Just In Time For April Showers and May Flowers!

Spring has surely arrived and my back yard is starting to look like something right out of a Peter Rabbit book.  As far back as I can remember I’ve been a huge Beatrix Potter fan.  Cute little mice and bunnies? I’m there!  Now, thanks to google, I have discovered another artist inspired by nature and science to obsess over!  Her name is Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and I admit that I have not heard of her before although her artwork looks familiar.  She was a woman before her time in a myriad of ways and I give Google total props for bringing her name to so many though the infamous “Google doodle”.

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XX. Español: Metamorfosis de una mariposa (1706) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A female artist in her day was probably a rare thing but with encouragement from her stepfather, she developed her talent and found nature to be her muse.  She crafted meticulous works of the world around her—plants, animals, bugs, whatever she could find.  Not only did she capture artistic records of these living things, she sought to understand them and explain their life cycles.  Back in the 17th century, explanations for things such as butterflies and flies on meat were based on creative guesses and religious dogma.  People believed that flies came out of meat, a way of thinking known as spontaneous generation.  If you did not have a good explanation for something, you might as well just say that it just appeared out of midair.  Maria helped to squash these outdated and unscientific theories with her artwork.  She observed many different species though out all stages of their growth and documented their metamorphosis in her artwork.   This was a brilliant way to demonstrate with science with pictures and not pesky words!

A female artist in her day was undoubtedly an uncommon occurance but with encouragement from her stepfather, she developed her talent and found nature to be her muse. She crafted meticulous works of the world around her—plants, animals, bugs, whatever she could find. Not only did she capture artistic records of these living things, she sought to understand them and explain their life cycles. Back in the 17th century, explanations for things such as butterflies and flies on meat were based on creative guesses and religious dogma. People believed that flies came out of meat, a way of thinking known as spontaneous generation. If you did not have a good explanation for something, you might as well just say that it just appeared out of midair. Maria helped to squash these outdated and unscientific theories with her artwork. She observed many different species though out all stages of their growth and documented their metamorphosis in her artwork. This was a brilliant way to demonstrate with science with pictures and bring science to the masses.  I imagine that at a time when only some people (usually the wealthy) were able to read, these pictures would serve as a venue to explain the lifecycle of insects to anyone who admired her work.

Author, Margarita Engle, has written a lovely children’s book, Summer Birds, which details how Maria used scientific observation, patience and her artwork to explain how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. This was a new concept in her day when butterflies were referred to as “summer birds.” These colorful, fluttering, magical creatures appeared from nowhere and obviously, if something has no explanation it must be the work of the devil! Engle’s book shows how Maria learned that the devil was not to blame for this one, rather it was the work of the caterpillar. I haven’t purchased this book, but if I may judge it by its cover, it looks charming and something I may have to purchase to share with my nieces and nephew!

One of Maria’s most remarkable achievements was her trip to South America in 1685 as a sort of “entomological ambassador”. Maria and her daughter visited the Dutch colony of Suriname at a time when the idea of a mother/daughter trip from Amsterdam to the new world (alone without a male companion!?) was positively scandalous!  Coincidentally, my mom and I made the trip from the new world to Amsterdam but it was in a plane with nice little TV’s at each seat and not in a creepy, smelly, wooden ship (and we did not have a male companion either!).  I think it was great that Maria passed on her love of art and science to her daughters, just as her stepfather encouraged her talent as an artist.  During her two year stay, she discovered and drew representations of many native plants of South America and summed up her discoveries in her book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.  She also recorded the native names that were given to these organisms instead of focusing on Latin terminology that many scientists of the day followed.  This did not get her many points with the scientific establishment of the day but it does show how she was more focused on how regular people interacted with science every day.  After all, how often do we call bugs by their Latin names anyways?  Upon returning home to the Netherlands, she and her daughters continued their scientific artwork and became well respected artists of their day.

Maria’s artwork is quite beautiful and the level of detail is remarkable.  Studying insects and plants does require one to brush up on their drawing skills since so much of these fields require recoding detailed observations.  This would be a great field for someone with both strong artistic and scientific sides.  There are still plenty of insects to be discovered out there in the world and skilled artists like Maria are able to bring their elusive splendor to the masses.

