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The Germinator

On December 27, 1822, French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was born. His skill grew as he followed each successful investigative step to reach greater insight and result. Pasteur based his work in observation and the understanding of that observation.

He first solved a problem of how to separate an acid compound found in wine so that only the inactive form of the acid, the form that did not change, worked its magic and did not spoil or sour the liquid over time. This was a brilliant observation, patiently made of crystals found in wine dregs that he manually separated under his microscope. In a country of wine lovers, this discovery led Pasteur to immediate fame and appointment to a chemistry professorship.

Again with his microscope, he solved a similar problem for the beer industry. Looking for differences, he discovered minute organisms called ferments and showed brewers how to eliminate the ones that spoiled the brew. By now Pasteur was considered one of the greatest chemists of his day.

He applied his investigation and applications to the milk industry and introduced the high heating of milk for a few seconds to reduce the microorganisms that can cause disease in humans. To identify organisms that change in the presence of oxygen or in the absence of oxygen, Pasteur coined the terms aerobic and anaerobic from the Greek an- [without] + aer [air] + bios [life]. In knowing how these functioned, one could control or eliminate spoilage of food or of blood.

He saved most of the world’s silk industry by showing how to prevent a massive die-off of silkworm larvae by eliminating infected larvae and leaves perpetuating the contagion. Through demonstrable science, Pasteur delivered blow after blow to germs, whatever they were and wherever they might do damage. Most people, however, had trouble believing in germs. Too many doctors and surgeons had the same trouble. Pasteur yanked people and practitioners into the light of science.

Next, he tackled the anthrax bacteria that routinely killed sheep and cattle around the world and created a vaccine. He tackled rabies, a rapidly spreading virus that attacks the nervous system of animals, and created another vaccine for inoculations. Animals he treated lived and recovered. Pasteur became a global legend.

He launched Institut Pasteur to continue research applications to public health issues and to promote antiseptic methods to save lives and prevent disease. Honours awarded Pasteur include the Rumford and Copley Medals from the Royal Society and the Leeuwenhoek Medal from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, awarded once every ten years to the scientist making the most significant contribution of the decade to microbiology. Pasteur is memorialized throughout the world in hundreds of street names, portraits, medical schools, health centres, hospitals… and the term pasteurized.

Here is a short clip from James Burke’s An Invisible Object that explains Pasteur’s discovery that heat kills “germs” in liquids when heated.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage