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- YEAST - 1/3 -


by Thomas H. Huxley

I HAVE selected to-night the particular subject of Yeast for two reasons--or, rather, I should say for three. In the first place, because it is one of the simplest and the most familiar objects with which we are acquainted. In the second place, because the facts and phenomena which I have to describe are so simple that it is possible to put them before you without the help of any of those pictures or diagrams which are needed when matters are more complicated, and which, if I had to refer to them here, would involve the necessity of my turning away from you now and then, and thereby increasing very largely my difficulty (already sufficiently great) in making myself heard. And thirdly, I have chosen this subject because I know of no familiar substance forming part of our every-day knowledge and experience, the examination of which, with a little care, tends to open up such very considerable issues as does this substance--yeast.

In the first place, I should like to call your attention to a fact with which the whole of you are, to begin with, perfectly acquainted, I mean the fact that any liquid containing sugar, any liquid which is formed by pressing out the succulent parts of the fruits of plants, or a mixture of honey and water, if left to itself for a short time, begins to undergo a peculiar change. No matter how clear it might be at starting, yet after a few hours, or at most a few days, if the temperature is high, this liquid begins to be turbid, and by-and-by bubbles make their appearance in it, and a sort of dirty-looking yellowish foam or scum collects at the surface; while at the same time, by degrees, a similar kind of matter, which we call the "lees," sinks to the bottom.

The quantity of this dirty-looking stuff, that we call the scum and the lees, goes on increasing until it reaches a certain amount, and then it stops; and by the time it stops, you find the liquid in which this matter has been formed has become altered in its quality. To begin with it was a mere sweetish substance, having the flavour of whatever might be the plant from which it was expressed, or having merely the taste and the absence of smell of a solution of sugar; but by the time that this change that I have been briefly describing to you is accomplished the liquid has become completely altered, it has acquired a peculiar smell, and, what is still more remarkable, it has gained the property of intoxicating the person who drinks it. Nothing can be more innocent than a solution of sugar; nothing can be less innocent, if taken in excess, as you all know, than those fermented matters which are produced from sugar. Well, again, if you notice that bubbling, or, as it were, seething of the liquid, which has accompanied the whole of this process, you will find that it is produced by the evolution of little bubbles of air-like substance out of the liquid; and I dare say you all know this air-like substance is not like common air; it is not a substance which a man can breathe with impunity. You often hear of accidents which take place in brewers' vats when men go in carelessly, and get suffocated there without knowing that there was anything evil awaiting them. And if you tried the experiment with this liquid I am telling of while it was fermenting, you would find that any small animal let down into the vessel would be similarly stifled; and you would discover that a light lowered down into it would go out. Well, then, lastly, if after this liquid has been thus altered you expose it to that process which is called distillation; that is to say, if you put it into a still, and collect the matters which are sent over, you obtain, when you first heat it, a clear transparent liquid, which, however, is something totally different from water; it is much lighter; it has a strong smell, and it has an acrid taste; and it possesses the same intoxicating power as the original liquid, but in a much more intense degree. If you put a light to it, it burns with a bright flame, and it is that substance which we know as spirits of wine.

Now these facts which I have just put before you--all but the last--have been known from extremely remote antiquity. It is, I hope one of the best evidences of the antiquity of the human race, that among the earliest records of all kinds of men, you find a time recorded when they got drunk. We may hope that that must have been a very late period in their history. Not only have we the record of what happened to Noah, but if we turn to the traditions of a different people, those forefathers of ours who lived in the high lands of Northern India, we find that they were not less addicted to intoxicating liquids; and I have no doubt that the knowledge of this process extends far beyond the limits of historically recorded time. And it is a very curious thing to observe that all the names we have of this process, and all that belongs to it, are names that have their roots not in our present language, but in those older languages which go back to the times at which this country was peopled. That word "fermentation" for example, which is the title we apply to the whole process, is a Latin term; and a term which is evidently based upon the fact of the effervescence of the liquid. Then the French, who are very fond of calling themselves a Latin race, have a particular word for ferment, which is 'levure'. And, in the same way, we have the word "leaven," those two words having reference to the heaving up, or to the raising of the substance which is fermented. Now those are words which we get from what I may call the Latin side of our parentage; but if we turn to the Saxon side, there are a number of names connected with this process of fermentation. For example, the Germans call fermentation--and the old Germans did so--"gahren;" and they call anything which is used as a ferment by such names, such as "gheist" and "geest," and finally in low German, "yest";" and that word you know is the word our Saxon forefathers used, and is almost the same as the word which is commonly employed in this country to denote the common ferment of which I have been speaking. So they have another name, the word "hefe," which is derived from their verb "heben," which signifies to raise up; and they have yet a third name, which is also one common in this country (I do not know whether it is common in Lancashire, but it is certainly very common in the Midland countries), the word "barm," which is derived from a root which signifies to raise or to bear up. Barm is a something borne up; and thus there is much more real relation than is commonly supposed by those who make puns, between the beer which a man takes down his throat and the bier upon which that process, if carried to excess, generally lands him, for they are both derived from the root signifying bearing up; the one thing is borne upon men's shoulders, and the other is the fermented liquid which was borne up by the fermentation taking place in itself.