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate LVI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Pasteurization: A great scientific discovery that came about becuase of wine….I’m sure it’s not the only one!

Louis Pasteur and the Scientific Advancements of 19th Century France

The nineteenth century was a time of great change throughout Europe.  New political ideals were evolving.  The Industrial Revolution was under way and it was redefining the way Europeans viewed their world.  There werealso changes in whose hands held the power.  Because of all of these changes, it was the most ideal time for scientists such as Louis Pasteur to make scientific achievements. 

Although there were many scientists during this time, Pasteur is one of the forerunners of biology in his time and the history of biology.  Greer Williams demonstrated the importance of Pasteur’s career by stating, “Nothing in scientific research is more familiar to us or has loomed more importantly in the prevention of disease and death, of course, than the image of a Louis Pasteur, in his skullcap.”  (3)  He developed many of the fundamental ideas of science.  These ideas, theories, and practices are still used today.  He has had a lasting impact on society.  His discovery of the use of vaccines to treat diseases has transformed the way doctors view diseases, their causes and how they should best be treated.  With his development of vaccines alone, he has helped save countless numbers of lives.  For these reasons, he is a very important figure of the nineteenth century.

Louis Pasteur lived in France from 1822 to 1895.   During this time, France was going through many changes and was maturing as a nation.   Napoleon the third was now in power in France.  With his reign came many changes.  His goal was to make France one of, if not the most prosperous countries in Europe.  He wanted to bring about great social and economic change to his country.  Industrialization was spreading rapidly.  This changed the way the economy worked.  Before, the upper class was made up of the aristocrats and so called “old rich”.  Now, with industrialization and new businesses developing, a new class of wealthy business men was emerging.  They valued the splendor and luxuries that came with this new found wealth.  Unfortunately, this lead to what some may call a vulgar and materialistic lifestyle.  It also led to monopolies in the economy.  While the aristocrats may not have liked the new rich, Napoleon encouraged them.  Their success meant success for France.    

Despite this negative side of France at this time, many beneficial things came about during it.  Not only did Napoleon III encourage wealth and competition in the economy he encouraged advancement in all areas.  This included science.  In fact, he was even willing to put his own life in jeopardy to encourage these scientific advancements.  This willingness may go back to Napoleon Bonaparte.  When he ruled, he always had an official chief surgeon for the army, Dominique Jean Larrey, who accompanied him on his travels.  Napoleon III showed he had faith in these new scientific techniques by undergoing surgery.  A surgeon named Joseph Francois Malgaigne treated him, along with other major French figures such as Garibaldi.  (Porter 362)  Today, the fact that a major political figure undergoes surgery is not at all surprising.  At that time, surgery was still a new and dangerous concept for many people.  The fact that Napoleon III was willing to under go these new treatments had a lot of influence with the people.  If the emperor was willing to trust his life to science, then so would any good Frenchman.

Napoleon also tried to use science to help further industrialization.  He saw it was a great opportunity to help make the new rich even wealthier.  Many intellectuals found the materialism of the rich silly and embarrassing to France, but the successful businesses and industrialization meant that there were more opportunities for scientific advancements.  Scientists before usually did not have much opportunity to further their studies or make a living off of their work.  Now, science could be a profession.  In fact they were greatly needed in the food and wine industry.  For example, a blight to the grape roots could have severely hindered the wine industry in France.  Luckily with the work of Pasteur, the wine industry was saved.  This shows how the economic and scientific sides of the Industrial Revolution merged together.

            To understand why this time period was such an ideal time for the development of modern medical practices, one must examine what the ideals of the average person of the nineteenth century.   In the beginning of this century, Romanticism was the dominating point of view among the people.  There was a great nostalgia for the past.  People admired the splendor and glory of the Romans and Greeks.  Philosophy, architecture, and art of the past was reborn.  In a way, Romanticism was a form of escape.  They could leave a world of political and economic turmoil by remembering and reliving the past.  As sentimental as these romantic views may seem, they did not leave many rooms for scientific advancements.

            As Pasteur was coming of age though, the public’s ideals were changing.  With the industrial revolution, more people were leaving the countryside and moving to the cities to work.  People seem to lose their romantic and nostalgic ideals.  The harsh working conditions and demanding hours didn’t leave much room for romantic idleness.  Religion was also losing its influence because of the changing views.  Instead of Romanticism, Realism was now the mindset of the people.  Practicality and reason were encouraged.  It may have just been a backlash to Romanticism, but without realism, Pasteur may not have been about to develop his new scientific methods and put them in to practice. 

