Henry Charlton Bastian

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(b. Truro, Cornwall, England, 26 April 1837; d. Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, England, 17 November 1915)

neurology, microbiology and origin of life, physiology, pathology. For the original article on Bastian see DSB, vol. 1.

Much new secondary literature has appeared, including Stephen Jacyna’s detailed study of Bastian’s theory of aphasia and other neurological disorders, but most of which has overthrown the older caricature of Bastian (largely created by Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall) as an isolated figure in his support for spontaneous generation.

Relation to Darwin. Bastian was one of the most talented of the young Darwinian evolutionists in the 1860s, under Huxley’s mentorship. His interest in the origin of life and experiments in spontaneous generation were the direct result of his commitment to Charles Darwin’s and Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary ideas; Bastian, like many others, felt that evolution implied and required a naturalistic origin of the first living things. His work was supported by Richard Owen and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin, too, took great interest in Bastian’s logic and experiments on spontaneous generation. Darwin had, after all, assiduously avoided the topic throughout most of On the Origin of Species (1859), only to put in some ambivalent-sounding language in the last few pages of the book (speaking of one or a few original living forms “into which life was first breathed”). And Darwin’s few private remarks on the subject also reveal an ambivalence over spontaneous generation up until about 1877. He did feel that an explanation of life’s beginning in concert with scientific naturalism would help the cause. Yet the earlier associations of spontaneous generation with materialism and political radicalism, and with Robert Chambers’s model of evolution in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844)—widely criticized by professional scientists as amateurish—all those were associations Darwin and Huxley very much wished to avoid. Before Huxley, Robert Grant of University College, London, had been an earlier scientific mentor to Bastian. Grant’s radical, materialistic versions of spontaneous generation linked to evolution were infamous among the professional scientific circles appealing to the middle class where Darwin and his chief supporters operated.

Nonetheless, Huxley’s famous 1869 essay “The Physical Basis of Life” and his support for Ernst Haeckel— even championing the supposedly living organism Bathybius haeckelii spontaneously generated on the sea floor—led many to believe, like Bastian, that Huxley and Darwin actually believed in spontaneous generation and thought it integral to evolutionary science. So when Bastian argued in favor of the possibility of spontaneous generation in an anonymous 1869 series in the British Medical Journal, then publicly beginning in 1870, a sizable fraction of Darwinian supporters agreed with this logic. Huxley soon concluded that Bastian was too eager to publish and not sufficiently cautious experimentally, which persuaded him to use his September 1870 presidential address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science to head off a possible debacle for Darwinism should Bastian turn out to be wrong because of experimental error. “Darwin’s bulldog” used his famous “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis” address to outflank Bastian and declare an official Darwinian position on the origin of life. Huxley now argued that life probably had emerged from nonlife by naturalistic means, but that this “abiogenesis,” as he called it, must have taken millions of years and was possible only under the very different conditions of the Earth’s distant past. All experiments claiming to prove that spontaneous generation could occur rapidly under current conditions were deeply flawed, argued Huxley, siding with Louis Pasteur. Not least among those mistaken, Huxley said, was Bastian. Huxley was trying to put the inflammatory, materialistic, origin of life question safely to rest by claiming that it was simply beyond the reach of science.

Critique of Germ Theory. Even after Huxley’s frontal attack, so formidable was Bastian as a rhetorician, and so skilled as an experimentalist, particularly in microscopy, that a sizable minority of Darwinians still supported his view over Huxley's, especially in medical circles, where support for spontaneous generation was widespread because of opposition to early versions of the germ theory of disease. Most scientific doctors subscribed to Justus von Liebig’s zymotic theory of disease, in which germs were seen as at most the spontaneously generated by-products of a chemically catalyzed disease process, rather than as its cause. Bastian, like Charles Murchison, became a new spokesman for many of their long-standing critiques of overly simplistic germ theories: If germ = disease, for instance, then in epidemics why does not everybody in the village, or even in the same household, get sick? Only when incorporating the later discoveries of immunology could more sophisticated germ theories satisfy doctors on such counts. Furthermore, the Edinburgh physiology professor John Hughes Bennett influentially came out in support of spontaneous generation in 1868, and he linked it with his well-known “molecular theory” of disease. Bennett’s “molecules” (also described by Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Robert Brown, and by Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann) were among many microscopic particles, from colloids to the “gemmules” of Darwin’s pangenesis hypothesis, Haeckel’s “plastidules,” and other basic “life units” in theories popular during the 1860s and 1870s. Pleomorphist theory, of the easy transformation among microbial forms of bacteria and fungi, even interconversion between the two, was also widespread at this time, championed especially by Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli. All of these theories created more theoretical space for belief in spontaneous generation of very simple cells from smaller “living units” during this time. Pleomorphist theory also specifically undercut germ theories, such as that of Robert Koch, that presumed fixed, unchanging bacterial species, each of which caused a specific disease. Only when these theories gradually fell out of vogue (for example, Bennett’s theory after his death in 1875) or were disproven experimentally did support for spontaneous generation begin to decline.

