisia coadunari, et hoc pacto efficere particulam sive globulum, quæ sexta pars est globuli fæcis, et iterum sex ex hisce globulis conjungi."3

Thus Leeuwenhoek discovered that yeast consists of globules floating in a fluid; but he thought that they were merely the starchy particles of the grain from which the wort was made, rearranged. He discovered the fact that yeast had a definite structure, but not the meaning of the fact. A century and a half elapsed, and the investigation of yeast was recommenced almost simultaneously by Cagniard de la Tour in France, and by Schwann and Kützing in Germany. The French observer was the first to publish his results; and the subject received at his hands and at those of his colleague, the botanist Turpin, full and satisfactory investigation.

The main conclusions at which they arrived are these. The globular, or oval, corpuscles which float so thickly in the yeast as to make it muddy, though the largest are not more than one two-thousandth of an inch in diameter, and the smallest may measure less than one seven-thousandth of an inch, are living organisms. They multiply with great rapidity by giving off minute buds, which soon attain the size of their parent, and then either become detached or remain united, forming the compound globules of which [122] Leeuwenhoek speaks, though the constancy of their arrangement in sixes existed only in the worthy Dutchman's imagination.

It was very soon made out that these yeast organisms, to which Turpin gave the name of Torula cerevisiæ, were more nearly allied to the lower Fungi than to anything else. Indeed Turpin, and subsequently Berkeley and Hoffmann, believed that they had traced the development of the Tortu1a into the well-known and very common mould–the Penicillium glaucum . Other observers have not succeeded in verifying these statements; and my own observations lead me to believe, that while the connection between Tortula and the moulds is a very close one, it is of a different nature from that which has been supposed. I have never been able to trace the development of Tortula into a true mould; but it is quite easy to prove that species of true mould, such as Penicillium, when sown in an appropriate nidus, such as a solution of tartrate of ammonia and yeast-ash, in water, with or without sugar, give rise to Torulæ, similar in all respects to T. cerevisiæ, except that they are, on the average, smaller. Moreover, Bail has observed the development of a Tortula larger than T. cerevisiæ, from a Mucor, a mould allied to Penicillium .

It follows, therefore, that the Torulæ, or organisms of yeast, are veritable plants; and conclusive experiments have proved that the power [123] which causes the rearrangement of the molecules of the sugar is intimately connected with the life and growth of the plant. In fact, whatever arrests the vital activity of the plant also prevents it from exciting fermentation.

Such being the facts with regard to the nature of yeast, and the changes which it effects in sugar, how are they to be accounted for? Before modern chemistry had come into existence, Stahl, stumbling, with the stride of genius, upon the conception which lies at the bottom of all modern views of the process, put forward the notion that the ferment, being in a state of internal motion, communicated that motion to the sugar, and thus caused its resolution into new substances. And Lavoisier, as we have seen, adopts substantially the same view. But Fabroni, full of the then novel conception of acids and bases and double decompositions, propounded the hypothesis that sugar is an oxide with two bases, and the ferment a carbonate with two bases; that the carbon of the ferment unites with the oxygen of the sugar, and gives rise to carbonic acid; while the sugar, uniting with the nitrogen of the ferment, produces a new substance analogous to opium. This is decomposed by distillation, and gives rise to alcohol. Next, in 1803, Thénard propounded a hypothesis which partakes somewhat of the nature of both Stahl's and Fabroni's views. "I do not believe with Lavoisier," he says, "that all the [124] carbonic acid formed proceeds from the sugar. How, in that case, could we conceive the action of the ferment on it? I think that the first portions of the acid are due to a combination of the carbon of the ferment with the oxygen of the sugar, and that it is by carrying off a portion of oxygen from the last that the ferment causes the fermentation to commence–the equilibrium between the principles of the sugar being disturbed, they combine afresh to form carbonic acid and alcohol."