            These were the circumstances and ideals that influenced Louis Pasteur and lead to his success.   Pasteur’s personality and character also led to his success in the lab.  The way in which Pasteur is remembered is neither harsh nor overly flattering.  One of his characteristics was his great sense of determination.  This is definitely necessary for someone to become a successful scientist and Pasture had a lot of it.  He was willing to try daring experiments, such as his studies on rabies, even though there may have been high costs to pay. 

            Pasteur’s dedication is shown in his manuscripts and laboratory notebooks.   These notebooks are a testament to Pasteur’s almost forty years of research.  His notes were very detailed, specific, and could be considered almost too meticulous.  Detail and documentation in scientific research is important, but several experts of Pasteur say he may have taken this to the extreme.  Author, Gerald L. Geison reports his findings when examined Pasteur’s actual notebooks.  He states, “I have never counted the pages that Pasteur filled with experimental data in his sometimes crabbed and microscopic hand, but they probably exceed ten thousand.”  (9) He found it to be almost like detective work to try to decipher the meaning of his sometimes ambiguous notes.  This shows that Pasteur could sometimes be very secretive and protective of his work.  Often, he didn’t even list the significance of the experiment, just the result. 

            This meticulous nature, although it may have been somewhat difficult for his assistants and collaborators to handle, led to his success.  Among his most famous and significant accomplishments were the development of the process of pasteurization and the idea of the germ theory of disease.  Both of these processes were monumental advancements of their time and these processes are practiced still today.

            The germ theory of disease developed form a collaboration between Pasteur and other scientists of the day.  Many problematic diseases were developing and people were desperate for cures to them.  The germ theory of disease helped lead to the end of the idea of spontaneous generation.  People believed that diseases just spontaneously occurred from out of no where.  For example, if meat was left out and maggots were on it, it was believed that somehow, the meat spawned life and that’s how the maggots got there.  They didn’t believe in biogenesis or the fact that life produced life.  Since they couldn’t view things on a microscopic level, they couldn’t even consider that the maggots developed any other way. 

They also believed that diseases too developed the same way.  If someone contracted a deadly disease, it was easier for them and made more sense to them that the contracted it because they had done something wrong.  By the nineteenth century, the ideas of Rationalism developed and people were beginning to view disease differently.  People were willing to hear new theories on the origin of disease.  Today, we take for granted that knowledge of the fact that diseases are caused by microorganisms.  To people in the 1900’s, this was a strange concept.  They now had to learn to practice proper hygiene.  Hand washing alone substantially cut down on the spread of microorganisms.  When the germ theory of disease was developed, there were naturally some skeptics.  Soon though, the benefits of this theory became clear. 

The diseases causing difficulty in the nineteenth century were not only dangerous health issues but also troubling economic issues.  One of these diseases involved the silk industry.  There was a disease that was affecting silkworms and it reduced silk production.  Pasture discovered that this disease was actually caused by a unicellular organism called a protozoan.  The discovery of the cause helped lead to the practice of immunization. 

Immunization involves taking the dead disease causing cells and injecting them into a patient.  The presence of these dead cells allows the patient to develop antibodies to fight off the disease if they contact it.  Since the immunization contained only dead diseased cell, there was no risk to the patient of contracting the disease from the vaccination.  This procedure has helped save many lives but at the time it was considered a great ethical dilemma.  A cure for disease was desperately needed but the idea of injecting themselves with the actual cells that caused the disease was frightening.  Fortunately for us, some people were willing to face the risk and try the new daring treatment. 

Chicken cholera was the first disease in which Pasteur applied his ideas of vaccination.  Rabies and anthrax were two other diseases Pasture is most known for his work on.  He developed a vaccination for them.  He worked with his long time collaborator, Emile Roux on developing these vaccinations.  Although the worked together, Pasteur was the one in charge.  This caused tension between the two scientists.  Pasteur was of the more traditional bourgeois persuasion.  Roux, on the other hand was a more liberal bohemian. (Geison 236) Geison states, “Roux, it might even be said, was sort of a Don Quixote to Pasteur’s Napoleon.” (236) This was certainly a cause for conflict but it also encouraged competition that might have helped lead to the development of these vaccinations.

