Béchamp, Pierre Jacques Antoine

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(b. Bassing, Moselle, France, 16 October 1816: d. Paris, France, 15 April 1908)

chemistry, biochemistry.

Béchamp, the son of a miller, left France at an early age to live in Bucharest, where he studied pharmacy, probably at St. Sava College, In his late teens he moved to Strasbourg, where he was an apprentice in a pharmacy and obtained the title of pharmacist in 1843. He quickly abandoned pharmacy, however, to resume his education. Early in 1851 he was named professeur agrégé by a jury including Louis Pasteur, Béchamp taught at the Faculty of Science of Strasbourg (1853-1854), where he succeeded Pasteur, and then at the Strasbourg School of Pharmacy (1854- 1856), In 1853 he earned his doctorate in the physical sciences and in 1856 he received the doctorate in medicine with an important thesis on albuminoid substances.

From 1856 until 1876 Béchamp taught medical chemistry at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier, He resigned his post there to become dean of the Free (Catholic) Faculty of Medicine in Lille. He retired from the latter post in 1886 amid bitter controversy. With his son. Béchamp resumed the pharmaceutical trade in Le Havre, The accidental death of his son, no mean chemist himself, led Béchamp to move to Paris, where the generous hospitality of Charles Friedel provided him with a small laboratory. There he carried out experiments until 1899.

Béchamp made discoveries in numerous fields. His doctoral thesis of 1856 led to a voluminous treatise (1884). Through a skillful, systematic use of the optical activity of albuminoid substances, Béchamp was able to distinguish a large number of complex compounds that his predecessors, relying on more standard analytical methods, had failed to discover, He also developed a cheap industrial process to produce aniline 1852) and thereby greatly contributed to the emergence of the synthetic dye industry. For this particular work the Société Industrielle de Mulhouse awarded Béchamp the Daniel Dollfus Prize (1864) jointly with W. H. Perkin A. W. von Hofmann, and E. Verguin. He also identified the parasitic nature of two silkworm diseases and, in this context, anticipated Pasteur’s results. The two became bitter rivals over that matter.

Béchamp’s theory of life constituted the main thrust of his activity, however, and also brought about a never-ending string of disputes, with Pasteur in particular. He accepted neither spontaneous generation nor the parasitic theory of disease and of fermentation. He claimed instead that all life was derived from small, subcellular“molecular granulations,” otherwise as micozymas. Béchamp, mistakenly, was fond of comparing his project with to Lavoisier and, indeed, the microzymas did play a role analogous to chemical elements. They differed from the elements, however, in that they were considered as the ultimate foundations of living structures, while for Lavoisier the elements existed only as experimental constructs.

When living organisms die, Béchamp argued, they revert to inert chemical substances and microzymas, the latter being essentially eternal. The microzyams also act as the organizing principle of living things. The way in which organization proceeds, however, depends as much on the chemical substances actually present and on the circumstances as on the nature of the microzymas. In other words, microzymas have no specificity of action, as do microbes in Pasteur’s theory; on the contrary, they are quite polyvalent.

The strength of Béchamp’s theory rested on its ability to use a single principle to explain a wide range of phenomena; with it he could account for such contradictory results as those adduced by Pasteur and Pouchet in the course of their famous controversy on spontaneous generation. But this was also the weakness of Béchamp’’s theory: it explained too much without lending itself to experimental testing. Its empirical foundation rested on two general statements: the microscope reveals molecular granulations; and whenever (and apparently only when) molecular granulations appear. life processes occur.

Of course the claim to have discovered the basic, material site of life, couched in scientific terms and bolstered by the scientific method, had direct import for extrascientific debates. It is no surprise, therefore, that Béchamp’s theory was upheld or attacked by Catholics, evolutionists, and materialists. But being at the center of too many controversial issues is not always the best way to pursue a successful career, especially if one is confined to provincial teaching positions; and Béchamp ended his life in nearly complete isolation. He died ignored by most and eulogized as a scientific martyr by a few.


I. Original Works. There are 245 papers by Béchamp listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers. 1 226–228; VII. 113–116; IX. 156–157; XII. 60; and XIII. 378–380. A bibliography of his works is appended to the unsigned obituary notice in Moniteur scientifique and that by Delassus (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. The literature on Béchamp is not scarce, but little is dispassionate. Most articles or texts concerning him are extravagant in their praises or in their criticisms; as such they must be read with caution. They include the unsigned “Antoine Béchamp,” in Revue des questions scientifiques (Brussels). 3rd ser., 13 (1908), 345-347; “Antoine Béchamp,” in Moniteur scientifique (Quesneville). 4th ser., 22 (Dec. 1908), 790-800, with comprehensive bibliography of his works; Inauguration du monument du Professeur Béchamp à Bassing (Moselle) le 18 septembre 1927 (Metz, 1927); and “La théorie de Béchamp s’oppose-t-elle à celle de Pasteur?,” in Est-Matin (Mulhouse, 8 Nov. 1947); P. Bachoffner, “Considerations sur la vie et l’oeuvre du Professeur Béchamp de l’École de pharmacie de Strasbourg,” in Bulletin de la Société de pharmacie de Strasdourg, 3 , no. 1 (1960), 25-30; J. Bucquoy, “Décès de M. Béchamp, correspondant national,” in Bulletin de l’Académie de médecine, 3rd ser., 59 (1908), 520-521; Philippe Decourt. “Béchamp et Pasteur—Introduction,” in Archives internationales Claude Bernard, no. 1 (Oct. 1971), 39-42; “Sur une histoire peu connue: La decouverte des maladies microbiennes. Béchamp et Pasteur,” ibid., no. 2 (1972), 23-131; and “La justice et la vérité,” ibid., no. 3 (1973), 27-31; A. Delassus, “M. le Professeur Antoine Béchamp,” in Journal des sciences médicales de Lille, 31 , no. 1 (1908), 444-448; Hector Grasset, Douglas Hume, Béchamp or Pasteur? A Lost Chapter in the History of Biology (Chicago, 1923); M. Javillier, “Pierre Jacques Antoine Béchamp,” in Bulletin des sciences pharmacologiques, 15 (1908), 281-284; L. Ménard, “Un émule de Pasteur: Béchamp,” in Cosmos, n.s. 58 , no. 1215 (9 May 1908), 509-511; P. Pagès, “Antoine Béchamp. Sa vie, son oeuvre,” in Monspeliensis Hippocrates, 2 , no. 3 (Mar, 1959), 13-29; Robert Pearson, Pasteur Plagiarist, Impostor! The Germ Theory Exploded (Denver, Colo., n.d. [1942]); Aurore Valxérie (pseudonym of Madeleine Renault), Béchamp et l’evolution européenne (Paris, 1958); and De Béchamp à Lazzaro Spallanzani, Essai historique des phénomènes d’oxydation (Paris, 1963); and Martial Villemin, “Un savant lorrain méconnu: Antoine Béchamp (1816-1908) adversaire de Pasteur,” in Académie et société lorraines des sciences. Bulletin trimestriel, 11 (1972), 276-284.

Jean-Claude GuÉdon

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