Pouchet, Félix-Archim

views updated


(b. Rouen, France, 26 August 1800; d. Rouen, 6 December 1872)

biology, natural history.

The son of an industrialist, Pouchet qualified in medicine in 1827 after studying at Rouen and at Paris. Almost immediately he became director of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelic at Rouen, an institution with which he was associated throughout the remainder of his life. In addition Pouchet held teaching posts in Rouen, notably at the École Supérieure des Sciences et Lettres and the École de Médecine. A member of many learned societies and corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences, he became chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1843.

A prolific author, Pouchct covered many areas of botany, zoology, physiology, and microbiology. He was also history-minded, writing, for instance, Histoire des sciences naturelles au moyen age (Paris, 1853). Widely read and, on many topics, of independent thought, Pouchet was also an excellent popularizer of science. Notable was his profusely illustrated general biology book, L’univers (Paris, 1865). “My sole object in writing this,” Pouchet commented in the preface, “was to inspire and to extend to the utmost of my power a taste for natural science.” In this, so far as can be judged, he was successful; certainly the English edition was very popular. A great deal of Pouchet’s more specialized biological writing awaits detailed assessment, but it undoubtedly contains much of value: for instance, his clear recognition that human ovulation occurs within a limited period in the menstrual cycle.

In view of Pouchet’s wide-ranging contributions to biology, it is unfortunate that he is often remembered only as the defeated adversary of Pasteur over the question of whether microorganisms could be spontaneously generated, although this was the most fundamental problem with which Pouchet dealt. Many other workers were involved in the fierce, often bitter, spontaneous generation controversies which, at least in France, reached a crescendo during 1858-1864. Pouchet wrote much on the subject, but it was his Hétérogénie ou traité de la génération spontanée basé sur de nouvelles expériences (Paris, 1859) that did much to arouse widespread interest.

Pouchet held that three factors—putrescent organic matter, air, and water—were the absolutely necessary conditions for spontaneous generation, which could be aided by, for instance, electricity and sunlight. Specifying the effects of light, Pouchet said that red light promoted the formation of animal “proto-organisms” and green light, vegetable “proto-organisms.”

Pouchet naturally took great pains over the basic issue—whether contamination by existing organisms could account for apparent instances of spontaneous generation. He paid particular attention to airborne particles (“atmospheric micrography,” as he called it), collecting them by such means as passing air through distilled water and obtaining deposits. From subsequent microscopic examination of the particles he recorded the presence of starch, cloth fibers, and carbon and mineral particles. He also concluded that the air contained only an occasional fungal spore or encysted infusorian, thus making airborne contamination highly unlikely. The fact that spontaneous generation apparently followed, under appropriate conditions, the use of heat-“sterilized” air also supported this view. Pouchet reported a great many experiments of his own and of others in which microorganisms appeared in nutrient media although rigorous attempts were made to avoid contamination.

Pasteur soon became the leading opponent of spontaneous generation, publishing his “Mémoire sur les corpuscules organisés qui existent dans l’atmosphère” in 1861. In it he claimed to have demonstrated that deposits from filtered air contained microorganisms or, at least,’’organized corpuscles,” and that their removal by heat or filtration meant that no growth occurred in sterilized nutrient media. This formed an important part of Pasteur’s evidence for his outright repudiation of spontaneous generation. Although a commission of the Académie des Sciences accepted Pasteur’s results in 1864, the controversies lasted until the late 1870’s, largely because of the conflicting experimental evidence that continued to appear. The lasting value of the work of Pouchet and his supporters, now no longer held to be valid, was that it gave a great impetus to improving experimental technique in microbiology, which contributed to the rapid development of the subject during the last decades of the nineteenth century.


I. Original Works. The majority of Pouchet’s many publications are listed in a useful article on Pouchet in J. Roger, Les médecins normands (Paris, 1890), 221-229. Publications up to 1862 are also listed in a shorter notice in Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale, XL (1866), 911. Full references to the spontaneous generation debate can be found in G. Pennetier, Un débat scientifique. Pouchet et Pasteur (Rouen, 1907). Pouchet’s most significant work not cited in text is Nouvelles expériences de génération spontanée et la résistance vitale (Paris, 1864), a sequel to the Hétérogénie of 1859. Prior to these two books his most celebrated study was Théorie positive de I’ovulation spontanée et la fécondation des mammiféres et de l’espèce humaine (Paris, 1847), which won a physiology prize of the Académie des Sciences in 1845.

II. Secondary Literature. Pouchet’s ovulation studies are noted by J. Rostand in “Félix-Arehimède Pouchet et les méthodes contraceptives,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 22 (1969), 257-258. For some perspective on Pouchet’s studies on airborne organisms, see J. K. Crellin, “Airborne Particles and the Germ Theory: 1860-1880,” in Annals of Science, 22 (1966), 49-60.

J. K. Crellin