Pasteur’s development of the rabies vaccination is known as the Meister method.  It was named after a patient of Pasteur, a young boy named Joseph Meister.  He had contracted rabies and his family was willing to subject him to this new treatment.  The treatment included the injected of dry spinal cord material from rabid rabbits.  Before Meister received the treatment, this method was only used on dogs.  They were injected with the same spinal cord material and then exposed to the virus that causes rabies.  It worked, but the method was not one hundred percent successful.  By the time Meister received the treatment the procedure had been perfected.  Meister was cured of the disease. 

The use of vaccinations was not the only field in which Pasteur thrived.  His most famous development is the procedure named after him–Pasteurization.  This involved the germ theory of fermentation.  This process of Pasteurization developed out of a problem in the wine industry.  Wine producers were baffled as to why some of the wine they produced was going sour yet other batches of wine were normal.  Pasteur was called in to discover a cure for this problem and help save the wine industry in France.  Pasteur discovered that the problem occurred due to the microorganisms in the wine.  The wine was undergoing fermentation to produce vinegar instead of wine.  He found that in wine production, there are good microorganisms and bad ones.   The yeast are good microorganisms.  The wine was going bad because it was getting contaminated with Lactobacilli.  To stop the growth of the Lactobacilli, Pasture found that if they heated the wine at fifty to sixty degrees Celsius for a certain amount of time, it would insure the production of the good wine.  The process of Pasteurization is now used to today in the wine, beer and dairy industry.

Pasteur’s accomplishments led to him being admired and respected among the French people.  He was able to do things others before had not been able to.  People praised him for saving the lives of their children.  He was look on as someone who could work miracles on the sick.  Pasteur was already a very self-assured and confident person, but this praise made him even more so.

This over confidence could seem like hindrance to family life this was not so for Pasteur.  His wife, Marie Laurent, was very understanding of his ways.  Pasteur usually worked daily and was almost always absorbed in thought of his work.  Marie not only dealt with this but also helped encourage it.  Her sacrifice helped him succeed.  In Louis Pasteur, FreeLance of Science, Pasteur’s collaborator, Roux, is stated as saying, “Madame Pasteur was more than an incomparable companion for her husband, she was his best collaborator.”  (Dubos 39)

Since he was so respected and looked up to, Pasteur saw a great sense of duty in his actions.  The work he did was not just representing him it was representing all of France.  He wanted to show an example to society of what a good Frenchman should be.  He was quoted numerous time of saying his hard work and dedication was “for the glory of France”.  (Williams 46)  For these reasons, Pasteur chose not to work on venereal diseases such as syphilis.  Perhaps he felt curing diseases such as these wouldn’t make him a respected scientist.  He felt a Frenchman working for the glory of France should not be working with diseases such as these. 

Pasteur’s work and his character are the embodiment of France in his time. His new concepts showed the triumph of Rationalism over Romanticism.  They also show the ideas of nationalism.  He didn’t achieve success just for personal triumph, he did it for France.  Pasteur showed his dedication to science by working through many difficulties.  In 1868, he was faced with paralysis.  Pasteur was not the type of man that would let this stop him.  He continued to work almost daily up to a few years before his death his death in 1895.  Because of his patriotism, hard work, and dedication, Louis Pasteur will always be one of the most respected biologists. His practices, although developed over a century ago, are still relevant today will continue to be a part of the practice of modern medicine.


Bradley, Peter.  The Battle Against Bacteria.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Dubos, Rene J.  Louis Pasteur Free Lance of Science.  Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1950.

Garret, Lauri.  The Coming Plague.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1994.

Geison, Gerald L.  The Private Science of Louis Pasteur.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1995. 

Henig, Robin Marantz.  A Dancing Matrix:  How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1994. 

Porter, Roy.  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:  A Medical History of Humanity.  New York:  W.W. Nortan and Company, 1997.

Williams, Greer.  Virus Hunters.  New York:  Alfred A Knoff, Inc., 1959.

Another paper I wrote in college; it was for a history class but I spun the topic to relate to another paper I had to write for Microbiology class.  Property of susiescience.wordpress.com