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How the Church has changed the World: Seeds of Life

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

In the days of the father of microbiology, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the atheistic view of the world and its organization and history was called "positivism."


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pasteur1Louis Pasteur

The positivists had a low ceiling over their heads.  They believed in the finite, or rather they denied the Infinite.  Such a belief or disbelief was not without some dire consequences, as we will see.

One of the great disputed questions of Pasteur's time was that of "spontaneous generation."  If you leave raw meat in the open and wait a day or two, you will see worms crawling on it.  Where did they come from?  If you expose the juice of crushed grapes to the air, it will ferment.  Why?  Women in hospitals developed infections after childbirth.  What could have infected them?

The positivists said that inanimate material in the objects themselves could produce, spontaneously, elementary forms of life.  That is, life could come naturally out of non-life.  The cause was, they thought, electricity or magnetism or some other generally active force.

Pasteur, wrote his son-in-law, "with his vision of the Infinite, showed himself as religious as [Isaac] Newton."  Said the man himself, "Positivism does not take into account the most important of positive notions, the Infinite."  We might say that the positivists viewed the world as less wondrous than it is by far, but for Pasteur it was more, always more.

Halls of death

In those days, the last place you wanted to be, if you were operated on, was a hospital.  Since the scientific consensus was that disease was produced from within you, surgeons and nurses took no precautions to ensure that disease did not come from outside of you.  But Pasteur, with his microscope and his dogged pursuit of truth, believed that the small organisms he saw in a droplet of blood or pus from a sick animal were themselves the cause, and that they came from without.  At the most, surgeons thought that some "miasma" in the air was the culprit, so they used to throw open the windows of surgical wards to clear it out once a day.

We have no idea how many women, especially, died in those halls of death called hospitals, just because of the stubbornness of people who put custom or ideology before truth.

What we might give to have been present on that summer day in 1881, when a Christian biochemist from Scotland got to meet Pasteur, whose work he had read about and learned from, and who was mocked and attacked in Britain, as Pasteur had often been mocked in France.  The man's name was Joseph Lister, and he had come upon the idea that the hands of surgeons carried the germs—the word means "seeds"—of disease.  At that time, surgeons took pride in how filthy their aprons were.  But Lister treated wounds with carbolic acid, and found that infection did not develop.  Yet it was a long time before Pasteur and Lister could persuade surgeons to do a couple of simple things: to clean their hands, for one.  We have no idea how many women, especially, died in those halls of death called hospitals, just because of the stubbornness of people who put custom or ideology before truth.

This was nineteen years after Pasteur had proved by the simplest of experiments that "bad air" did not bring forth micro-organisms, presto, out of nothing.  He took a beaker with a neck bent at more than 180 degrees, and filled its bowl with liquid.  Then he heated the liquid to kill any germs in it, and let it sit.  The liquid remained clean, because, even though it was exposed to air, any germs traveling in the air would get stuck along the bend in the glass.  But bad ideas die harder than bad germs.  There was Joseph Lister, still fighting, and Pasteur, suggesting an experiment on an animal limb that would demonstrate that nothing from inside the animal gave rise to infection.

The truth that Pasteur saw would win out, and Joseph Lister, to whom Pasteur himself paid a handsome tribute, would be called the father of modern surgery.

Comrades in science

Louis Pasteur had a great capacity for friendship and love, and his friendships were bound up with his passionate pursuit of truth.

Many people know that Pasteur was the man who discovered the cause of rabies, that terrifying scourge of man's best friend, which claimed the lives of many a master or his children.  If the disease developed, a horrible death would inevitably ensue.  The only thing you could do if you were bitten by a mad dog was to amputate the limb within a few minutes and cauterize the wound.  Of course that was impossible for most bites—to the trunk, the neck, the face, the upper leg or arm.

What they don't know is the danger to which Pasteur and his young friends exposed themselves to tear the veil off this disease.  Imagine this scene.  You have a mad dog, snapping and frothing.  Two bold young men wearing leather gloves restrain the dog from behind and force its jaws open, while Louis Pasteur attempts to extract its saliva using a glass tube that he holds between his teeth.  He was already an old man when he did that—an old man who had recovered from a stroke.

The truth that Pasteur saw would win out, and Joseph Lister, to whom Pasteur himself paid a handsome tribute, would be called the father of modern surgery.

The first person Pasteur treated for bites from a rabid dog was a nine year old boy, Joseph Meister.  The night before the final injection, which contained rabies germs that were powerful enough to kill rabbits in his laboratory, Pasteur could not sleep; he had embarked upon a voyage no one had taken before, and if the boy died—the boy whom he had come to love—he would be ruined.  But Joseph Meister lived.  The second person he treated was an older boy named Jean-Baptiste Jupille, who had heroically saved three small children from a mad dog and taken the mauling himself.  You can see his bronze statue to this day in the gardens of the Pasteur Institute, in Paris, as you can find old photographs of Pasteur and Meister, one of them with the boy's arm resting upon the old man's shoulder.  Meister became the doorkeeper to the Pasteur Institute.

Without a passionate love of mankind and of his native France, I don't believe that Pasteur would have done half of the things he did.  Once there was a cholera outbreak in Egypt, claiming five hundred lives every day.  Pasteur, who had gathered around him a group of young men of science, filled with high ideals and bound with the warmest friendship, agreed to send three of them to assist the physicians and to isolate and examine the infected water.  He begged them to take every precaution, but soon received the devastating news that one of them had died.  I cite this tribute from the Cincinnati Lancet: "Without having known Louis Thuillier, we love him; in this death, on the battle field of science, he appears to us, if not with the laurel of the victor, at least with the halo of the man, who passes through his life with a higher thought, to which he sacrifices all else."  It is like a message from a different universe; from one wherein men have higher aims than those of lust, avarice, envy, and pride.  Pasteur inspired such devotion.

The faith of a peasant

Pasteur kept his counsel in religious matters, but there is no question that he believed in God and walked in the ways of the faith he learned from his country parents.  Here is what he had to say about Émile Littré, an elder scientist and, it is true, a positivist (though one who died in the Church after a later-in-life baptism): "Often have I fancied him seated by his wife, as in a picture of early Christian times; he, looking down upon earth, filled with compassion for human suffering; […] she, by every divine grandeur, uniting in one impulse and in one heart the twofold holiness which forms the aureole of the Man-God, the one proceeding from devotion to humanity, the other emanating from ardent love for the divinity: she a saint in the canonic sense of the word; he a lay saint."  The ideal that Pasteur drew of Littré's home was but a mirror of his own.

Louis Pasteur passed away, one hand in the hand of his dear wife, the other holding a crucifix.

"Good, like evil," says his biographer, "is infectious."  In his last days we find Pasteur reading the life of Saint Vincent de Paul.  "He loved this son of poor peasants, proud to own his humble birth before a vainglorious society," who wanted no better than to become a chaplain to men in prison, who made a home for foundlings, and who worked all his life in the broad fields of charity.  While Pasteur lay dying, he says, he seemed to see all those who went before him, who kept their firm faith in the life to come.

Louis Pasteur passed away, one hand in the hand of his dear wife, the other holding a crucifix.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church has changed the World: Seeds of Life." Magnificat (May, 2019): 205-209.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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