Jun 9

Pasteur knocked off pedestal?

John Goodsir was partly responsible for the popular use of carbolic acid. Photo by E.W.Dalla
John Goodsir was partly responsible for the popular use of carbolic acid.
Photo by E.W.Dalla

An Edinburgh surgeon was the first person to recognize and cure a bacterial infection, a British biologist is claiming1.

John Goodsir realized that microbes make people sick in 1842 – nearly 20 years before Louis Pasteur’s breakthroughs in microbiology, argues Milton Wainwright of the University of Sheffield. “The idea that Pasteur developed germ theory in 1860 is absolutely ludicrous,” he says.

Rummaging in libraries, Wainwright has collected many examples of people who thought that minute animals or particles caused and spread disease, dating back to ancient Rome. The belief that poisonous miasmas caused disease was far less universal than many histories of medicine suggest, he says.

By the eighteenth century, germ theory had entered the culture, Wainright contends. An English play from 1798, for example, lampoons surgeons for believing that “piscatory [fish-like] entities” swimming in the blood cause sickness. Plays and pamphlets published across Europe promoted or satirized similar ideas.

Goodsir, a surgeon at Edinburgh University, was the first to attempt to kill bacteria, Wainwright proposes. The Scot examined the vomit of a sick boy under a microscope, and saw tiny organisms that he named Sarcina Goodsir – the bacterium is now called Sarcina ventriculi. Goodsir treated his patient with antiseptics: sodium hyposulphite and weak carbolic acid. The infection cleared up.

Goodsir published his results in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, and other British pathologists of the period did similar work on the role of microbes in disease. But their ideas failed to become mainstream science. “The forces of conservatism are very powerful,” says Wainwright. It was left to Pasteur – a formidable self-publicist, as well as a brilliant scientist – to popularize the link between germs and disease.

Corinne Jamma, a spokesperson for the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is not convinced. “Nobody said that Louis Pasteur was the first or the only one to think of bacteria as a source of infection,” she says. “But he was the first to provide scientific proof about it, imagine ways of preventing infections, and spread the knowledge.”

Historian Anne Crowther of the University of Glasgow, UK, is more sanguine. Carbolic acid was associated with cleanliness, and used quite widely in the mid-nineteenth century to treat diseases such as cholera, she says. “Goodsir was partly responsible for its popularity,” she adds.

But it’s risky to anoint him as the first to treat bacterial infection, Crowther warns. “It’s never as straightforward as all that – it’s quite likely that several people were pursuing similar work,” she points out.

Celebrity challenge

“Which figures become celebrated is often a historical accident,” agrees Michael Worboys, who studies the history of bacteriology at the University of Manchester, UK. To erect someone else in Pasteur’s place may be just as misleading, he says.

“Science is a moving army of uncertainties, not a series of eureka moments,” explains Worboys. “What’s interesting is the struggle between different positions at the time, not highlighting someone who in hindsight got it right.”

Wainwright’s championing of Goodsir is part of his wider campaign to rescue science’s history from historians. He says: “Historians have missed a tremendous amount of interesting biology. It’s essential that the people who work in a field should do the research on its history.”

His alternative history of microbiology debunks several other medical legends. For example, he notes that an English farmer, Benjamin Jesty, used pus from cowpox sores to vaccinate his family against smallpox in 1774, beating Edward Jenner to the same achievement by more than 20 years.

Article in Nature by: John Whitfield 

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