Charles Bastian was one of the leading biologists of the 19th century. A professor of Pathological Anatomy at University College, London, Dr. Bastian was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Linnean Society. He was the author of several books and numerous scientific publications in the 1860s and 1870s. Contemporary thinkers listed him along with Tyndall, Pasteur, and Darwin as one of the most important living men of science.
Yet today he is unknown. His name appears in no textbook, nor in any scholarly review of 19th century science. His works are never quoted, and his reputation, once mighty and proud, has simply evaporated. Why? What did H. Charlton Bastian do to merit total obliteration?
Simply put, Bastion was wrong. In fact, he was spectacularly wrong.
The 1870s, of course, were a period of fierce debate about one of the most important revolutions in biology: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Many eminent biologists, geologists, and philosophers were opposed to Darwin’s ideas, but Bastian was not among them. He was a supporter of Darwin and Huxley.
The controversy that embroiled his career, and for a while that of his famous contemporary John Tyndall, involved a much older issue: the spontaneous generation of life. The idea that living organisms could arise spontaneously from dead or decaying material was an ancient one, based on repeated observations that maggots or microscopic “animalcules” can appear on a piece of rotten meat or in liquid infusions of organic matter. But by the second half of the 19th century, many scientists repeated the experimental work of the Abbé Spallanzani showing that prior sterilization resulted in an absence of living organisms, and the theory of spontaneous generation of life was fairly widely discredited. At the same time, the whole issue of spontaneous generation became more pressing.
Pasteur’s work, along with that of Lister, Semmelweis, and Koch had shown that many of the serious diseases of the time were caused by microorganisms. The germ theory of disease provided the first solid scientific and theoretical foundation for Western medicine, and for the first time doctors had real hope of eradicating horrible infectious diseases that had ravaged mankind throughout human history.
But at the beginning of this new era of hope and progress, a dire warning was sounded, casting a shadow over the excitement of the early microbe hunters’ work. This pessimistic voice proclaimed that if diseases are caused by microorganisms, then we are actually worse off than ever, because thanks to spontaneous generation, we can never truly eliminate the birth and growth of disease-causing germs from a putrefying wound or from our sewers or water supplies. This voice belonged to Charles Bastian.
What led this distinguished Professor to suddenly raise the old ghost of spontaneous generation at the dawn of a new age of advancement against germs and disease?
Like Pasteur, Tyndall and others, Bastian had repeated the Spallanzani experiments. In his flasks, however, new bacterial growth always appeared. Since he was an eminent man of science, few members of the public doubted his results (which were published in the prestigious journal Nature) or his methods. Some, such as Huxley, suggested that perhaps not all the dormant bacteria in Bastian’s initial infusion had been killed by the heat treatment. Bastian gleefully seized on this argument and proved it to be wrong in a series of experiments, which he published in a book.
In the introduction to this book, entitled Evolution and the origin of life, Bastian states, “Well-informed men of science no longer doubt that swarms of bacteria can be made to appear within sealed glass vessels containing suitable fluids, after the vessels and their contents have been exposed to the temperature of boiling water.” This statement in a book published in 1874 is a bit presumptuous. Certainly, many well-informed men of science had grave doubts about Bastian’s work. A spirited, almost nasty exchange of letters between Bastian and John Tyndall was published in Nature, with both men pointing to their own experiments as refuting the results of their adversary.
Finally, the two men agreed to allow each other to come to their respective laboratories and observe the experiments. Following this exchange, there is only one more pair of letters, because the issue had been decided. Tyndall reports that after observing Dr. Bastian’s experimental apparatus he has solved the mystery. Bastian had meticulously cleaned and boiled his glass vessels, including the broth inside. He had correctly covered the opening of the vessel with a plug of cotton wool dense enough to prevent the entry of even the smallest germ. But Bastian had neglected one step. He had not sterilized the cotton plug before inserting it into the mouth of the flask. Tyndall concluded that live bacteria adhering to the unsterilized cloth had fallen into the broth, giving the false impression of spontaneous generation.
Bastian was quick to reply. He was outraged. He demanded to know how an eminent scientist with a reputation such as Professor Tyndall’s could stoop so low as to try to discredit an entire body of experimental work, as well as a complete biological theory, on something as trivial as a piece of cotton! He vowed to repeat his experiments with boiled cotton in order to demonstrate the absurdity of Professor Tyndall’s infamous suggestion.
After this, nothing was heard from Bastian again. There is no record of his further activities; he simply vanishes.
This tragicomic story has lessons for modern scientists. In the long run, Bastian’s work and writings caused very little harm, if any. His error was an honest one, and I believe that his sudden plunge into obscurity was due more to his initial self-assurance than simply being mistaken. Bastian’s pomposity, his willingness to try to thwart an entire scientific enterprise at its inception, his refusal to admit the possibility of error, and his certainty of being correct while all others are wrong should teach us caution, humility, and the value of criticism from peers.