The three views here before us may be familiarly exemplified by supposing the sugar to be a card-house. According to Stahl, the ferment is somebody who knocks the table, and shakes the card-house down; according to Fabroni, the ferment takes out some cards, but puts others in their places; according to Thénard, the ferment simply takes a card out of the bottom story, the result of which is that all the others fall.

As chemistry advanced, facts came to light which put a new face upon Stahl's hypothesis, and gave it a safer foundation than it previously possessed. The general nature of these phenomena may be thus stated:–A body, A, without giving to, or taking from, another body B, any material particles, causes B to decompose into other substances, C, D, E, the sum of the weights of which is equal to the weight of B. which decomposes.

Thus, bitter almonds contain two substances, [125] amygdalin and synaptase, which can be extracted, in a separate state, from the bitter almonds. The amygdalin thus obtained, if dissolved in water, undergoes no change; but if a little synaptase be added to the solution, the amygdalin splits up into bitter almond oil, prussic acid, and a kind of sugar.

A short time after Cagniard de la Tour discovered the yeast plant, Liebig, struck with the similarity between this and other such processes and the fermentation of sugar, put forward the hypothesis that yeast contains a substance which acts upon sugar, as synaptase acts upon amygdalin. And as the synaptase is certainly neither organized nor alive, but a mere chemical substance, Liebig treated Cagniard de la Tour's discovery with no small contempt, and, from that time to the present, has steadily repudiated the notion that the decomposition of the sugar is, in any sense, the result of the vital activity of the Tortula. But, though the notion that the Tortula is a creature which eats sugar and excretes carbonic acid and alcohol, which is not unjustly ridiculed in the most surprising paper that ever made its appearance in a grave scientific journal,4 may be un[126]tenable, the fact that the Torulæ are alive, and that yeast does not excite fermentation unless it contains living Torulæ, stands fast. Moreover, of late years, the essential participation of living organisms in fermentation other than the alcoholic, has been clearly made out by Pasteur and other chemists.

However, it may be asked, is there any necessary opposition between the so-called "vital" and the strictly physico-chemical views of fermentation? It is quite possible that the living Tortula may excite fermentation in sugar, because it constantly produces, as an essential part of its vital manifestations, some substance which acts upon the sugar, just as the synaptase acts upon the amygdalin. Or it may be, that, without the formation of any such special substance, the physical condition of the living tissue of the yeast plant is sufficient to effect that small disturbance of the equilibrium of the particles of the sugar, which Lavoisier thought sufficient to effect its decomposition.

Platinum in a very fine state of division–known as platinum black, or noir de platine–has [127] the very singular property of causing alcohol to change into acetic acid with great rapidity. The vinegar plant, which is closely allied to the yeast plant, has a similar effect upon dilute alcohol, causing it to absorb the oxygen of the air, and become converted into vinegar; and Liebig's eminent opponent, Pasteur, who has done so much for the theory and the practice of vinegar-making, himself suggests that in this case–

La cause du phénomène physique qui accompagne la vie de la plante réside dans un état physique propre, analogue à celui du noir de platine. Mais il est essentiel de remarquer que cet état physique de la plante est étroitement lié avec la vie de cette plante."5

Now, if the vinegar plant gives rise to the oxidation of alcohol, on account of its merely physical constitution, it is at any rate possible that the physical constitution of the yeast plant may exert a decomposing influence on sugar.

But, without presuming to discuss a question which leads us into the very arcana of chemistry, the present state of speculation upon the modus operandi of the yeast plant in producing fermentation is represented, on the one hand, by the Stahlian doctrine, supported by Liebig, according to which the atoms of the sugar are shaken into new combinations, either directly by the Torulæ, or indirectly, by some substance formed by them; [128] and, on the other hand, by the Thénardian doctrine, supported by Pasteur, according to which the yeast plant assimilates part of the sugar, and, in so doing, disturbs the rest, and determines its resolution into the products of fermentation. Perhaps the two views are not so much opposed as they seem at first sight to be.

