Germ Theory Versus Terrain: The Wrong Side Won the Day

Merinda Teller

Whereas most Americans probably have heard of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), it is doubtful that many are familiar with the name and work of Antoine Béchamp (1816– 1908). The two nineteenth-century researchers were scientific contemporaries, compatriots and fellow members of the French Academy of Science, but key differences in their views on biology and disease pathology led to a prolonged rivalry both within and outside of the Academy.

Béchamp was the more brilliant thinker, but Pasteur had political connections, including Emperor Napoleon III. Reportedly not above “plagiarising and distorting Béchamp’s research,” Pasteur achieved fame and fortune largely because his views “were in tune with the science and the politics of his day.” Meanwhile, mainstream medical historians relegated Béchamp’s ideas—not as attractive to conventional thinkers—to the intellectual dustbin.

Pasteur’s promotion of germ theory (a flawed notion that he did not so much “discover” as repackage) has remained “dear to pharmaceutical company executives’ hearts” up to the present day, having laid the groundwork for “synthetic drugs, chemotherapy, radiation, surgical removal of body parts and vaccines” to become the “medicine[s] of choice.” The unshakeable belief that there is one microbe for every illness is so ingrained as the “controlling medical idea for the Western world” that competing ideas about disease causation still have difficulty gaining traction.

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