On his deathbed Louis Pasteur said "Bernard was correct. I was wrong. The microbe (germ) is nothing. The terrain (milieu) is everything."
Was it real or apocryphal?
There are many variations of this recant. But the essential admission is intact. Bernard was Claude Bernard, who got the terrain theory from Antoine Béchamp (who called it the cellular theory).
Three nineteenth century Frenchmen researched fermentation, microbes, and contagious disease:
Their work overlapped. Their conclusions sometimes agreed and other times disagreed with each other's. Pasteur adopted the germ theory while Béchamp formulated the cellular theory, which was quite at odds with the germ theory. Bernard's work was aligned with Béchamp's. Bernard described milieu intérieur, the environment within, which he and others also called terrain.
Pasteur and Benard were very close and over long stretches of time took care of each other. A fourth man, Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval (1851–1940), Bernard's top student, was also close to Pasteur. D'Arsonval would have been a frequent visitor to Pasteur over the many months of his terminal illness.
Pasteur was hostile to Béchamp, whose work threatened Pasteur's reputation and income. Pasteur effectively promoted his own work, while Béchamp's modesty and devotion to his research kept himself out of the spotlight.
Pasteur suffered a stroke on October 18, 1868 which paralyzed his left side. One account said Pasteur never recovered the use of his left hand or leg. In 1887 he had a second stroke.
On November 1, 1894 "he was struck down by a violent attack of uremia" per The Life of Pasteur by Rene Vallery-Radot, 1900; Vallery-Radot was Pasteur's son-in-law. Other accounts describe the "attack" as a stroke. He was attended around the clock by two people at a time. His condition had improved by the end of December. At one point a tent was put up for him in the garden of the Pasteur Institute in which he often spent afternoons. By June his condition had deteriorated and the paralysis increased. He removed to Villeneuve D'Etang, his 300 acre estate outside of Paris. He died there on Saturday, September 28, 1895 at 4:40 in the afternoon, surrounded by his family.
His final illness lasted eleven months.
After Pasteur's death, his son-in-law René Vallery-Radot (1853–1933) published The Life of Pasteur in 1900. An English translation was published in 1902. René Vallery-Radot and his family benefitted from Pasteur's fame and income. He is unlikely to have done anything to discredit Pasteur, in fact his biography notably omits stories critical to Pasteur.
Pasteur's manuscript materials were deposited in 1964 with the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris by Pasteur's grandson Louis-Pasteur Vallery-Radot (1886–1970), who was credited as Pasteur's editor. Public access was restricted until VR's death in 1971, there was no printed catalog until 1985. This collection is the largest in existence. It was collected by René and included the papers of Pasteur's nephew and sometime personal assistant Adrien Loir.
In Baltimore, Maryland Dr. Montague Richard Leverson learned of Béchamp's work in 1907. He was so profoundly astounded that he traveled to Paris to meet Béchamp. Over the course of several months preceeding his death, Béchamp related his criticisms of science and his amazing discoveries in chemistry and biology while Leverson took notes.
After Béchamp's death, Leverson translated his book The Blood and its Third Anatomical Element into English and published it in London in 1912. He persuaded a young writer, Ethel Douglas Hume, to compile, edit, and publish his notes from his conversations with Béchamp. In 1923 Hume published Bechamp Or Pasteur? A Lost Chapter In The History of Biology in England and Chicago. Hume's book, while an excellent and thorough shred of Pasteur's claims, does not contain the recant.
D'Arsonval inherited Bernard's papers. The first of Bernard's papers that d'Arsonval published so infuriated Pasteur that d'Arsonval quit. Shortly before his death he gave the papers to Dr. Léon Delhoume (1887–1960), a historian who wrote about a number of doctors and scientists.
In 1939 Delhoume published De Claude Bernard a d'Arsonval in Paris. This book included a partial version of d'Arsonval's first scientific paper, "The Personal Equation of the Astronomers" as well as some of his correspondence with Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–1894). This book does not contain the recant. Delhoume also passed d'Arsonval's materials to Dr. Philippe Decourt (1902–1990) along with Hume's book.
Delhoume published several manuscripts of Bernard's: In 1942 he published Cahier Rouge, in 1947 Principles of Experimental Medicine, the latter was from a notebook and supplementary papers from the d'Arsonval collection.
In 1956 Hans Selye, MD published The Stress of Life.
I transcribed the following excerpt from page 301 of the 1976 revised edition:
"Let me point out here parenthetically that Pasteur was sharply criticized for failing to recognize the importance of
the terrain (the soil in which disease develops). They said he was too one-sidedly preoccupied with the apparent cause of
disease: the microbe itself. There were, in fact, many disputes about this between Pasteur and his great contemporary,
Claude Bernard; the former insisted on the importance of the disease producer, the latter on the body's own equilibrium.
Yet Pasteur's work on immunity induced with serums and vaccines shows he recognized the importance of the soil.
In any event, it is rather significant that Pasteur attached so much importance to this point that on his deathbed he said
to Professor A. Rénon who looked after him: 'Bernard avait raison. Le germe n'est rien, c'est le terrain qui est tout.'
('Bernard was right. The microbe is nothing, the soil is everything.')."
[NOTE: Selye was wrong about Rénon's name, he was Louis Rénon, an honored member of the Société de Biologie, as was d'Arsonval. Of importance for this narrative, Selye did not cite his source for Pasteur's quote, leaving my desire for an authoritative source unsatisfied. I include Selye's remarks here as the earliest version of the recant I have found, and the only one I can personally confirm.]
In 1989 Decourt published Les Vérités Indésirables. This book is in two parts, the first on astronomers, the second "Comment on Falsifie L'Histoire: Le Cas Pasteur" begins on page 133 (total 316 pages). It has notes and a bibliography.
