Why Charles Bastian isn’t Famous

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.




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13 Responses to Why Charles Bastian isn’t Famous

  1. resonate47 says:

    Good post Sy! I’ve never heard of this person before. After reading this, I have a few thoughts:

    First, the very trivial: I can’t see the name Bastion without thinking of the main character in The Neverending Story.
    Second, I can’t help but be reminded of our current political mess when I read the last sentences of this; I think many of us are seeing the danger of people so set in their ways that they ignore anything else.
    Finally, this leads me to some personal examination as well. I think that currently, I’m trying to follow the Holy Spirit into having confidence without drifting into arrogance. And maybe there’s a deeper observation there. Could it be that confidence is what we attain through Christ and His work in us, and arrogance is the distortion of that when we begin relying only on ourselves and neglect the sanctifying work of Christ?


  2. Yes, I think your last paragraph is correct, Ethan. I wish I had added something like this at the end of the post, but your comment might suffice for readers. Thanks for the contribution. As far as your reference to our current situation, any sense that I might have been subtly referring to aspects of it, would not be entirely accidental.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Good story, Sy, and a good moral.

    There are all kinds of subtle lessons in this – one of which is writing Bastion out of history because he happened to be wrong. He was certainly no more arrogant than some of his rivals. Spontaneous generation had been questioned for centuries, and if you read the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_generation#Modern_tests all kinds of names are seen as heroes of the change from the 17th century onwards, even when their work actually had major methodological flaws (eg Spallanzani’s work contradicting Needham). Bastian gets no mention, I see! The lesson is that even if your ideas and reasoning are wrong (like Copernicus, for example – or even more, Bruno – or even earlier and wronger Aristarchus for heliocentrism and Anixamender for evolution), you’ll be remembered as a scientific hero if you are seen retrospectively as being in the line of progress.

    The discussion in the Wikipedia article suggests that, behind the experiments, was a growing philosophical conviction that life could only come from life in principle, leading people to doubt experiments that supported spontaneous generation, rather than those that refuted it.

    In the grand scheme of things, Pasteur actually caused a problem for evolutionary theory, in that the problem of abiogenesis was still considered trivial enough in Darwin’s work to be more or less ignored by him. One can see that by reading Lamarck, who wrote at an earlier stage when spontaneous generation of the most primitive forms was widely accepted, so that abiogenesis was for him just the first stage of inevitable evolution from dust to man. But Pasteur (or Tyndall), though helping to confirm common descent, also made the origin of life a far more intractable problem.

  4. Almost Iowa says:

    A wonderful story. Perhaps, if Bastian appreciated how complex simple creature actually were…

  5. Thanks, Jon and Greg for those insightful remarks. It might be appropriate to fill in the story behind the story. This post is taken from an essay I wrote several decades ago, that has been sitting idly on my electronic shelf since then. The original version was about twice as long, and was more sympathetic to Bastian, stressing the fact that at least he was honest, once he realized how wrong he was. For instance, he did not spit into the flask in the dead of night to fake the results.

    So the question is how did I find out about Charlton Bastian (which I think was his official name). That goes way back to a prehistoric period, when young scientists such as myself, had to leaf through the paper pages of journals in the bowels of libraries to do their literature searches. At some point I was looking for a very old article that had been published in Nature in the 1930s. When I found the old bound Nature journals deep in the library, I noticed that they went all the way back to the 1870s. (Jon, in case you are not impressed, that is considered very old indeed in this country). Being the history nut that I am, I pulled down one of those and leafed through it. What I found was a dozen or so letters between John Tyndall, (whom I had heard of,) and Charles Bastian (whom I had not) about the reality of spontaneous generation, and the fairly nasty (more normal then, than now) language on both sides. The suggestion that the two men visit each other’s labs and observe was actually made by a third party, an educated layman, who in his poignant letter, stressed the importance of finding the truth of the matter.

    Some time later, I was indulging in my hobby of collecting 19th century (and older) scientific books from used book stores, when I found Bastian’s book. I bought it, read it, and wrote the essay. Which now, thanks to the miracles of computers and blogging, has finally seen the electromagnetic radiation of day. Im glad if it provided some entertainment.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Sy, your’re wasted as a mere scientist – you seem to have a knack of discovering historicial gems, like your Darwin discoveries on a casual trip to the British Museum. Respect.

      I’m not sure if the nasty language is less common now, or whether it’s all just sublimated on to the Creationists!

      • Jon, Thank you. I consider that to be a high compliment. My first academic love was history, and I switched to Chemistry, because I didnt want to be unemployed. Now that I am retired, I can do it all 🙂

  6. SheilaDeeth says:

    Wonderful hobby. Wonderful essay. It is a shame this story isn’t known – a nice reminder that a scientist can be proven right or wrong, and that arrogance doesn’t determine rightness. I love Greg’s take on arrogance and confidence.

    • Thanks Sheila. I cant remember if I mentioned it here already, but I published one paper with a conclusion that was shown to be absolutely wrong. I survived. In fact, the senior author of the paper disproving my idea, later became a close friend and we worked together. It happens all the time, and fortunately I quickly accepted my error. Might be a lesson here for certain political leaders as well.

  7. Noah White says:

    I really enjoyed this! Little-known stories are always fascinating and this is a great lesson for us to learn. Thanks for always refreshing me with your insights and for being someone I can look up to in science/faith issues.

    P.S. – I’ve all but scrapped my new post, as it didn’t end up developing like I thought it would. Still working on a better angle, but it’s postponed indefinitely for now. I’ll contact you if/when I have something!

  8. Thanks, Noah. No worries. Whenever you are ready. Peace

  9. The story of Galieleo is very similar.

    Most people think they know the Galileo story but they know it dead wrong, BTW.

  10. Welcome Max (?), and thanks for the twitter follow. Yes, the atheist version of the Galileo story (Sagan, Tyson, etc) is quite distorted. And yet they keep coming back to it, because its all they got. Ted Davis, a great historian of science and Christianity has written a great deal of good information on what really happened.

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