But the interest which attaches to the influence of the yeast plants upon the medium in which they live and grow does not arise solely from its bearing upon the theory of fermentation. So long ago as 1838, Turpin compared the Torulæ to the ultimate elements of the tissues of animals and plants–"Les organes élémentaires de leurs tissus, comparables aux petits végétaux des levures ordinaires, sont aussi les décompositeurs des substances qui les environnent."

Almost at the same time, and, probably, equally guided by his study of yeast, Schwann was engaged in those remarkable investigations into the form and development of the ultimate structural elements of the tissues of animals, which led him to recognise their fundamental identity with the ultimate structural elements of vegetable organisms.

The yeast plant is a mere sac, or "cell," containing a semi-fluid matter, and Schwann's microscopic analysis resolved all living organisms, in the long run, into an aggregation of such sacs or cells, variously modified; and tended to show, that all, [129] whatever their ultimate complication, begin their existence in the condition of such simple cells.

In his famous "Mikroskopische Untersuchungen" Schwann speaks of Tortula as a "cell"; and, in a remarkable note to the passage in which he refers to the yeast plant, Schwann says:–

I have been unable to avoid mentioning fermentation, because it is the most fully and exactly known operation of cells, and represents, in the simplest fashion, the process which is repeated by every cell of the living body."

In other words, Schwann conceives that every cell of the living body exerts an influence on the matter which surrounds and permeates it, analogous to that which a Tortula exerts on the saccharine solution by which it is bathed. A wonderfully suggestive thought, opening up views of the nature of the chemical processes of the living body, which have hardly yet received all the development of which they are capable.

Kant defined the special peculiarity of the living body to be that the parts exist for the sake of the whole and the whole for the sake of the parts. But when Turpin and Schwann resolved the living body into an aggregation of quasi-independent cells, each, like a Tortula, leading its own life and having its own laws of growth and development, the aggregation being dominated and kept working towards a definite end only by a certain harmony among these units, or by the superaddition [130] of a controlling apparatus, such as a nervous system, this conception ceased to be tenable. The cell lives for its own sake, as well as for the sake of the whole organism; and the cells which float in the blood, live at its expense, and profoundly modify it, are almost as much independent organisms as the Torulæ which float in beer-wort.

Schwann burdened his enunciation of the "cell theory" with two false suppositions; the one, that the structures he called "nucleus"6 and "cell-wall" are essential to a cell; the other, that cells are usually formed independently of other cells; but, in 1839, it was a vast and clear gain to arrive at the conception, that the vital functions of all the higher animals and plants are the resultant of the forces inherent in the innumerable minute cells of which they are composed, and that each of them is, itself, an equivalent of one of the lowest and simplest of independent living beings–the Tortula .

From purely morphological investigations, Turpin and Schwann, as we have seen, arrived at the notion of the fundamental unity of structure of living beings. And, before long, the researches of chemists gradually led up to the conception of the fundamental unity of their composition.

So far back as 1803, Thénard pointed out, in [131] most distinct terms, the important fact that yeast contains a nitrogenous "animal" substance; and that such a substance is contained in all ferments. Before him, Fabroni and Fourcroy speak of the "vegeto-animal" matter of yeast. In 1844 Mulder endeavoured to demonstrate that a peculiar substance, which he called "protein," was essentially characteristic of living matter.

In 1846, Payen writes:–

Enfin, une loi sans exception me semble apparaître done les faits nombreux que j'ai observés et conduire à envisager sous un nouveau jour la vie végétale; si je ne m'abuse, tout ce que dans les tissus végétaux la vue directe où amplifiée nous permet de discerner sous la forme de cellules et de vaisseaux, ne représente autre chose que les enveloppes protectrices, les réservoirs et les conduits, à l'aide desquels les corps animés qui les secrètent et les façonnent, se logent, puisent et charrient leurs aliments, déposent et isolent les matières excrétées."