Marie Nonclercq, a French pharmacist, wrote as a doctoral dissertation a biography of Béchamp. It was published in book form in 1992 by Maloine as Antoine Béchamp, 1816–1908, The Man and The Scientist, the Originality and Productivity of His Work. It is in French, has 250 pages, and a preface by Philippe Decourt. Nonclercq also founded the Centre International de Recherches Antoine Béchamp (CIRAB).
In April 1992 an article by Christopher Bird (1928–1996), a science writer, was published in Nexxus Magazine. It was titled "To Be Or Not To Be? 150 Years of Hidden Knowledge." In it Bird stated he had met Nonclercq in 1984 in France. He claimed she told him of her discovery of Pasteur's deathbed recant in a book written by Leon Delhoume, De Claude Bernard a d'Arsonval, on or around page 595. Well, the last page of the book is 595, and there is no mention of the recant on it or earlier pages.
The difficulty for American researchers who do not read French is that most of the key books in this saga were written in French and have yet to be translated into English. I hope to find a French-reader to confirm the recant in Delhoume's book and to look for it in the books of Nonclercq and Decourt.
Until an assistant confirmed for me that Delhoume's book does not contain the recant, I was willing to believe that Bird's reputation as a meticulous researcher and documenter would have to suffice as proof that Pasteur really did recant his germ theory. I no longer believe that. At this point, 2014, I have found no evidence that the recant was real.
The earliest account of the recant I found is in Selye's 1976 book. It was likely also in the 1956 edition.
An engaging question is how the recant story ended up in print. Certainly Pasteur's family were not about to tell, assuming they had witnessed it. The likely candidate is d'Arsonval. And, as Pasteur's death was a drawn out affair, the confession could have occurred at any time, not just in his last moments. There is the additional possibility that Pasteur confessed to more than one person.
In a 250-page thesis on Antoine Béchamp, Marie Nonclercq, doctor of pharmacy, explains the clear advantage that Pasteur had over Béchamp: "He was a falsifier of experiments and their results, where he wanted the outcomes to be favourable to his initial ideas. The falsifications committed by Pasteur now seem incredible to us. On deeper examination, however, the facts were in opposition to the ideas developed by Pasteur in the domain of bacteriology . . . Pasteur wilfully ignored the work of Béchamp, one of the greatest 19th-century French scientists whose considerable work in the fields of chemical synthesis, bio-chemistry and infectious pathology is almost totally unrecognised today, because it had been systematically falsified, denigrated, for the personal profit of an illustrious personage (Pasteur) who had, contrary to Béchamp, a genius for publicity and what today we call 'public relations . . .'"
Ethel Douglas Hume. Bechamp Or Pasteur? A Lost Chapter In The History of Biology. Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1923. Also Ashington, England: C. W. Daniel Co., Ltd. Available on Google Books and Amazon (which has a text viewer). Also available in PDF form at www.mnwelldir.org/docs/history/biographies/Bechamp-or-Pasteur.pdf. This document is published by becahmp.org and is prefaced by a second book, Pasteur: Plagiarist, Impostor by R. B. Pearson (1942). Does not mention the recant.
Léon Delhoume. De Claude Bernard a d'Arsonval. Paris: Lib Bailliere et fils, 1939.
Philippe Decourt. Les Vérités Indésirables. Archives Internationales Claude Bernard, 1989. In French. Available at www.scribd.com/doc/37075656/Archives-Internationales-Claude-Bernard-Verite-indesirable. The second part "Comment on Falsifie L'Histoire: Le Cas Pasteur" begins on page 133.
Marie Nonclercq. Antoine Béchamp, 1816–1908, The Man and The Scientist, the Originality and Productivity of His Work. Paris: Maloine, 1982. ISBN 2224008546. 250 pages. In French.
Christopher Bird. "To Be Or Not To Be? 150 Years of Hidden Knowledge," Nexus Magazine. April 1992. Available at www.whale.to/p/bird.html.
I cannot fairly leave this subject without some explanation of Béchamp's theory. You can easily find on the internet people who ridicule Béchamp's theory without really understanding it. I want to counter them.
The germ theory states that the body is sterile and disease is caused by external germs (microbes). For Béchamp, microbes naturally exist in the body and it is the disease that permits the microbe to express itself. The terrain, the internal environment, in response to various forces, fosters the development of germs from within. To my thinking, the germ theory essentially blames the messenger.
This more detailed explanation is extracted from members.iimetro.com.au/~hubbca/soil.htm#Pasteur.
|GERM THEORY (PASTEUR)||CELLULAR THEORY (BÉCHAMP)|
|1. Disease arises from micro-organisms outside the body.||Disease arises from micro-organisms within the cells of the body.|
|2. Micro-organisms are generally to be guarded against.||These intracellular micro-organisms normally function to build and assist in the metabolic processes of the body.|
|3. The function of micro-organisms is constant.||The function of these organisms changes to assist in the catabolic (disintegration) processes of the host organism when that organism dies or is injured, which may be chemical as well as mechanical.|
|4. The shapes and colours of micro-organisms are constant.||Micro-organisms change their shapes and colours to reflect the medium.|
|5. Every disease is associated with a particular micro-organism.||Every disease is associated with a particular condition.|
|6. Micro-organisms are primary causal agents.||Micro-organisms become "pathogenic" as the health of the host organism deteriorates. Hence, the condition of the host organism is the primary causal agent.|
|7. Disease can "strike" anybody.||Disease is built by unhealthy conditions.|
|8. To prevent disease we have to "build defences."||To prevent disease we have to create health.|
Created: 2-16-2011. Revised: 7-18-2014.