Do germs cause disease or are they a byproduct of unhealthy conditions within the body? Mainstream western medicine has unconditionally validated the former view, called the germ theory of disease, and has helped to elevate Louis Pasteur to a position of near-absolute, bronze-statue-caliber reverence. The alternative “cellular theory” has been, if not actively discredited, then effectively ignored, as has been the theory’s originator, Antoine Bechamp. There are those within the alternative medicine community who consider the historical turn of events to be a great tragedy and, to the more polemically inclined, a criminal conspiracy masterminded by the pharmaceutical industry. More on that presently.
Here’s the short form of this battle of ideas: According to the germ theory, disease is caused by microorganisms in the form of viruses, bacteria or fungi invading the body from outside. To treat disease we should try to kill those microorganisms; to prevent disease we should guard against them. According to the cellular theory, disease results when microorganisms already within the body, whose normal role is to assist in the body’s metabolism, alter in response to unhealthy conditions. In this view, microorganisms do not constitute the disease, they are symptoms of unbalanced nutritional, electrical, structural, and biological forces within the body. To prevent disease, we should maintain a healthy, balanced bodily “terrain” and when disease strikes we should “treat the patient, not the infection.”
Pasteur and Bechamp were direct contemporaries and rivals. Both came up within the French academic establishment, Bechamp succeeding Pasteur as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg in 1854. They both did work on fermentation and went head-to-head in the medical literature on their experimental results.
The germ theory that came to be associated most strongly with Pasteur was initially developed by various European thinkers over the previous centuries. Pasteur advanced and formalized the theory and backed it with extensive experimentation, which laid the foundation for future pioneering work on pasteurization, immunology and vaccination. It is not an understatement to say that the history of disease prevention and treatment from the 1860s until today has been a search to identify the specific germs that cause specific diseases, and to develop the vaccines, antibiotics and other drugs that protect the body from them. This is in fact the animating mission of the pharmaceutical industry today. The countless demonstrable successes in achieving that mission as measured by the millions of lives saved and diseases prevented have surely justified Pasteur’s bronze statues and, on at least some level, the massive riches realized by Big Pharma.
And the conspicuous lack of bronze for Mssr. Bechamp? In the face of Pasteur’s growing success and fame, Bechamp and the cellular theory did not garner many adherents and little experimental evidence was advanced in its favor. No significant medical advances in Western medicine can be ascribed to it. Through the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s, Bechamp waged an unsuccessful battle against Pasteur from university positions in Montpellier and Lille. It was personal and bitter. The competing theories of disease were the least of it. In Bechamp’s eyes, Pasteur’s work was derivative. As Pasteur became increasingly idolized, Bechamp sank into obscurity and he died unheralded in 1908.
Where Are They Now?
Was Antoine Bechamp’s obscurity deserved? Was he a thinker whose ideas simply didn’t stand the test of time, or of basic science, and whose complaints were sour grapes, duly ignored?
With an all-purpose bogeyman like Big Pharma lined up on one side of this argument − Pasteur’s − one does not need to be a rabid conspiracy theorist to wonder whether the overwhelming forces that have aligned against the cellular theory may not have decided the issue more categorically than it should have been. It’s this sort of over-obscuring, after all, the descent into pure shadow of those worthy of illumination, that lies at the heart of many of our also-ran tales, the most enraging ones.
So let’s give the skeptics a hearing.
Pasteur today is credited with the breakthrough demonstrations on fermentation but Bechamp’s champions can point with justifiable indignation at experimental results and publications by Bechamp from a few years earlier that would suggest his priority in their discovery. The more ardent Pasteur-haters go much further, claiming Pasteur was a fraud and a plagiarist, not only of Bechamp’s work but of other predecessors and contemporaries, on diseases in grapes and silkworms, antisepsis, and most notably, an anthrax vaccine that was shown in a 1995 investigation into Pasteur’s notes to have drawn heavily on the work of the veterinarian Jean Touissant, whom Pasteur never credited.
Inconsistencies in his notes and public statements have led to accusations that he possessed a fundamental misunderstanding of fermentation and digestion, that he believed in spontaneous generation long after others had abandoned the notion, and that his medical ethics were suspect. The latter claim arose when he supervised the trial of a lightly-tested vaccine on a 9-year-old boy that had been bitten by a rabid dog without firmly diagnosing the boy with rabies. Also, doing so without a medical license (he was primarily a chemist by training.)
But the primary cause of Bechamp’s obscurity was the cellular theory. Had it proved out experimentally, he may well have wrested belated praise from Pasteur, and taken him down a notch or two.
Which leads us back to that dispute − germ theory or cellular theory? In the face of overwhelming evidence in support, there are still many perplexing questions about the germ theory. Given the many millions of germs we breathe in daily, why aren’t we always sick? When many people are exposed to a germ, say on an airplane, why do some people contract a disease and others don’t? If a single, unchanging germ is always the primary cause of a disease, as the germ theory stipulates, shouldn’t it always lead to infection, regardless of the body’s condition?
There is much still be learned about germs and disease. Recent research on the microbiome (the world of bacteria in the gut) and the dangers of the overuse of antibiotics challenge the traditional understanding of germs and their role in the body. Many adherents of holistic, homeopathic, or Eastern medicine consider Bechamp’s conclusions true on their face. Even if you are not a proponent of such alternative practices, some of the implications of the cellular theory may still have resonance: That bacteria should not be understood as “good” or “bad”. That microorganisms are not static, that they change shape, form, and function. That the most important thing in preventing disease is to maintain health and that, in Bechamp’s words, “the primary cause of disease is in us, always in us.”
If the cellular theory of disease has even a kernel of truth to it, and if the germ theory is not the full story (it is not called a law, after all,) then the disparity in standing between Antoine Bechamp and Louis Pasteur is indeed a grave injustice.