The physicist Tyndall was an early and zealous convert to oversimplistic germ theories of disease, so he joined Huxley in attacking Bastian and suggesting that Bastian’s experimental technique must be sloppy. Tyndall (soon joined by Edwin Ray Lankester) included in his critique many remarks gratuitously insulting doctors for being too obdurate, set in their ways, unscientific, or just plain dull, to appreciate the merits of Joseph Lister and William Budd’s germ theories. As a result, a rift opened between doctors (especially scientific doctors and those sympathetic to Darwinian evolution) and nonmedical scientists, and it deepened considerably because of the heated debate

over Bastian’s theories that continued from 1870 to 1878. Medical forums such as the Pathological Society of London were long supportive of Bastian’s case. The Royal Society, dominated in the 1870s by X Club Darwinians such as Tyndall, Huxley, and Joseph Dalton Hooker, became a hostile place for Bastian and a sympathetic one for Tyndall—the two men’s papers received unequal treatment in the publication process.

In the end, the debate was as much a power struggle among Darwinian factions as it was about the outcome of experiments. Tyndall’s discovery in 1877 of heat-resistant bacterial endospores is often taken as an experimentum crucis, but this is at least partly retrospective. Tyndall had to blatantly contradict some of his own experiments from 1875–1876 to promote the new discovery; this was passed over easily by his allies, but few of Bastian’s supporters found the new spores convincing. Similarly, William Henry Dallinger and John Drysdale’s 1873–1875 observations on spore-formation by protists under continuous microscopic observation changed relatively few minds at the time. The outcome of the experimental debate was underdetermined by the experiments alone. Bastian has come to be seen as a serious Darwinian scientist who led the minority faction in one of the most outstanding schisms in evolutionary science during the first twenty <pn,210> years after On the Origin of Species. The restoration of this portrait involves reclaiming the existence of a large camp within Darwinism, even in Britain, that saw spontaneous generation and evolution as inseparably linked doctrines from 1859 until 1878 or so. The declining fortunes of spontaneous generation had quite as much to do with defeat of that camp in the power struggle by Huxley and Tyndall’s camp, as well as with numerous broad theoretical and technical changes in biology and medical science during this period, as it had to do with any particular experiment or even the sum of all the experimental data.


Adam, Alison E. Spontaneous Generation in the 1870s: VictorianScientific Naturalism and Its Relation to Medicine. PhD diss., Sheffield Hallam University. Sheffield, U.K., 1988.

Barton, Ruth. “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X Club and Royal Society Politics, 1864–1885.” British Journal for the History of Science 23 (1990): 53–81.

Desmond, Adrian, and James R. Moore. Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, 1991.

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

Huxley, Thomas Henry. “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis” (1870). In The Scientific Memoirs of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. 3.

London: Macmillan, 1901.

Jacyna, L. Stephen. Lost Words: Narratives of Language and theBrain, 1825–1926. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Kamminga, Harmke. Studies in the History of Ideas on the Origin of Life from 1860. PhD diss., University of London, 1980.

Strick, James E. “Darwinism and the Origin of Life: The Role of H. C. Bastian in the British Spontaneous Generation Debates, 1868–1873.” Journal of the History of Biology 32 (1999): 51–92.

——.Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates overSpontaneous Generation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

——, ed. Evolution and the Spontaneous Generation Debate. 6 vols. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes, 2001. This set reprints most of Bastian’s major works on the origin of life, as well as many important reviews of his books.

——, ed. The Origin of Life Debate: Molecules, Cells, and Generation. 6 vols. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes, 2004. This set reprints many primary articles in the spontaneous generation debates, “molecular theories,” and so forth, from 1748 to 1890.

Worboys, Michael. Spreading Germs: Disease Theories andMedical Practice in Britain, 1865–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

James E. Strick

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Bastian, Henry Charlton

(b. Truro, England, 26 April 1837; d. Chesham Bois, England, 17 November 1915)

neurology, bacteriology.

