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Louis Pasteur: Experiments, Contribution & Theory

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  • 0:00 Before Louis Pasteur
  • 1:00 Louis Pasteur
  • 2:30 Pasteur's Experiments
  • 3:45 Other Contributions
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shannon Compton

Shannon teaches Microbiology and has a Master's and a PhD in Biomedical Science. She also researches cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Did you know it was once believed that non-living things, like grain, could produce living things like mice? This idea was widely held until the mid-1890s! Louis Pasteur finally disproved this theory, and this lesson will tell you how.

Before Louis Pasteur

Before Louis Pasteur, it was widely believed that non-living things could produce living organisms. This is the idea of spontaneous generation, first proposed by Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BCE. Jean Baptist Van Helmont, who lived from 1580 to 1640 CE, continued promoting this idea with his suggestion that mice come from dirty rags and rotting grains.

The first person to challenge the idea of spontaneous generation was Francesco Redi, who lived from 1620 to 1690 CE. Redi performed a now famous meat/maggot experiment, where he placed meat in covered and uncovered jars to show that maggots only appear in the uncovered jars. His work disproved spontaneous generation, but only for large organisms. It took the work of Louis Pasteur to completely disprove the idea that non-living things can produce living organisms.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895 CE)

Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822, in France. He was not the best student but was gifted in art. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1840 and a Bachelor of Science degree in 1842. After a short term as a physics professor, he became professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg. He married and had five children. After three of his children died of typhoid, Pasteur dedicated his life to eradicating disease.

Pasteur became Dean of the new Faculty of Sciences in Lille in 1845. He redesigned the science programs, which led to better students, better science, and increased prestige. However, his exam reforms also lead to two student revolts. Pasteur died in 1895, near Paris, from complications of a series of strokes. He was buried in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but his remains were reinterred in a crypt in the Institut Pasteur, Paris, where he is remembered for his life-saving work.

Pasteur won the Leeuwenhoek medal, microbiology's highest Dutch honor in Arts and Sciences, in 1895. He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1853, promoted to Commander in 1868, to Grand Officer in 1878, and then made a Grand Croix of the Legion of Honor. He was also awarded with the Order of the Medjidie First Class and 10,000 Ottoman liras.

Pasteur's Experiments

Today, Pasteur is often regarded as the Father of Germ Theory, which is the theory that germs cause diseases, and bacteriology, the study of bacteria, together with Robert Koch. Indeed, Pasteur showed that the growth of bacteria in nutrient broths is not due to spontaneous generation, but rather to biogenesis, literally life from life. He further showed that fermentation is caused by the growth of micro-organisms. Finally, he showed that pasteurization, the heating of liquids, sterilizes liquids and allows for long-term storage. The process was called pasteurization as a way to honor Pasteur.

How did Pasteur disprove spontaneous generation? Actually, he did it through a very simple and elegant experiment. He took two goose neck flasks with a rich broth inside. Pasteur heated both flasks to boiling. Next, he broke the neck of one flask, allowing the broth to be exposed to the air. He left the other flask intact. Dust from the air was trapped in the bend of the flask and could not contaminate the sterile broth in the flask. He let the unbroken flask sit for months. Nothing ever grew in the unbroken flask. This research lead to the Germ Theory.

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