And again:–

Afin de compléter aujourd'hui l'énoncé du fait général, je rappellerai que les corps, doué des fonctions accomplies dans les tissus des plantes, sont formés des éléments qui constituent, en proportion peu variable, les organismes animaux; qu'ainsi l'on est conduit a reconnaîre une immense unité de composition élémentaire dans tous les corps vivants de la nature."7

In the year (1846) in which these remarkable passages were published, the eminent German botanist, Von Mohl, invented the word "protoplasm," as a name for one portion of those nitrogenous contents of the cells of living plants, the [132] close chemical resemblance of which to the essential constituents of living animals is so strongly indicated by Payen. And through the twenty-five years that have passed, since the matter of life was first called protoplasm, a host of investigators, among whom Cohn, Max Schulze, and Kühne must be named as leaders, have accumulated evidence, morphological, physiological, and chemical, in favour of that "immense unité de composition élémentaire dans tous les corps vivants de la nature," into which Payen had, so early, a clear insight.

As far back as 1850, Cohn wrote, apparently without any knowledge of what Payen had said before him:–

The protoplasm of the botanist, and the contractile substance and sarcode of the zoologist, must be, if not identical, yet in a high degree analogous substances. Hence, from this point of view, the difference between animals and plants consists in this; that, in the latter, the contractile substance, as a primordial utricle, is enclosed within an inert cellulose membrane, which permits it only to exhibit an internal motion, expressed by the phenomena of rotation and circulation, while, in the former, it is not so enclosed. The protoplasm in the form of the primordial utricle is, as it were, the animal element in the plant, but which is imprisoned, and only becomes free in the animal; or to strip off the metaphor which obscures simple thought, the energy of organic vitality which is manifested in movement is especially exhibited by a nitrogenous contractile substance, which in plants is limited and fettered by an inert membrane, in animals not so."8

[133] In 1868, thinking that an untechnical statement of the views current among the leaders of biological science might be interesting to the general public, I gave a lecture embodying them in Edinburgh. Those who have not made the mistake of attempting to approach biology, either by the high a priori road of mere philosophical speculation, or by the mere low a a posteriori lane offered by the tube of a microscope, but have taken the trouble to become acquainted with well-ascertained facts and with their history, will not need to be told that in what I had to say "as regards protoplasm" in my lecture "On the Physical Basis of Life" (Vol. I. of these Essays, p. 130), there was nothing new; and, as I hope, nothing that the present state of knowledge does not justify us in believing to be true. Under these circumstances, my surprise may be imagined, when I found, that the mere statement of facts and of views, long familiar to me as part of the common scientific property of Continental workers, raised a sort of storm in this country, not only by exciting the wrath of unscientific persons whose pet prejudices they seemed to touch, but by giving rise to quite superfluous explosions on the part of some who should have been better informed.

Dr. Stirling, for example, made my essay the subject of a special critical lecture9 which I have [134] read with much interest, though, I confess, the meaning of much of it remains as dark to me as does the "Secret of Hegel" after Dr. Stirling's elaborate revelation of it. Dr. Stirling's method of dealing with the subject is peculiar. "Protoplasm" is a question of history, so far as it is a name; of fact, so far as it is a thing. Dr. Stirling has not taken the trouble to refer to the original authorities for his history, which is consequently a travesty; and still less has he concerned himself with looking at the facts, but contents himself with taking them also at second-hand. A most amusing example of this fashion of dealing with scientific statements is furnished by Dr. Stirling's remarks upon my account of the protoplasm of the nettle hair. That account was drawn up from careful and often-repeated observation of the facts. Dr. Stirling thinks he is offering a valid criticism, when he says that my valued friend Professor Stricker gives a somewhat different statement about protoplasm. But why in the world did not this distinguished Hegelian look at a nettle hair for himself, before venturing to speak about the matter at all? Why trouble himself about what either Stricker or I say, when any tyro can see the facts for himself, if he is provided with those not rare articles, a nettle and a microscope? But I suppose this would have been "Aufklärung"a recurrence to the base common-sense philosophy of the eighteenth century, which liked to see before it [135] believed, and to understand before it criticised. Dr. Stirling winds up his paper with the following paragraph:–

In short, the whole position of Mr. Huxley, (l) that all organisms consist alike of the same life-matter, (2) which life-matter is, for its part, due only to chemistry, must be pronounced untenable–nor less untenable (3) the materialism he would found on it."

