Dr. Bastian and Spontaneous Generation

Nature (October 1870)

[473] I find that the "Address" which it was my duty to deliver at Liverpool, fills thirteen columns of Nature. The "Reply" with which Dr. Bastian has favoured you occupies fifteen columns, and yet professes to deal with only the first portion of the "Address." Between us, therefore, I should imagine that both you and your readers must have had enough of the subject; and, so far as my own feeling is concerned, I should be disposed to leave both Dr. Bastian and his reply to the benign and Lethean influences of Time.

But I am credibly informed that there are persons upon whom Dr. Bastian's really wonderful effluence of words weighs as much as if it were charged with solid statements and accurate reasonings; and I am further told that it is my duty to the public to state why such distinguished special pleading makes not the least impression on my mind. With your permission, therefore, I will do so in the briefest possible manner.

The first half of Dr. Bastian's "Reply" occupies seven columns of your number for the 22nd of September. In all this wilderness of words there is but one paragraph which appears to me to be worth serious notice. It is this:–

"In the first place, he does not attempt to deny–he does not even alluded to the fact–that living things may and do arise in minutest visible specks, in solutions in which but a few hours before, no such specks were to be seen. And this is in itself a very remarkable omission. The statement must be true or false–and if true, as I and others affirm, the question which Professor Huxley has set himself to discuss is no longer one of such a simple nature as he represents it to be. It is henceforth settled that as far as visible germs are concerned, living beings can come into being without them."

If I did not allude to the assertion which Dr. Bastian has put into italics–it is because it bears absurdity written upon its face to anyone who has seriously considered the conditions of microscopic observation. I have tried over and over again to obtain a drop of a solution which should be optically pure, or absolutely free from distinguishable solid particles, when viewed under a power of 1,200 diameters in the ordinary way. I have never succeeded; and, considering the conditions of observation, I never expect to succeed. And though I hesitate to speak with the air of confident authority which sits so well on Dr. Bastian, I venture to doubt whether he ever has prepared, or ever will prepare, a solution, in a drop of which no "minutest visible specks" are to be seen by a careful researcher. Suppose that the drop, reduced to a thin film by the cover-glass, occupies an area 1/3 of an inch in diameter; to search this area with a microscope in such a way as to make sure that it does not contain a germ 1/40000 of an inch in diameter, is comparable to the endeavour to ascertain with the unassisted eye whether the water of a pond, a hundred feet in diameter is or is not absolutely free from a particle of duckweed. But if it is impossible to be sure that there is no germ 1/40000 of an inch in diameter in a given fluid, what becomes of the proposition so valuable to Dr. Bastian that he has made your printer waste special type upon it?

I now pass to the second part of the "Reply," which, though longer than the first, is really more condensed, inasmuch as it contains two important statements instead of only one.

The first is, that Dr. Bastian has found Bacterium and Leptothrix in some specimens of preserved meats. I should have been very much surprised if he had not. If Dr. Bastian will boil some hay for an hour or so, and then examine the decoction, he will find it to be full of Bacteria in active motion. But the motion is a modification of the well-known Brownian movement, and has not the slightest resemblance to the very rapid motion of translation of active living Bacteria . The Bacteria are just as dead as those which Dr. Bastian has seen in the preserved meats and vegetables; and which were, I doubt not, as much put in with the meat, as they are with the hay, in the experiment to which I invite his attention.

The second important statement in the second part of the "Reply" is:–

"Professor Huxley is inclined to believe that there has been some error about the experiments recorded by myself and others."

In this I cordially concur. But I do not know why Dr. Bastian should have expressed this my conviction so tenderly and gently as regards his own experiments; inasmuch as I thought it my duty to let him know both orally and by letter in the plainest terms six months ago, not only that I conceived him to the altogether in the wrong, but why I thought so.

Any time these six months Dr. Bastian has known perfectly well that I believe that the organisms which he has got out of his tubes are exactly those he has put into them; that I believe that he has used impure materials, and that what he imagines to have been the gradual development of life and organisation in his solution, is the very simple result of the settling together of the solid impurities, which he was not sufficiently careful to see, in their scattered condition when the solutions were made.

Any time these six months Dr. Bastian has known why I hold this opinion. He will recollect that he wrote to me asking permission to bring for my examination certain preparations of organic structures, which he declared he had clear and positive evidence to prove to have been developed in his closed and digested tubes. Dr. Bastian will remember that when the first of these wonderful specimens was put under my microscope, I told him at once that it was nothing but a fragment of the leaf of the common Bog Moss (Sphagnum ); he will recollect that I had to fetch Schact's book "Die Pflanzeuzelle," and show him a figure which fitted very well what we had under the microscope, before I could get him to listen to my suggestion; and that only actual comparison with Sphagnum , after he had left my house, forced him to admit the astounding blunder which he had made.

To any person of critical mind, versed in the preliminary studies necessary for dealing with the difficult problem which Dr. Bastian has rashly approached–the appearance of a scarlet geranium, or of a snuff box, would have appeared to be hardly more startling than this fragment of a leaf, which no one even moderately instructed in vegetable histology could possibly have mistaken for anything but what it was; but to Dr. Bastian, agape with speculative expectation, this miracle was no wonder whatever. Nor does Dr. Bastian's chemical criticality seem to be of a more susceptible kind. He sees no difficulty in the appearance of living things in potash-alum, until Dr. Sharpey puts the not unimportant question, whence did they get their nitrogen? And then it occurs to him to have the alum analysed and he finds ammonia in it.1

And as to the elementary principles of physics–in his last communication to you, Dr. Bastian shows, that he is of opinion that water in a vessel with a hole in it, from which the steam freely issues, may be kept at a temperature of "230° to 235° F. for more than an hour and a half."2 I hope that Professor Tyndall, whom Dr. Bastian scolds as authoritatively and as unsparingly as he does me, will take note of this revolutionary thermotic discovery, in the next edition of his work on Heat.

It is no fault of mine if I am compelled to write thus of Dr. Bastian's labours. I have been blamed by some of my friends for remaining silent as long as I have done concerning them. But when, because I have preserved a silence, which was the best kindness I could show to Dr. Bastian, he presumes to accuse me publicly of unfairness, and to tell your readers that my Address "is calculated to mislead" them, I have no alternative left but to give them the means of judging of the competency of my assailant.

Jermyn Street, Oct. l0
T. H. Huxley

1 See Nature , No. 36, p. 198.

2 Ibid, No. 48, p. 433.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University