Stories of the Great Chemists

Here, Louis Pasteur peers into his microscope. He declares that although he knows his theory against spontaneous generation is correct, he must prove it unequivocally.

Here, Louis Pasteur peers into his microscope. He declares that although he knows his theory against spontaneous generation is correct, he must prove it unequivocally. (Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF)

Louis Pasteur’s long, rich scientific career is the subject of the fourth issue of Vidas Ilustres, published in May 1956. This comic gives more detail about the scientific work than do many of the others. Despite its interest in the technicalities, this book takes some minor liberties: the story is set in France, but the characters on the cover are dressed in Mexican-style clothing.

As suggested by the front illustration, Pasteur’s work on vaccination is the focus of this story, but it also covers his research on fermentation. His fermentation work is prompted by vintners’ complaints of wines going bad. Pasteur believes that introduced microbes spoiled the wine, as opposed to the commonly held scientific belief that life could develop spontaneously. He must demonstrate experimentally the general fact that microbes, just like larger organisms, have parents and cannot be generated spontaneously from nonliving materials.

Elsewhere in the comic his opponents declare, “No one can deny that toads are born spontaneously! The same with the moss growing in stagnant water! If this is not the case, can anyone tell me how all of these millions of animals and plants are born from one day to the next?”

The ever-confident Pasteur rallies his colleagues: “I will tell them where these beings come from! As water is boiled, we kill all existing germs in it. Then, if we prevent contact with the air, nothing will be generated spontaneously! Nothing at all! Germs are in the air, and if they do not enter the bottle, there will be no spontaneous generation, as they call it.” So in a controlled experiment they leave some bottles of nutrient broth tightly sealed and others open. “We’ll see whether I am correct.”

In the last frame, a few days later, Pasteur is vindicated: “Success! The sealed bottles show no changes, but in the open ones, germs have reproduced.”

Our tour of these comics wraps up in much the same way as the original readers experienced them—by looking at their back covers. The first two, from 1956 and 1958, feature paintings related to the stories of Pasteur and Paracelsus. The next, from the 1962 Curie issue of Mujeres Célebres, advertises superhero comic books, reflecting the publisher’s belief that the same children were reading both the fiction and the nonfiction genres. And our last back cover (of the 1971 Vidas Ilustres reprint of the Pasteur story) sells lessons in radio and TV repair—a type of advertisement as familiar to comic-book readers in the United States as it was to young people in Latin America.

The popularity of these picture stories is a phenomenon worth contemplating, especially at a time when so many in education and government are desperately trying to pique young people’s interest in the sciences. These comics grabbed the imagination of readers and inspired children like Patarroyo and Rigau-Pérez to follow scientific careers. To be sure, the transnational Spanish-language culture of two generations ago is quite different from the digital culture of today’s United States. Nonetheless, these seemingly lighthearted comic books from the past still hold a special resonance. As one comic book explains, they show “just what is achievable through intelligence, patience, and human tenacity.” Perhaps today they can help us think anew about the power of biography, dramatic narrative, and heroes from the history of chemistry as tools for engaging youth in the wonders of science and the excitement of discovery.

Boaz N. Adler graduated from Baruch College with a B.A. in history and plans to attend graduate school to study both American and Latin American history.

Bert Hansen teaches history at Baruch College of the City University of New York. His book Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio was reviewed in the Fall 2010 issue of Chemical Heritage.