One of the greatest scientific duels in history occurred between those who believed that
microorganisms spontaneously generate in decaying organic matter and those who believed that
the tiny creatures migrated there from the open air. From the late 1850s to the late 1870s, the
eminent French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was locked in a death-match with
opponents of spontaneous generation, especially Felix Pouchet.
The two camps performed experiments one after f the other, both to prove their pet theory and to
prove the opponent's. As we know, Pasteur won the debate: The fact that microbes travel through
the air is now accepted as a given, with s spontaneous generation relegated to the slagheap of
quaint, discarded scientific ideas. But Pasteur didn't win fair and square.
It turns out that some of Pasteur's experiments gave strong support to the notion that rotting
organic matter produces life. Of course, years later those experiments were realized have been
flawed, but at the time they buttressed the position of Pasteur's enemies. So he kept them secret.
In his myth-busting book Einstein's Luck, medical and scientific historian John Waller writes:
"In fact, throughout his feud with Pouchet, Pasteur described in his notebooks as 'successful' any
experiment that seemed to disprove spontaneous generation and 'unsuccessful' any that violated
his own private beliefs and experimental expectations."
When Pasteur's rivals performed experiments that supported their theory, Pasteur would not
publicly replicate those studies. In one case, he simply refused to perform the experiment or even
discuss it. In another, he hemmed and hawed so long that his rival gave up in exas-peration.
Waller notes: "Revealingly, although Pasteur publicly ascribed Bastian's results to sloppy
methodology, in private he and his team took them rather more seriously. As Gerald Geison's
study of Pasteur's notebooks has recently revealed, Pasteur's team spent several weeks secretly
testing Bastian's findings and refining their own ideas on the distribution of germs in the
Pasteur would rail at his rivals and even his mentor when he thought they weren't scrupulously
following the scientific method, yet he had no qualms about trashing it when doing so suited his
aims. Luckily for him, he was on the right side of the debate. And just why was he so cocksure
that spontaneous generation was wrong? It had nothing to do with science. "In his notes he
repeatedly insisted that only the Creator-God had ever exercised the power to convert the
inanimate into the living," writes Waller. "The possibility that life could be created anew without
man first discovering the secrets of the Creator was rejected without any attempt at scientific