The paragraph contains three distinct assertions concerning my views, and just the same number of utter misrepresentations of them. That which I have numbered (1) turns on the ambiguity of the word "same," for a discussion of which I would refer Dr. Stirling to a great hero of "Aufklärung," Archbishop Whately; statement number (2) is, in my judgment, absurd, and certainly I have never said anything resembling it; while, as to number (3), one great object of my essay was to show that what is called "materialism" has no sound philosophical basis!

As we have seen, the study of yeast has led investigators face to face with problems of immense interest in pure chemistry, and in animal and vegetable morphology. Its physiology is not less rich in subjects for inquiry. Take, for example, the singular fact that yeast will increase indefinitely when grown in the dark, in water containing only tartrate of ammonia, a small percentage of mineral salts, and sugar. Out of these materials the Torulæ will manufacture nitrogenous proto[136]plasm, cellulose, and fatty matters, in any quantity, although they are wholly deprived of those rays of the sun, the influence of which is essential to the growth of ordinary plants. There has been a great deal of speculation lately, as to how the living organisms buried beneath two or three thousand fathoms of water, and therefore in all probability almost deprived of light, live. If any of them possess the same powers as yeast (and the same capacity for living without light is exhibited by some other fungi) there would seem to be no difficulty about the matter.

Of the pathological bearings of the study of yeast, and other such organisms, I have spoken elsewhere. It is certain that, in some animals devastating epidemics are caused by fungi of low order–similar to those of which Tortula is a sort of offshoot. It is certain that such diseases are propagated by contagion and infection, in just the same way as ordinary contagious and infectious diseases are propagated. Of course, it does not follow from this, that all contagious and infectious diseases are caused by organisms of as definite and independent a character as the Tortula; but I think, it does follow that it is prudent and wise to satisfy one's self in each particular case, that the "germ theory" cannot and will not explain the facts, before having recourse to hypotheses which have no equal support from analogy.

1 Elements of Chemistry. By M. Lavoisier. Translated by Robert Kerr. Second Edition, 1793 (pp. 186-196).

2 Annales de Chimie, 1810.

3 Leeuwenhoek, Arcana Naturæ Detecta. . Ed. Nov., 1721.

4 "Das enträthselte Geheimniss der geistigen Gährung (Vorläufige briefliche Mittheilung)" is the title of an anonymous contribution to Wöhler and Liebig's Annalen der Pharmacie for 1839, in which a somewhat Rabelaisian imaginary description of the organisation of the "yeast animals" and of the manner in which their functions are performed, is given with a circumstantiality worthy of the author of Gulliver's Travels . As a specimen of the writer's humour, his account of what happens when fermentation comes to an end may suffice. "Sobald nämlich die Thiere keinen Zucker mehr vorfinden, so fressen sie sich gegenseitig selbst auf, was durch eine eigene Manipulation geschieht; alles wird verdaut bis auf die Eier, welche unverändert durch den Darmkanal hineingehen; man hat zuletzt wieder gährungsfäähige Hefe, nämliche den Saamen der Thiere, der übrig bleibt."

5 Etudes sur les Mycodermes, Comptes-Rendus, liv., 1862.

6 [Later investigations have thrown an entirely new light upon the structure and the functional importance of the nucleus; and have proved that Schwann did not over-estimate its importance. 1894.]

7 "Mém. sur les Développements des Végétaux," &c.–Mém. Présentées. ix 1846.

8 Cohn, "Ueber Protococcus pluvialis," in the Nova Acta for 1850.

9 Subsequently published under the title of "As regards Protoplasm."

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume VII, Discourses: Biological & Geological, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: On the Formation of Coal [1870], pages 139-161.

Previous article: On Some of the Results of the Expedition of H.M.S. "Challenger" [1875], pages 69-111.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden