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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