Little is known of Bastian’s early life except that his father was named James and that the boy showed great interest in natural history. In 1856 he entered University College London, and seven years later was graduated M.B. At first he worked at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, as assistant physician and lecturer on pathology, but returned to his alma mater in 1867 as professor of pathological anatomy, having received the M.D. a year before. He continued to practice clinical medicine, and in 1878 was promoted to physician to University College Hospital. From 1887 to 1898 Bastian held the chair of the principles and practice of medicine and also had an appointment at the National Hospital in Queen Square, London, from 1868 to 1902. Early in his career he worked on the problem of abiogenesis, or spontaneous generation, and the return of this interest determined his premature retirement from clinical neurology.

Bastian married Julia Orme in 1866, and had three sons and a daughter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1868, at the age of thirty-one; served as a censor of the Royal College of Physicians of London from 1897 to 1898; and received honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and an honorary M.D. from the Royal University of Ireland. From 1884 to 1898 Bastian was crown referee in cases of supposed insanity, and a few months before he died, he was awarded a Civil List pension of £150 a year in recognition of his services to science. He is said to have been a close friend of Herbert Spencer, but the philosopher makes only very slight reference to Bastian in his lengthy autobiography. As one of Spencer’s executors, Bastian helped to publish the latter work.

Bastian’s earliest scientific work was with guinea worms and other nematodes, but his investigations ended suddenly when he developed a strange allergy to these creatures. His clear analytical mind, sound reasoning, and acute powers of observation drew him to clinical neurology, and he spent the rest of his hospital and academic life in this discipline. Beginning in 1869, he published a series of papers on speech disorders. At a time when it was thought that speech was controlled by independent brain centers, Bastian was the most important of those who represented this view by means of diagrams almost akin to electrical circuits. He described a visual and an auditory word center, and in 1869 he gave the first account of word blindness (alexia) and of word deafness, which is known today as “Wernicke’s aphasia.” His views on aphasia, which were founded on an assumption that there is a direct relationship between psychological functions and localized areas of brain, were an oversimplification and are no longer accepted. They are presented, with supporting clinical data, in A Treatise on Aphasia and Other Speech Defects (1898).

The many publications on clinical and clinicopathological neurology prepared by Bastian reveal his outstanding practical, philosophical, and literary skills, which he exercised to the full in a specialty of medicine that was then emerging as a more precise science. Nevertheless, his work was overshadowed by that of some of his contemporaries who excelled him. His book. The Brain as an Organ of Mind (1880) and those on paralyses (1875, 1886, 1893), although important, were less popular than those of other writers; and the claim that he and his contemporaries John Hughlings Jackson and William Gowers founded neurological science in Britain is difficult to justify. Nevertheless, he was an important pioneer of neurology as a science; in addition, his anatomical skill is revealed by the discovery in 18671 of the anterior spinocerebellar tract of the spinal cord—now known, however, as “Gowers’ tract” because of the more detailed investigation of it made by Gowers in 1880. In 1887 Bastian published his important paper on “muscular sense,” which he thought was represented in the cerebral cortex, whereas, in contrast with Ferrier and Beevor, in particular, he considered the cortical motor centers to be unnecessary. In 1890 he showed for the first time that complete section of the upper spinal cord abolishes reflexes and muscular tone below the level of the lesion; this has been known occasionally as Bastian’s law.

Bastian himself claimed that his studies on abiogenesis were more significant; and there were two periods of activity in this field, approximately 1868–1878 and 1900–1915. Contrary to accepted biological and bacteriological opinion, he believed that there was no strict boundary between organic and inorganic life. He denied the doctrine of omne vivum ex ovo and argued that since living matter must have arisen from nonliving matter at an early stage in evolution, such a process could still be taking place. His battle was fought mostly alone; and eventually he was the last scientific opponent of Pasteur, Tyndall, Koch, and the other pioneers of bacteriology. This was an important role, for he pointed out many of their mistakes; and thus, in a negative way and quite against his purpose, he helped to advance the germ theory of fermentation and of disease. As Pasteur’s main opponent, he was responsible for the development of some of the techniques that advanced bacteriology.

Thus, Bastian denied that boiling destroyed all bacteria, as Pasteur claimed, and thereby opened the way for the discovery of heat-resistant spores. On the whole, his criticisms of Pasteur’s logic were more effective than the multitude of experiments he cunningly conceived and carried out, for the techniques he used are now known to have been frequently defective. His views and supporting experimental data were set forth in a large book of over 1,100 pages, The Beginnings of Life (1872). Concerning the role of bacteria in fermentation, he concluded that “These lowest organisms are, in fact, to be regarded as occasional concomitant products rather than invariable or necessary causes of all fermentative changes.”2 A controversy with Tyndall concerning the existence of airborne germs closed his first period of interest in bacteriology. His opponent’s comments summarize the situation in 1878: “Neither honour to the individual nor usefulness to the public is likely to accrue from its [the controversy’s] continuance, and life is too serious to be spent in hunting down in detail the Protean errors of Dr. Bastian.”3 He began again to devote all his time to his neurological practice and writings.