Again, I spoke of the produce of fermentation as "spirit of wine." Now what a very curious phrase that is, if you come to think of it. The old alchemists talked of the finest essence of anything as if it had the same sort of relation to the thing itself as a man's spirit is supposed to have to his body; and so they spoke of this fine essence of the fermented liquid as being the spirit of the liquid. Thus came about that extraordinary ambiguity of language, in virtue of which you apply precisely the same substantive name to the soul of man and to a glass of gin! And then there is still yet one other most curious piece of nomenclature connected with this matter, and that is the word "alcohol" itself, which is now so familiar to everybody. Alcohol originally meant a very fine powder. The women of the Arabs and other Eastern people are in the habit of tinging their eyelashes with a very fine black powder which is made of antimony, and they call that "kohol;" and the "al" is simply the article put in front of it, so as to say "the kohol." And up to the 17th century in this country the word alcohol was employed to signify any very fine powder; you find it in Robert Boyle's works that he uses "alcohol" for a very fine subtle powder. But then this name of anything very fine and very subtle came to be specially connected with the fine and subtle spirit obtained from the fermentation of sugar; and I believe that the first person who fairly fixed it as the proper name of what we now commonly call spirits of wine, was the great French chemist Lavoisier, so comparatively recent is the use of the word alcohol in this specialised sense.

So much by way of general introduction to the subject on which I have to speak to-night. What I have hitherto stated is simply what we may call common knowledge, which everybody may acquaint himself with. And you know that what we call scientific knowledge is not any kind of conjuration, as people sometimes suppose, but it is simply the application of the same principles of common sense that we apply to common knowledge, carried out, if I may so speak, to knowledge which is uncommon. And all that we know now of this substance, yeast, and all the very strange issues to which that knowledge has led us, have simply come out of the inveterate habit, and a very fortunate habit for the human race it is, which scientific men have of not being content until they have routed out all the different chains and connections of apparently simple phenomena, until they have taken them to pieces and understood the conditions upon which they depend. I will try to point out to you now what has happened in consequence of endeavouring to apply this process of "analysis," as we call it, this teazing out of an apparently simple fact into all the little facts of which it is made up, to the ascertained facts relating to the barm or the yeast; secondly, what has come of the attempt to ascertain distinctly what is the nature of the products which are produced by fermentation; then what has come of the attempt to understand the relation between the yeast and the products; and lastly, what very curious side issues if I may so call them--have branched out in the course of this inquiry, which has now occupied somewhere about two centuries.

The first thing was to make out precisely and clearly what was the nature of this substance, this apparently mere scum and mud that we call yeast. And that was first commenced seriously by a wonderful old Dutchman of the name of Leeuwenhoek, who lived some two hundred years ago, and who was the first person to invent thoroughly trustworthy microscopes of high powers. Now, Leeuwenhoek went to work upon this yeast mud, and by applying to it high powers of the microscope, he discovered that it was no mere mud such as you might at first suppose, but that it was a substance made up of an enormous multitude of minute grains, each of which had just as definite a form as if it were a grain of corn, although it was vastly smaller, the largest of these not being more than the two-thousandth of an inch in diameter; while, as you know, a grain of corn is a large thing, and the very smallest of these particles were not more than the seven-thousandth of an inch in diameter. Leeuwenhoek saw that this muddy stuff was in reality a liquid, in which there were floating this immense number of definitely shaped particles, all aggregated in heaps and lumps and some of them separate. That discovery remained, so to speak, dormant for fully a century, and then the question was taken up by a French discoverer, who, paying great attention and having the advantage of better instruments than Leeuwenhoek had, watched these things and made the astounding discovery that they were bodies which were constantly being reproduced and growing; than when one of these rounded bodies was once formed and had grown to its full size, it immediately began to give off a little bud from one side, and then that bud grew out until it had attained the full size of the first, and that, in this way, the yeast particle was undergoing a process of multiplication by budding, just as effectual and just as complete as the process of multiplication of a plant by budding; and thus this Frenchman, Cagniard de la Tour, arrived at the conclusion--very creditable to his sagacity, and which has been confirmed by every observation and reasoning since--that this apparently muddy refuse was neither more nor less than a mass of plants, of minute living plants, growing and multiplying in the sugary fluid in which the yeast is formed. And from that time forth we have

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