February 26, 2000
Spring 1881. The sleepy French farm village of Pouilly le Fort has never
seen such excitement. Close to 200 outsiders fill the village. French newspapers
publish daily bulletins. A correspondent from the London Times also reports
to his readers each day. The gauntlet has been thrown down by the noted
local veterinarian Rossignol, who has offered his farm as the stage for
the drama. The famous French chemist, Monsieur Louis Pasteur, has accepted
the challenge. On May 5th, 25 sheep are inoculated with a highly diluted
strain of the anthrax bacillus. Then all 50 are exposed to a deadly strain
of it. The medical profession anxiously awaits the outcome. Local farmers
also wait, hoping. In the next few days 25 sheep will die; another 25 will
survive. Pasteur has said so.
The winding trail leading to this moment had begun 18 years ago, when the
41-year old chemist, working on the crystalline structure of tartaric acid,
present in the sediments of fermenting wine, began a series of studies on
the industrial fermentation of beet juice and concluded the process was
caused by specific microscopic organisms. He pushed his theory even further,
deciding that many diseases were also caused by specific germs. The next
step was the destruction of the prevalent theory of spontaneous generation.
He showed that microbes are produced by other microbes. They do not arise
spontaneously from a sterile medium. Numerous previous experiments showing
otherwise were caused by sloppy technique, resulting in contamination of
the results. He was certain that spoilage of food products could be halted
by killing the microorganisms infesting them during the production process.
At this same time he was working on disease in the French silk industry.
During excursions into the countryside where silkworms were raised, he noticed
that sheep feeding in certain fields would contract anthrax and die. Other
fields were harmless to the animals. Further investigation showed that the
deadly fields were the ones where farmers had previously buried sheep that
had died of the disease. Earthworms would feed on the carcasses, wriggle
to the surface, and spread the anthrax spores, giving the soil in these
fields a different, telltale color. Other sheep would graze on the contaminated
soil and, in their turn, also die. The next clue came from another set of
Pasteur's studies, on cholera in chickens. Overlooking samples of cholera
bacilli sitting in a laboratory through a hot summer, he discovered they
had lost their toxicity. Experiments in smallpox inoculation had been successful
back in the last century. In theory it should work with anthrax. Now, on
Rossignol's farm, using a greatly weakened bacillus, the experiment begins.
May 6th, the next day. Some of the sheep sicken, others show no signs of
disease. May 7th. All 25 of the inoculated animals are thriving. The others?
Dead. Pasteur's reputation and France's 7-million-franc sheep and cattle
industry are saved.
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.
© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte
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