Bastian returned to his biological studies in 1900 and devoted the last fifteen years of his life to the fundamental problem of the origin of life. He was the last scientific believer in spontaneous generation, for he succeeded in converting no one to his cause. He had been self-instructed in the field of biological research, and although he learned such recording procedures as photomicrography, he was eventually left behind as the technology of the new science of microbiology developed apace, mainly in the hands of the French and German pioneers. Bastian thought that abiogenesis included “archebiosis,” living things arising from inorganic matter, or from dead animal or plant tissues, through new molecular combinations, and “heterogenesis,” the interchangeability of the lowest forms of animal and vegetable life, both among themselves and with each other; thus ciliates and flagellae could arise from amoebae.

In this regard Bastian was criticized by biologists who accused him of insufficient knowledge of lower forms of life. He attempted to substantiate these phenomena in Studies in Heterogenesis (1904), illustrated by 815 photomicrographs, and in The Nature and Origin of Living Matter (1905). Each contains similar arguments, in which he compares the unit of living matter with crystals and suggests that the persistence of lower organisms can be adequately ascribed to their successive evolution. Bastian made solutions containing colloidal silica and iron, and put them in sealed glass tubes that were heat-sterilized and stored under regulated conditions of light and temperature. His claim was that after a time, such organisms as bacteria, torulae, and molds grew, but no one could or would repeat these observations. The Evolution of Life (1907) dealt exclusively with archebiosis. Many of his papers were rejected by the Royal Society of London and by other learned bodies; this was the case with the material of his last book, The Origin of Life (1911). Two years later The Lancet summarized the scientists’ judgment of this losing battle: “To our mind the position is quite unchanged, and we ourselves still remain unconvinced, save, of course, of the courage and good faith of Dr. Bastian.”4

After Bastian’s death his son challenged bacteriologists and others to disprove his father’s work on abiogenesis. The correspondence thus stimulated5 reveals that several investigators thought they had done so, but certain findings are still unexplained. Careful repetition of crucial experiments and a dialectical analysis of his results are still needed. Of Bastian’s industry, tenacity, logic, and experimental versatility—although perhaps misplaced—there can be no question.


1. “On a Case of Concussion-Lesion...,” in Medical-Chirurgical Transactions, 2nd ser., 32 (1867), 499–537.

2.Modes of Origin, p. 108.

3. “Spontaneous Generation. A Last Word,” in Nineteenth Century, 3 (1878), 497–508, see 508.

4.The Lancet (1913). i . 970.

5.ibid. (1919), i , 951–952, 1000–1001, 1044–1045, 1133–1134; ii , 216–217, 458.


I. Original Works. Bastian’s writings include The Modes of Origin of Lowest Organisms (London, 1871); The Beginnings of Life, 2 vols. (London, 1872); On Paralysis From Brain Disease in Its Common Forms (London, 1875); The Brain as an Organ of Mind (London, 1880), also trans. into French and German; Paralyses, Cerebral, Bulbar and Spinal (London, 1886); “The ‘Muscular Sense’; Its Nature and Cortical Localisation,” in Brain, 10 (1888), 1–137; Various Forms of Hysterical or Functional Paralysis (London, 1893); A Treatise on Aphasia and Other Speech Defects (London, 1898), also trans. into German and Italian; Studies in Heterogenesis (pub. in 4 pts., London, 1901–1903; pub, together, 1904); The Nature and Origin of Living Matter (London, 1905; rev. and abbr. ed., 1909); The Evolution of Life (London, 1907), also trans. into French; and The Origin of Life (London, 1911, 1913). There is a complete list of Bastian’s writings in an unpublished biography by Mercer Rang, “The Life and Work of Henry Charlton Bastian 1837–1915” (1954), MS in Library of University College Hospital Medical School, London.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no published work comparable with the Rang MS. Obituaries are British Medical Journal (1915), 2 , 795–796; The Lancet (1915), 2 , 1220–1224 (including portrait and brief bibliography); and F. W. M[ott], in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 89 (1917), xxi–xxiv. See also J. K. Crellin, “The Problem of Heat Resistance of Micro-organisms in the British Spontaneous Generation Controversies of 1860–1880,” in Medical History, 10 (1966), 50–59; Lothar B. Kalinowsky, “Henry Charlton Bastian,” in Webb Haymaker, ed., The Founders of Neurology (Springfield, Ill., 1953), pp. 241–244; and Mercer Rang, “Henry Charlton Bastian (1837–1915),” in University College Hospital Magazine, 39 (1954), 68–73.

Edwin Clarke